Atlanta Dreaming

Atlanta Dreaming

The genius of Donald Glover’s Atlanta is to show the surreality of black life in America.

Earn Marks (Donald Glover) and Van Keefer (Zazie Beetz) in the second season of Atlanta. © FX Networks 2018

Nearly every episode of Atlanta, the television show the musician, actor, and director Donald Glover created for FX, opens as a dream might. In the cold open of one episode in the first season, Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover) tries to order a kids’ meal at a fast-food counter because he’s broke, but ends up in an argument with a manager who refuses to serve a kids’ meal to an adult. The camera surveys the scene without judgment, a detached (if not neutral) observer; the effect is compounded when Earn asks for a cup for water, and fills it with orange soda in view of another employee. Finger to his lips, he backs out of the restaurant while the employee stares, slack-jawed.

Atlanta revolves around Marks’s life and times; he’s a Princeton dropout, who’s perpetually underemployed and, most of the time, precariously housed. He has a child, Lottie, with his ex, Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Zazie Beetz), who’s a teacher. One day, he decides to manage his cousin Alfred’s burgeoning rap career as Paper Boi (the formidable Brian Tyree Henry). Rounding out the main cast is Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), a dreamy weirdo who’s seemingly Alfred’s best friend, the kind of guy who likes to float out-there theories, who wonders whether rats could be successfully repurposed into smartphones. Others flit in and out, rounding out the show’s implicit fourth character—Atlanta the city—as a magical-realist fantasia.

Atlanta’s genius is to show the surreality of black life in America, and without the typical network explanations; it’s almost as though the show has sprung, like Athena, fully formed from its creator’s mind and intent on securing a major place in the pantheon of televised art. There’s no pandering to an audience, either. If you don’t get the jokes, you don’t get them. If that seems strange—a show about day-to-day black life in one of the country’s largest metropolises that doesn’t exactly have a point or message—then it’s probably not for you. But then it wasn’t made with you in mind, either. It’s the same ethos that powered the brand FUBU: For us, by us.

More than anything, Atlanta is a love letter to black people and black culture, specifically the people and culture you find in the titular city. Which is one reason why what Glover has done with Atlanta is a major artistic achievement, and a critically acclaimed one at that; for its first season, the show took home two Emmys and a pair of Golden Globes. I haven’t compared it to other television shows so far because there really aren’t any that compare. It would be like trying to describe the precise perfection of an ice cream sandwich on a hot summer day, or calculating the rate at which the bone-deep warmth from a bonfire sinks in on a snowy evening. Naturally these are subject to personal preference. But in them there is a universality, the feeling we do experience things in the same way.

That sense of finding the universal in granular particulars is a theme across Glover’s work, be it in his music under his stage name Childish Gambino, his comedy, or his physicality as an actor (deployed to excellent effect in Dan Harmon’s Community). In an Atlanta episode titled “Juneteenth,” Earn celebrates the holiday with a bourgeois black woman and her anthropologically curious white husband. When he stumbles across a trove of African art in the white guy’s home office, the way Glover plays Earn’s reaction is startling in its acuity. As he walks into the room, he pauses for a half-second, shocked but not surprised. His eyes take in the room with a dawning familiarity, as if to say oh, I know this kind of white.

Moments like these are the wellspring from which the show draws its power. Atlanta’s eye for detail operates on a nearly cellular level: it’s what makes the show feel real, even in its most surreal moments. That grounding is political too. People the empowered majority can’t see aren’t people at all. Anyone who identifies as part of a minority knows how easy it is to be erased, and just how dangerous living in that erasure can be. That the show exists at all—on television, yes, but more importantly in the minds of its viewers—and that it’s a loving, high-profile portrait of black life means that Atlanta is useful beyond its artistic accomplishments; it’s a way for others to see black people as fully human. Which is sad to have to say in 2018, a year that’s featured the return of overt white supremacy to the highest realms of politics alongside so much good black art, a year that’s seen a growing cultural awareness of the black struggle beside more evidence that most people just don’t seem to care.

In Atlanta, things make sense, only sideways, the way dreams do. It flows like stoner logic: The characters glide through their days as if on perpetual sidequests—there’s a main objective, but they’re always distracted by what it takes to get through the day. (It’s likewise worth noting that all of the characters are perpetually smoking weed; the writers are, too.) In “Barbershop,” an episode from season two (which is titled Robbin’ Season), Alfred’s goal is to get a haircut before a magazine photo shoot. He takes a trip to the barber shop to freshen up, because you don’t show up to a shoot looking dusty.

His barber, Bibby, is a beautiful composite of stereotypes from black barbershops: Bibby is constantly talking on his bluetooth headset, making deals; he’s distracted by his many not-quite-legal business ventures; he’s been lying to a couple of women and a couple of his children. But the man can cut hair. Bibby starts cutting Alfred’s—and then, before he finishes the job, takes him on a wild ride across Atlanta, running various errands. Bibby visits his girlfriend, repossesses someone else’s lumber from a construction site, gives a stern talking-to to one of his sons, and, finally, commits a hit-and-run, driving off as the woman who was hit clutches her back and begins to scream in pain. Eventually Alfred gets his haircut. When he returns to the shop later, for another cut, he tries to go to a different barber—and realizes that Bibby’s the only person who really knows what to do with his hair.

This kind of episode, which is kinetic and experimental and mundane all at once, wouldn’t work on any other show; Atlanta has cultivated a form that, paradoxically, it doesn’t seem interested in repeating. Credit there, of course, goes to the writing staff. They’re all young and black, and almost nobody had worked in television writing before. While that might not be replicable either, because genius never is, it begs the question: What have we lost by locking people out of creating their own media? How many Atlantas have we missed?

There’s an argument here that TV as a medium is opening up now because it has to, because competition for viewers is steep and niche. There are more television shows than ever, and more money involved in their creation, but the number of potential viewers has not meaningfully increased; the pressure to find an engaged audience that sticks around, in other words, has become newly meaningful. For viewers, it’s meant better, more imaginative shows from voices we haven’t heard before. There are reams and reams of experience to mine, most of it unfamiliar to a white public whose experience of others on screen tends to be limited to tokenism and one-dimensional stereotypes. That’s another erasure, the kind of thing that circumscribes imaginations.

Atlanta’s second season is a persuasive case for the artistic merits of more—and better—TV. Take “Woods,” which is about authenticity and the way it’s performed in public. The episode opens with Alfred waking up hungover on his couch, and hanging out with Sierra, a woman he’s been casually seeing. They shop and go to a nail salon, where they get pedicures, before Alfred objects to Sierra’s relationship with social media—he leaves in a huff, after declaring he’s “real.” She drove them to the salon, so Alfred takes off on foot. Midway through his walk, he runs into three fans. Realizing he doesn’t have a car, they mug him, and steal his watch and chain. One kid pulls a gun and fires, narrowly missing Alfred. He takes off into the woods. There, lost, he meets an old homeless man, who compares him to a dead deer nearby. That man tires of Alfred’s complaining and pulls a box cutter; another chase ensues. Alfred, exhausted, sweaty, and dirty, with a bloodied mouth and nose, runs into a gas station, where he’s immediately accosted by a fan who wants a selfie. He obliges. They take three pictures together.

What’s the point? On one level, “Woods” interrogates danger and violence, real trappings of fame; on another, you could read the episode as an existential inquiry into futility, and how opportunism is the real engine of life. On a third, maybe, how quickly situations can change, and how precarious and precious life really is, and how easily we forget that. In Atlanta’s world, brutality is meted out randomly: nothing is what it seems, and there’s no telling when things could get ugly. In “Teddy Perkins,” Darius visits a white man’s mansion—Glover in whiteface—to pick up a free piano. The man, Teddy, cracks opens a soft-boiled ostrich egg; he’s a creepy, hoarse-voiced homage to Michael Jackson, another product of a classically overbearing father. Teddy tells Darius a story about how the piano belonged to his brother Benny Hope, who had been a famous pianist until an illness rendered him extremely photosensitive and unable to leave the house. The episode, a meditation on stage-managing parents obsessed with their children’s art, ends with two gunshots and flashing police lights. Nobody gets what they came for.

Love is present too. Earn’s relationship with his ex, Van, is masterfully depicted. They share a baby, which means they’re linked for life, but they don’t or can’t understand each other’s wants and needs. That comes to a head in Robbin’ Season, in an episode about the German holiday Fastnacht, which is celebrated the day before Lent begins—here, we’d call the equivalent celebration Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. “Helen” begins with Earn going down on Van, before they drive together to a lodge somewhere in Georgia; Earn isn’t excited for the festivities, which are uncomfortable and mildly racist, while to Van it’s a part of her heritage and her childhood. They clash almost immediately. By the end, we’re treated to the most fraught game of ping pong I’ve ever seen on television. In between is a stinging meditation on the limits of lust, and what we’re actually willing to do for the people we claim to love.

The scenes where Van isn’t with Earn are consistently some of the show’s best, and not only because it’s still rare to see a black woman finding herself—stumbling across her needs, really—on television. White people, meanwhile, are hardly present, other than as props. (There’s a bitingly funny scene in “Champagne Papi” where, at Drake’s New Years party, one of Van’s friends stares down and confronts a white woman who’s with a black celebrity.) There’s no sense that the characters need them, though there is a feeling that the white world is a single parallel dimension away. This is fitting for a show that’s part of a small wave of black prestige television; its closest peer is probably Issa Rae’s Insecure, although Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum isn’t far off in terms of its off-the-wall sensibility. In Insecure, for example, the white characters in the show are conspicuously less hot than the black ones. Atlanta too. These little things matter, because they show where Atlanta’s priorities lie: with black people.

The camera does the other half of that work. Hiro Murai, who’s directed most of the episodes, does an excellent job of presenting the show’s most surreal aspects straight. The effect is similar to the way the logic of dreams makes perfect sense while asleep; it only breaks down when you stop to think about the events and the order in which they occurred. Murai’s tone is neutral, and despite his stylistic flourishes—I love the way he rolls a tracking shot into a scene where the dialogue is already happening—he’s mostly a detached observer. That performance is necessary, because otherwise Atlanta wouldn’t work: The show’s excesses would collapse in on themselves in the grasp of a more heavy-handed director.

Atlanta’s dreaming is infectious. When I interviewed Glover earlier this year, he told me that he’d heard that writers were pitching shows like “the Mexican Atlanta,” and that networks seemed to be biting. What he’s done is working. That kind of industry buy-in is rare; I wouldn’t be surprised to see a spate of new shows from people who have historically been erased from the version of America we see on TV. We’ll see a rush of new names rise from the ashes of men finally taken down by #MeToo. Perhaps, then, the best way to understand Atlanta is as the first bloom in a new spring. Early, maybe, and fragile; but beautiful too, and a sign that the season is finally starting to change.

Bijan Stephen is a culture writer at the Verge and a music critic at the Nation. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, GQ, and elsewhere.

This article is a teaser from Dissent’s Summer issue, which comes out July 2. To get your copy, subscribe now.

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