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‘Atlanta’ Goes Deep by Questioning the Nature of Reality (and Drake’s Heritage)

Also, it turns out that Darius might be the show’s greatest philosopher.

Zazie Beetz, "Atlanta"

Zazie Beetz, “Atlanta”

FX

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Atlanta” Season 2, Episode 7, “Champagne Papi.”]

Fans of “Atlanta” have often had to accept that the city portrayed in the FX comedy is slightly askew from the one we know. On the surface, it may look and operate like our world, but surreal elements that are treated as everyday occurrences — such as the existence of an invisible car and a black Justin Bieber — have required suspension of disbelief, or in the very least a belief in an alternate reality very similar to our own.

Although seemingly more straightforward than the horrifying “Teddy Perkins,” Thursday’s episode “Champagne Papi” goes deep and questions the very nature of reality. In doing so, it also offers up an explanation for what life, and by extension “Atlanta,” might be: a simulation.

During a New Year’s Eve party that takes place at Drake’s mansion, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) engages in conversation with Nadine (Gail Bean), who is tripping and doesn’t know what’s real or what’s imagined. As one does at parties, he launches into a cogent discussion of Bostrom’s simulation argument. It’s a philosophical and scientific hypothesis that in the future, technological advancements will be able to run large-scale computer simulations that could recreate the past and our ancestors, who are themselves conscious simulations. If this hypothesis is true, the reality that we are living could be one such simulation. In short, everything is an illusion.

“It states that future civilizations must have immense computing power,” explains Darius. “Even if a fraction of this were to run an ancestral simulation, there’s a high probability that it would be indistinguishable from reality to the simulated ancestor, i.e. us.” Watch the scene below:

This concept has been a staple of many science fiction properties, and in the “Black Mirror” episode “Hang the DJ,” a couple who falls in love is revealed to be part of a giant dating/love simulation. And yet, they’ve run the simulation multiple times with the same result that they’re fated for each other.

So then, maybe simulations shouldn’t be seen as false per se, but as another way of getting to the truth. To get even more meta, “Atlanta” itself is a highly entertaining simulation on FX that is attempting to get to the truth of our world.

Perceptions Shape Reality

Donald Glover, "Atlanta"

Donald Glover, “Atlanta”

FX

The episode overall plays with the idea of how we perceive the world shapes our reality. Social media has long been criticized for only portraying a shiny, curated view of our lives, and it certainly has a hold on Van (Zazie Beetz). After seeing cheery Instagram photos and stories of her ex Earn (Donald Glover), she wants to one-up him to prove that she’s not at all heartbroken and that in fact, she’s living a better life than he is (or at least more than just pics of her daughter and chicken that are currently populating her stories).

Enter Drake’s party, where Van decides she’ll track down the musical host to take her own selfie with him. Only, all the Drake selfies that she’s seen posted online from the party are faked: party guests are posing with a Drake cut-out for $20. What a scam. What a sham.

Some other perception-bending moments from “Champagne Papi” include:

    • Terry (Danielle Deadwyler) realizing that the celebrity Devyon Johnson (Brandon Hirsch) isn’t just dating a white girl for superficial reasons, but because she’s actually been a pretty damn good girlfriend who’s been supportive of him dating back to his community theater days.
    • Darius is quite the philosopher. He had always come off as a mellow but hilarious pothead, but with this discussion of reality, maybe he’s been playing it smart all along.
    • “Drake’s Mexican!” Van’s epiphany — the setup, timing, and delivery — is one of the funniest moments of the episode. But it also falls within the whole “black Bieber” reality that is slightly off from our own. Although Van meets Drake’s Spanish-speaking abuelo (grandfather) in the episode, in our reality, his parents are black and Jewish, with no apparent Latin roots. But it also leads to the brilliant use of a Spanish-language “Hotline Bling” over the closing credits, and for that we’re eternally grateful.

What Van perceives to be real changes from one instant to the next, based on new information that she’s received. It’s only Van’s mind that has changed, but that makes a huge difference. This brings to mind another FX series that has also been playing with the concept of how we make our own realities through our thoughts.

“Legion” has a built-in mechanism for this ability to bend reality because it follows mutant David Haller (Dan Stevens), who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia but also possesses powerful psychic abilities. The crazy world that we see on “Legion” is a physical reflection of his mind, which makes every episode a trippy experience. In the Season 2 premiere, the show pushes the idea of shifted perceptions by evoking the story of Zhuang Zhou, a Chinese philosopher who couldn’t perceive the difference between himself and a butterfly, both of whom dreamt of being the other. Now then, excuse us while we contemplate an “Atlanta”/“Legion” crossover.

Fatalism and the Flip Side

Lakeith Stanfield, "Atlanta"

Lakeith Stanfield, “Atlanta”

CURTIS BONDS BAKER/FX

The simulation argument could explain so much about some of the events and people that seem rather random on “Atlanta,” especially if, as Darius puts it, “Someone is controlling every movement.” Whoever the Powers That Be are (the Glovers? FX? Bibby?), they’re making Darius eat an apple even though he doesn’t like them. They also decided that $20 bills with Harriet Tubman’s face on them already exist but are being hoarded by the Treasury Department.

Although this is an entertaining concept that gives the show freedom to do almost anything it wants, it’s also a disturbing one. If someone else is determining your actions, and you don’t have any true autonomy, then that could lead to a depressing, fatalistic outlook. Or one that assumes that nothing that we do matters.

Van’s reaction to hearing Darius’ philosophy that nothing is real sums up her experience from the party: “You’re right. It’s all fake. There’s no Drake. Don’t ruin your high and just enjoy yourself.”

Look, it’s possible that Darius’ conversation isn’t really meant to up-end our take on the show. It could be mere ramblings. Who hasn’t gotten a little bit profound under the influence while at a party? Nothing has to really change from before; “Atlanta” could be what you always thought it was.

Or, with this new information, perhaps you have had your perceptions changed. Go back and re-watch the show from the beginning. The pilot definitely holds up (with only occasional blips in the simulation).

”Atlanta” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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