Donald Glover intended “Atlanta” to show people what it feels like to be black, and after 10 unpredictable but glorious episodes, the result is inconclusive but hopeful. The show is masterful in eliciting a range of feelings — a combination of joy and horror, tension and relief — but none more so than surprise. But can you now say you know what it feels like to be black? No, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
What “Atlanta” does instead is use tonal shifts, wholly unanticipated events and surreal elements to create such an atmosphere of subversion that it’s unsettling. And this is turn creates an openness in the audience to experience what comes next without expectation. To use a food metaphor, the acids in a marinade prepare the protein in the steak to absorb the rest of the marinade’s oils and flavors. We are the steak, and only by creating holes in our assumptions can our outlook be ready to take in new ideas, to change, evolve. This impacts both black and non-black viewers alike.
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As we saw in the penultimate episode “Juneteenth,” well-meaning white guy Craig (Rick Holmes) thinks he knows what the black experience is all about but falls into the trap of co-opting the struggles and identity of his wife and friends. He celebrates black emancipation on Juneteenth, has traveled back to Africa (“the Motherland”), drinks Hennessy, performs very bad spoken word poetry; in short, he’s an ass. This level of cultural appropriation is empathy gone wrong and actually prevents Craig from truly getting to know someone.
Perhaps the most notorious device the show used was from the episode “No One Beats the Biebs,” aka the Black Justin Bieber episode. Having a black performer (Atlanta singer and actor Austin Crute) play the show’s version of Justin Bieber with no explanation or winking to the audience was the pinnacle of unsettling. This was no mere gimmick. On one hand it could be seen as a commentary on Bieber’s unchallenged adoption of black culture. On the other hand, it could highlight the double standard in how society views black people who misbehave versus white ones. Regardless of how one interprets Black Bieber, his power to create conversation and doubt is his true gift.
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Danger also pervades the series in a disquieting manner. Instead of offering up explanations or conclusions, violence often happens suddenly and just as quickly is left behind with no discussion. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) shooting another person in the pilot is left on a cliffhanger, but never really dealt with other than a few mentions by other characters. But did his victim die? Will Paper Boi stand trial? No telling. It’s just life as usual.
Yet somehow through the weighty social observations and menace, “Atlanta” manages humor with a deft touch that ranges from light and whimsical to audacious. There are no better moments than when the show flips the script in the most outrageous way possible. We see this in almost every aspect of the Black American Network episode “B.A.N.” — a play off BET — that Glover directed himself, or in the Black Bieber episode when Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) is at a shooting range and takes aim at a paper target… of a dog. The implication that he is practicing to shoot a real dog someday is horrifying, but there is no proof. Nevertheless, the outrage that witnesses feel escalates to the point where Darius is told to leave the range at gunpoint.
After the heightened ridiculousness throughout the season of Black Bieber, B.A.N., Craig’s cultural appropriation, and many more moments like those, the finale instead goes back to the somewhat lackadaisical pacing seen in the earlier episodes. The focus on Earn (Glover) finding his jacket after a night of heavy drinking is puzzling at first and even more confounding after he witnesses a man wearing his jacket get gunned down by police.
Ultimately, we discover that Earn wanted the jacket because of a key that is for a storage unit where he’s now living. It’s a sobering conclusion to such a wild ride of a season, yet feels necessary. Despite the hijinks, despite everyone else’s attempts to define him, despite having close friends and a girlfriend, despite any success he has achieved, in the end, Earn has chosen this night to be on his own, to answer only to himself even if it means more meager surroundings.
Glover had equated being black in America as being an outsider, and that lack of belonging is the final upsetting emotion we’re left with. The show’s true achievement isn’t a literal picture of life what it means to be black, but rather the evocation of a host of feelings to overturn our own. “Atlanta” gives us the feels, and the better for it.