FX’s ‘Atlanta’ Depicts a Truth of Black Experience Unseen on TV

(l-r) Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles.

(l-r) Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles.

Many moons ago, on a Childish Gambino mixtape, Donald Glover rapped the lyrics, “I’m a genius, and I ain’t tryna hide it either” in the track Put it in My Video. For years the multi-hyphenate actor, comedian, musical artist, and writer has proven that he’s better than good enough. Whether writing for 30 Rock, or starring in Community, or collaborating with Chance the Rapper before anyone gave him, well, a chance, this Stone Mountain native has built a career on flawlessly executing the unexpected and being a visionary in our shifting media tastes. Exactly two minutes and seven seconds into his new FX show, Atlanta, Glover reminds us that his greatest talent is his perspective.

The pilot opens on what The Boondocks might call a “nigga moment.” A man, seemingly unprovoked, kicks the driver’s side mirror clean off the car belonging to Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) AKA a Rick Ross-ian rapper named Paper Boy. When tensions escalate and harsh words are exchanged, Earn (Glover) steps in to calm everyone down. Irrationality and machismo reach a boiling point. Guns are drawn.  A lone “World Star” is yelled from seemingly nowhere. An aerial view shows that a single shot has been fired. Credits roll.

[‘Atlanta’] isn’t saying it alone is the “black experience.” Rather, the genius lies in how specific the circumstances feel to the characters on the show, even if the venues are familiar.

We’ve seen urban violence depicted on television before, but what makes this scene (and many others throughout the series) fresh is the nuance of each personal interaction. If your only experience with black spaces is via network TV and gritty cable dramas, it is probably the first time you witnessed the repeated attempts at de-escalation, the variety of perspectives and voices present (in a scene with five black people—all of whom speak), the moments of levity and intelligence, all of which add depth and humanize the black experience to those who’ve only ever glanced in this direction.  The true genius, however, is that the show isn’t saying it alone is the “black experience.” Rather, the genius lies in how specific the circumstances feel to the characters on the show, even if the venues are familiar.

Visually, the series is stunning, with flat realism usually reserved for original programming from Amazon, HBO, or AMC. While this style of color editing has increased in popularity in the past five years, portrayals of black bodies in faded worlds in which their bold personalities and striking dialogue are the focus have rarely reached beyond indie film projects. It was only a matter of time, but this show, now, feels right.

Donald Glover as Earnest Marks.

Donald Glover as Earnest Marks.

Depicting the urban south with the artistic vision and sophistication that shows with much whiter casts like GIRLS, or Mr. Robot, or House of Cards do is both genius and overdue. On TV, black spaces in Atlanta are usually the backdrop of reality shows. From Real Housewives, to Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta, to T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle, we’re conditioned to see all Black people in the south as one way. All tea, all shade, all giant fake eyelashes and drama.

Even Being Mary Jane (an Atlanta based fiction I love) depicts black working women the way it always does. Even as a successful talk show host,  the audience is incessantly reminded that Mary Jane is at the mercy of a white institution and we’re constantly left wondering if she’ll ever be fulfilled in a world where she is black first, and a person second.

The juxtaposition, then, of Glover’s Atlanta that purposely upends all of the flashy bravado, concocted drama, and bullshit fights, and endless frustration in talking around race is refreshing in its radical truth.

The juxtaposition, then, of Glover’s Atlanta that purposely upends all of the flashy bravado, concocted drama, and bullshit fights, and endless frustration in talking around race is refreshing in its radical truth. It’s a truth that succeeds at reflecting reality more than creating it, to an audience that has been waiting forever to see themselves clearly on film.

This truth takes us along on a day in Earn’s life that starts with waking up in bed with a beautiful black woman with her hair wrapped up and protected—a part of black culture that is so common and unremarkable in real life, but virtually invisible onscreen save for jokes that encourage stereotypes about black vanity and shallowness—and ignores it entirely to have a sincere, vulnerable, “Do you love me?” conversation.

This truth takes us to Earn’s mundane job at the airport, desperately pursuing commissions from signing travelers up for credit cards.  An older black woman is his lone competitor who leans into her charming southern accent and mammy routine to sign up gullible white people. The move could have come across as schticky as a Tyler Perry film, but is handled in the way of Betty White’s crassness. The joke isn’t that old black women are Aunt Jemima; the joke is that she’s playing a young dude for cash and reveling in it.

This truth takes us to Paper Boi’s house, which isn’t lavish or showy, but is still guarded closely with a glock. Once Earn is allowed in, we meet a stoner named Darius wearing a mask and holding a huge kitchen knife—who drops the act to offer Earn a cookie and waxes poetic about the economic implications of rat cell phones.

(l-r) Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, Keith Standfield as Darius.

(l-r) Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, Keith Standfield as Darius.

Marijuana has a very specific place in this narrative, too. At 4:30pm, Paper Boi and Darius realize they’re late—for a 420 appointment on a couch in a field. We live in a society that demonizes black recreational drug usage (Trayvon Martin, allegedly Malia Obama), but laughs off the same offenses when the users (Seth Rogen, Miley Cyrus) or dealers (Breaking Bad, Weeds) are white.  And yet, here is a set of stoned black people who aren’t suddenly violent or out of control like news media and courtrooms tend to portray. They aren’t Scary Black Men ™ made scarier by illicit drugs. They’re chillin’. They’re shooting the shit and eating cookies.

The one scene in the show that is explicitly about race involves Dave (Griffin Freeman), the DJ at a local radio station who can’t help but drop the N word while telling Earn a party story. Earn, needing a favor, sits with his disbelief of the situation, even asking a black custodian outside if he’s ever heard Dave use that word before.  “Yeah right, I’d break my foot in his ass.”

Earn is not a tough guy, so we see his version of breaking his foot off in Dave’s ass later when he asks him to repeat the Flo Rida story to Paper Boi and co. Dave sheepishly tells the story without saying the “N word” again and Earn smiles along. Turns out it’s not a good story, but it does the heavy lifting of talking about a subject without talking about it. A worse TV show might make Dave into a Scooby Doo villain, so overtly unlikeable that the only way to shut him down is to have a dialogue-heavy, depressing racial discussion about intention versus impact that’s more for the benefit of white viewers to feel good about than black ones. Luckily for us, this is a good TV show with a self-awareness that shies away from bombast in spite of its horrid tradition.

At its most basic, the show is about a young guy who doesn’t really have his life together/isn’t following his passions, and his cousin who is on the brink of stardom.  It’s not a “black show,” but it very much is a black show. These characters are real, these situations are real, and yet somehow we never really get to see them on TV. After episode 1, we aren’t exactly sure where the story will take us—as it ends where it began, with a shooting over a car mirror.  But the show’s very existence has brought us a step closer to seeing images and hearing the voices of more races with clarity, and actually listening.