Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite pop culture characters.
The opening scene of FX’s new show, Atlanta, sends a strong message about what the show is about. The scene is out of narrative order, taking chronological place at the end of the episode’s story arc, and is fast, violent, and chaotic. What’s most interesting about it, though, is that the message it sends about the show and the characters in it is entirely inaccurate. The lives of the three protagonists, Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover), his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), and the spiritual intellect of the group Darius (Keith Stanfield), are slow, loving, and deliberate. If anything, they appear to be doing their best to avoid just the very thing they get wrapped up in.
There are only so many narratives that are allowed to exist in [‘Atlanta’]. The characters we follow are all trying to make their own ways in the world, but are rarely able to do so. It’s a cruel thing to watch, but not a rare one.
Point being, this is an interesting way to start off the series. It’s a bait and switch for us the viewers, and it reflects the kinds of bait and switch that the characters are going through and themselves trying to accomplish. This is something to keep in mind when watching Atlanta: there are only so many narratives that are allowed to exist in this world. The characters we follow are all trying to make their own ways in the world, but are rarely able to do so. It’s a cruel thing to watch, but not a rare one.
About halfway through the second episode, Alfred and Darius stop in at a BBQ joint on their way home from jail. Alfred’s just been bonded out on suspicion of murder, and he decides to pursue a little self-care by indulging in some delicious food. As he and Darius wait, their waiter comes to deliver something special – a secret ribs recipe, extra bleu cheese, and a request. The waiter lets Alfred know he considers him one of the last real rappers, the type “that’ll just blow a nigga brains out in the street”. And having said that, he tells Alfred to “keep doing his thing” while simultaneously asking that Alfred not let him down.
That’s a hell of an ask, and puts Alfred in a serious bind. As you watch the scene unfold, you can see that this sits heavily on Alfred. And as the episode continues, that weight keeps pushing him down. He gets home from jail but is unable to celebrate; after being trapped inside the system, one he repeatedly says he hates, his mood ends up trapping him inside his home and his head. Darius suggests a few different ways to celebrate his freedom, as well as his newfound notoriety and success as Paper Boi, but he shoots them all down. He’s in no mood to see anyone or step outside his home.
If you think about what’s going on here, it’s easy to put yourself in Alfred’s shoes. He’s working as hard as he knows how in order to use his talent to get rich. And if you watch his strategy, it leans heavily on following his instincts. He shot that man in the opening scene of the first episode quickly, there wasn’t a lot of thought involved, and somehow that has brought him fame and success. He needs to be able to trust himself, to be himself, to keep doing his thing. And at the same time, we know that shooting that man has him questioning himself. On top of all that, he can’t afford to let his supporters down – he means too much to them.
There is not a single culture in our world that does not cognize their experiences, lessons, and dreams through stories.
And that’s the bind: he’s pursuing fame within his community, which means standing out from his community, but the messages he receives from them are that he can only stand out in certain ways. When the paired fields of psychology and anthropology were still young, a constant question that came up was why stories were common in every Human culture. There is not a single culture in our world that does not cognize their experiences, lessons, and dreams through stories. It turns out that our brains have even adapted to storytelling as a crucial medium of passing information – when we listen to or tell a story, we get a powerful release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that the brain uses to reward behavior and encourage its continuation.
But a medium of coded information is just the beginning of what stories mean to us Humans. On an existential level, stories are how we sell ourselves on this life of suffering and isolation. The way our memories are encoded changes over time, most often to fit an ongoing and ever-changing narrative we tell ourselves about the world we live in and our own role within it. Because the view from within our own lives constitutes a privileged perspective, we end up regarding ourselves as heroes within the context we perceive. This is why we like stories about heroes, because we can relate to them.
Although we don’t know the details of his story, we know that something similar is occurring with Earn. We know he’s some kind of super smarty, and we know that hasn’t panned out for him. As a result, people make fun of him for being no good basically constantly. Which is fair – he’s no good – but it isn’t kind. Which is basically the issue: without support for creating new stories, creating their own stories, these two are going to flounder and spin out. They’re going to be drawn to retelling the old stories, the ones they’ve seen play out over and over in their community. Maybe this is why Earn was so concerned with the treatment of the mentally ill man he met in jail, and why Alfred was so quick to shoot his gun in anger.
The good news is that they have each other, and that they can provide that support to each other. When Earn first asks Alfred to be his manager, Alfred shit talks him and calls him out for running more schemes and trying to take advantage. But, importantly, he also gives Earn a chance to prove that he might actually be as smart and capable as he was supposed to be. And when Earn concernedly asks Alfred about the shooting, he’ doing the same thing by showing support for the possibility of remorse and compassion. They’re both being told that they have to tell their own stories a certain kind of way that doesn’t seem to fit with who they are, but they are drawn to each other because each one sees that the other may have new ways of telling the old truths.
James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at www.jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday.