Tonight was the two episode premiere of Atlanta, a weekly drama headed by one of my favorite comedians Donald Glover. He says he wanted to present the most authentic depiction of modern black life on TV, and to that end, he hired an entirely black staff of writers. When I heard this I was immediately, intensely, curious. I got fam in Atlanta. It’s where we last held out reunion, so I got ties.
(I’m just giddy about all the different narratives of the black experience that have made their way into mainstream media. The Get Down, Black-ish, Empire, HTGAWM, Scandal, Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Black Panther, and Mary Jane and Iris West are black women. You guys realize we can’t reach The Ascension until peak-blackness has been achieved, and we seem to be well on our way.
Well, I watched it and now I’m a little confused, plus other feelings. First, I’m not sure if what I was watching was one, hour long episode, or two half-hour episodes. There’s barely any stopping in the middle for titles or anything. I do kind of like this show, but I’m not sure I can make this a regular occurrence and here’s why: This shit is real, ya’know. I’m one of those scifi geeks who watches things to escape reality, and this is not an escape. It is, nevertheless, deeply compelling. I was fascinated to see so much of the flavor, of how I live, on TV. It was kind of like watching some friends and family, which is really weird.
The way people talk and interact with each other felt so real, that it was kind of like watching home videos of people you know. Donald Glover has crafted something so intimate that some scenes felt a little embarrassing. When he’s flirting with his girlfriend, for example, it felt like I was watching something really private, and it was hard to look at that scene.
I did laugh a few times because shit is funny, but also not funny. Nothing really tragic happens in the episode. There’s no violence, or rape, or murder, but it also felt deeply melancholy. I’m happy it’s airing, but it also felt kind of weird that there are probably lots of white people watching this, and they’re gonna think this is how Black people’s lives are, and some of them are going to think its okay to interact with Black people like they see in the show. For any White people reading this, it’s not exactly the specifics that are authentic, but the feel and mood of the show. Do not walk up to Black people and try to interact with them the way you see them doing on the show.
Naturally having said that, there were a couple of instances that hit me a little close to home. Most of the plot involves Donald’s character, Earnest, trying to prove to his cousin Paper Boi , that he can be a good manager for his new rap career. He successfully gets his songs on the local radio station, all while dealing with his baby momma’s demands for rent money, while she dates other guys, and raising their daughter, dealing with his parents, who are hardline “get a life” type people, and his cousin’s brand new fame. Earnest rarely smiles. He has a stressful life.
There are barely any women in the show beyond the women Eearnest immediately interacts with. I get the impression that the writers are somewhat diffident about women. Earnest relationship with his girlfriend is really weird, too. But this is a boys world. This show is about how guys interact with each other when women aren’t around, I think.
This is also about his cousin, Paper Boi, suddenly being popular in the neighborhood. People who never even knew him are acting like long lost buddies, or doing favors for him, and it must be very frightening for him. The stress of his new fame causes him to make bad decisions in a parking lot, when a stranger vandalizes his car. There’s a shooting, and he and Earnest end up in jail. Even the cops are fawning over him, and it’s just weird. Watch Paper Boi’s face when the cop requests a selfie. Oh, and everybody hates jail.
It’s the second part of the show which really stands out, as we spend most of that time sitting in a waiting room at the jail. The show really captures the many strange interactions that happen in closed environments. The dialogue is wonderful. There’s one scene where a man with a serious mental disorder, wearing nothing but a hospital gown and underwear, gets beaten for spitting water on a cop and all the other men can do nothing but sit and watch it. That man gets arrested weekly and Earnest asks why is he in jail, rather than getting help. One of the other men spontaneously confesses how he was arrested for public intoxication, for drinking beer, on his friends porch.The friend who happens to be sitting right next to him and whose apology he refuses to accept. The most harrowing scene is when a young man reunites with his ex-girlfriend, and the other men humiliate him by loudly calling him gay, when one of them figures out that his ex is a transwoman. What happens after that is a perfect illustration of how, and why, transphobic violence occurs, and you have to see it.
These are the kinds of odd personal interactions that I think just about every black person has experienced if you live in “the hood”. I’ve had a few myself. People I’ve met that I’ve never encountered again, even though I suspect they live in my neighborhood. People who offer unsolicited advice, or just act strange. When I was learning how to drive, in the parking lot of the local library, a strange man, beer in hand, came along to give me scarily accurate driving advice. I never saw that man again, in the entire twenty years I’ve lived in this neighborhood. Once while I was at work, a man walked up to me, told me shyly, and intently, that I looked beautiful, and then just walked away. Another time, a woman and I had a long conversation about the meaning of marriage. I never saw her at my job again. Donald perfectly captures the type of oddity where deeply meaningful conversations can spring up, with a stranger, out of absolutely nowhere.
While taking his daughter home on the bus, Earnest encounters a man who offers him unsolicited advice about his life, then makes a Nutella sandwich, and angrily tries to make him eat it, before running into the woods next to the bus, with a stray dog. Paper Boi has his own odd encounters with people in Batman masks coming to his front door to ask if he lives there, and people making portentous proclamations about his future musical success. His closest friend is a perpetually zonked out weedhead, who makes odd requests, like wanting to measure his neighbor’s trees. Watch the neighbor’s hilarious response to that question. That’s exactly how you handle that kind of thing.
I both loved and disliked the show. It’s a sweet, melancholy, funny, sad, bitter… thing. It’s that special barbecue sauce you love that’s just the right mix of sweet and spicy, and makes you smile and cry because it tastes so good. But you can’t eat it all the time. It’s just for special occasions.
I’m probably going to watch it next week though, cuz now I’m invested in Earnest’s life, now. But I new it was going to be like that, when I heard the music in the first trailer.