Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been tuning in to Atlanta. Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino is the star of the show while also acting as producer. The award-winning first season was released in 2016, with Glover earning a Globe for his efforts. The follow-up was screened two years later. At first glance, the programme is a celebration of black culture. However, Atlanta explores themes that go well beyond racial tropes. This is especially true in the second season, which is darker than its predecessor. After the two-year gap before season two, fans will have to wait till 2021 for the third and fourth series.
Family is central to the show. Atlanta tells the story of two black cousins trying to find their way in the world. Al aka Paper Boi is an aspiring rapper while Earnest (Earn) is his manager. Al has entered the dragon through his eponymous hit song. Everyone wants a piece of Paper Boi. He seems like the Pied Piper with fans swooning. Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) is Al’s best friend. They are often seen together. Darius is the source of much of the show’s philosophical musings. There’s barely an episode where he doesn’t offer some rumination. At times, he is nihilist; others, absurdist. Meanwhile, Earn struggles to provide for his family. His wife, Van (Zazie Beets), is disillusioned about the state of their relationship, in particular, Earn’s apathetic nature. The first season is fairly serialised, with eps that generally reconcile with each other.
As mentioned, Atlanta is a study on black life. The dialogue is especially full of black American slang. ‘Respect.’ ‘Real talk.’ ‘Word?’ I did not get the meaning of that last one, until an online search pinned it as ‘for real?’ ‘Stay woke.’ ‘I feel ya, man’. ‘Bruh.’ In one episode, Al tells Earn that ‘money’s an idea.’ When you act better than other blacks, they’ll start treating you better. Darius adds, ‘yeah, coz otherwise you’re just another n….’ The show uses the n-word a lot, reminiscent of Tarantino’s films. The programme thus tries to reinterpret the word and diminish its negative connotations.
In one ep, there is also a wannabe named Zan. He talks black and acts black, but the only problem is he’s not black. When confronted by Al that he’s fake, Zan retorts that isn’t being a rap artist and getting airplay fake as well? Just as blacks squirm when they see someone acting white, the reverse is also cringeworthy. There is also an episode built around an interview on the Montague show. The presenter intersperses this guy who they term, ‘trans-racial.’ This means that he identifies as white though he was born black. In the same ep, an ad plays that features Ahmad White. ‘Most people don’t realise their chakras in another universe….’ Glover won a Globe for directing this episode, a subtle vivisection into African American ways.
In this climate of #blacklivesmatter, the series becomes even more timely. From the show’s beginnings, the stand against racial injustice is clear. Both Earn and Al answer to authorities after an incident. While the big-game rapper is released on bail immediately, Earn spends a while longer. Here, he becomes an observer into the predominantly white police force’s treatment of black offenders. Meanwhile, their black counterparts only want a memento of the artist. With Paper Boi as the main proponent, Atlanta encourages people to welcome their identities, to be ‘real.’ This is what Van tells her hypocrite friends: that she’s not compromising on her blackness. Being black means keeping it real, damn the private jets and room service.
In another episode, Earn faces discrimination as he tries to go on a night out with the missus. He cannot book a movie session and was being disrespected. Furthermore, he cannot enter a bar without his dignity being questioned. In the end, the strip club becomes the couple’s spot for their date. Racism and intolerance are very real. In America, it doesn’t just occur in the South; it’s apparent in the Midwest, where basketball player Dre Igoudala grew up. The race riots of Los Angeles also prove that no state is safe from racial vilification. If you’re reading this, it’s probably happening in a city near you. It’s a sad truism in life that, to this day, people are still being judged by the colour of their skin.
The second season, also titled Robbin’ Season, is disjointed. While the first series portrays similar stories and has a unitary focus, the follow-up problematises more issues. The season is likewise notable for having various characters have star billing in each instalment. For instance, Darius gets top billing in an ep titled ‘Teddy Perkins.’ The ep resembles a horror movie more than a drama segment. The eponymous character is a scary black guy who adopts a white man’s face. Teddy has been most juxtaposed to Michael Jackson; he even has the feline voice to boot. Everything about Teddy is eerie. He does not allow light to enter his house. He eats a soft-boiled ostrich egg. He talks about how his father abused them. He abducts Darius and threatens him. The ending is pure Hostel. This was the perfect follow-up to ‘Barbershop’, which I’ll discuss next. There have been a few Teddy Perkins sightings since the ep aired, including at the Primetime Emmy’s. Aside from creeping people out, the showings have also inspired a lot of fun.
Barbershop is the fifth ep of the second season. The instalment is hands down the most riotous of the series. The ep was very original. The plot involved Al getting a haircut from his go-to barber, only for the guy to take him on a ride around town. Along the way, Bibby reprimands his truanting kid. They eat fast food leftovers at a white woman’s house. They run away from a situation with an Asian chick. All in a day’s work. Still, in spite of all that, there’s no one that could give Al a better haircut than Bibby. The ep reminded me a little of Rush Hour, with Chris Tucker chaperoning Jackie Chan around LA. Writer Stefani Robinson sure knows how to set people off.
It also helped that there are some familiar faces. I’ve seen Donald Glover in The Martian. I likewise saw his work in Community. The latter had an interesting premise, but the lack of fresh settings worked against it. LaKeith starred in Sorry to Bother You. He is making a name for himself as a deep thinker. Zazie Beets was also in Joker, where she was Joaquin Phoenix’s love interest. She does a convincing job here as Earn’s long-suffering but loyal wife. In the episode ‘Helen’, Beets embraces her German heritage, even speaking the language. She reinforces her appeal as a tough woman and more than holds her own as the lead of the ep.
I especially loved Robbin’ Season. It’s like TV by committee, a total team effort that showcases the group’s surfeit of talent. Before I forget, the show is also very creative with its logo. They usually superimpose the logo early in the episode. It could be like a tattoo on a woman’s torso, or over a moving vehicle on a road. It has shades of The Simpson’s long-running couch gag. Atlanta does not shy away from themes, both prevalent and dicey. This is true especially for the second salvo. The Internet is full of references and shoutouts to Atlanta; there are discussions dedicated to some popular eps. The show is a pop culture bonanza and is a critical and commercial success. Some outlets have even hailed Atlanta’s first season as the best of 2016. After years of being overlooked, Childish Gambino has finally graduated to being a bankable frontman. I highly recommend this mishmash of genres and exploration of pertinent issues.