Police action against unarmed black men feeds into the dominant narrative about race, in which blacks continue to be victims of both overt and covert racism. Television and film reinforce these feeling. While Hollywood is still largely interested in the depredations of slavery, television is only gingerly moving away from stereotypes about the hood to show fuller black lives in shows like Empire and Black-ish.
The FX series Atlanta, by first-time director Donald Glover, is therefore a breath of fresh air, a black show that diligently dismantles every stereotype associated with the genre. While no timeline is specified, the show, set in the Atlanta rap scene, is thoroughly contemporary. Earn, played by Glover himself (he is also a writer on the show), is a Princeton dropout who dreams of success in the music business, but is too broke to figure out how.
When his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) finds success as Paper Boi, a rapper whose music disburses love advice peppered with swear words, Earn decides to become his manager. There is also Darius (Keith Stanfield), who lives with Alfred, and as the feckless but prescient friend, gets some of the best lines on the show.
Atlanta has generated a buzz because black people behave like white people on the show, which is to say that they are not hankering for a death wish. Earn, who is raising a daughter with his girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz), is the sort of introspective man who would rather take $750 against the promised $5,000 for a gig from a rogue bar owner than put up a fight and risk his life.
Paper Boi is both stereotypically black – he finally extracts the $5000 from the bar owner – and endearingly tender-hearted. Furious with an online critic who pokes fun at his music, he tracks him down but pours water on our expectations of a bloody confrontation by walking away when he realises that the critic, like him and everyone else, is only playing the game.
While it rises above its blackness, Atlanta is also smartly attuned to it. Its beauty lies in its merging of black culture with a non-black sensibility that is non-black only because the audience has not been served this dish before. White people make an appearance as often – which is to say hardly – as black people do in most shows.
In one episode, Earn and Van visit the home of a rich interracial couple (white husband, black wife) that is a shrine to historical atrocities against blacks. The husband is a collector of artifacts, hoping to amend for his people’s crimes by surrounding himself with all things black, including the wife. Naturally, the evening ends badly, but not before Glover has shared some penetrating insights about race and guilt.
Another episode is devoted to a black television network on which a panel discussion between Paper Boi and a white professor of gender studies takes place. The subject is Caitlyn Jenner, about whom Paper Boi has said impolite things on his Twitter feed. The professor and Paper Boi fight over trans versus black rights, the professor keen that he, as a historically disadvantaged minority, speak up for the rights of others, while he expressing his tiredness at having to join every fight when people like him continue to drop dead on the street.
It’s a deeply engaging episode that, this being Atlanta, ends with a segment about a black man claiming that he is white, and that he would undergo “Caucasian” surgery to represent his authentic self. This is brutal humour that does not merely challenge the viewer’s assumptions about the fluidity of gender but expects him to engage with the hierarchy of discrimination.
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