FX’s “Atlanta”: Donald Glover’s 10-week short course in storytelling

Courtesy of FX
Courtesy of FX

Being a racial minority is not easy. Aside from a lack of representation, seeing your culture appropriated and your voice interpreted as either for or against the state (e.g. Colin Kaepernick) can make you wonder if your voice is valued as a minority. All too often the black artistic voice is either silenced or used to appropriate black culture, leaving a barren hole in modern television and film. In a time when black voices are needed to tell black stories, FX’s “Atlanta” provides a voice both needed and all-too-often unheard.

Creator Donald Glover (from “Community”; also known as Childish Gambino) along with Stephen Glover (writer and brother) and Hiro Matai (director) have continued to push the creative bounds of the 10 p.m. slot. “Atlanta” takes a surreal look into the mind of Glover, telling the story of Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover), an unemployed Princeton dropout managing his rapper and cousin Alfred “Paperboi” Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry), while raising his daughter with on-again-off-again girlfriend Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Zazie Beetz). Earn and Paperboi are joined by Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) who is Paperboi’s roommate, assistant and stoned clairvoyant. While the plot maintains a steady pulse, Glover uses it as a literary element instead of an overarching narrative. Episodes will often intertwine general plot points whilst tackling pressing social issues.

The season finale, “The Jacket” showed Earn retracing his steps from the night before in search of his jacket. After converging with Paperboi and Darius, Earn finally locates and sets a meeting point with the Uber driver who had his jacket. Upon arriving at his Uber driver’s home, Paperboi senses the serenity of the suburban streets in high afternoon as unsettling. Paperboi, Earn and Darius are quickly pulled over with the assumption a drug deal will take place with their Uber driver from the night before. Once the driver is located, coincidentally wearing Earn’s jacket, police shoot him as he runs away. Paperboi, Earn and Darius look with surprised indifference, as if they’ve been desensitized to police brutality. The scene is highlighted by Earn casually asking a DEA agent to search the jacket pockets on the body as his family and police look on.

This ironic humor during an emotional event highlights the talent of Atlanta’s writers and actors. Strong casting also provides layers to characters where one’s actions, such as Paperboi’s occasional violent streak, doesn’t necessarily define their existence, but how they manage to survive their exploits. Scenes are directed in a minimalist, yet meticulous manner that allows main characters to fall back and lets supporting characters add to the smorgasbord of visual poetry. Combined, the result is a piece of work that makes the viewer ask uncomfortable questions that evaluate one’s identity and value in American society.

The second-to-last episode, “Juneteenth,” written by Stefani Robinson, used this storytelling style to discuss privilege. The episode begins with Van picking up Earn from a late night fling’s house half-high and half-indifferent to the idea of putting on a face for strangers. Quick, sharp banter between the two on the drive there tease issues black women face daily with hair and the non-nuclear family structure. Throughout the scene, Van and Earn continually feel the need to use their daughter Lonnie to validate and justify their attendance at Janicza Bravo’s (director) sensationalized rendition of a Juneteenth celebration that functioned as a hilarious, yet purposeful way of directing the story. Throughout the episode, Van is continually and subtly reminded that her worth is attached to the socioeconomic status of her husband (her bourgeois African-American girlfriend isn’t aware he dropped out) even asking Earn, “Do you think I’m happy having to prostitute myself for an opportunity? Do you think that I am happy that I need you here in order to do that? Can we for once just pretend that we aren’t who we are?”

Meanwhile, Earn has black culture appropriated to him by their host’s Caucasian husband who views it as a hobby climaxing with a jaunty, yet tasteless rendition of a Def Jam spoken word. It becomes quickly and painfully clear that Van and Earn are both playing along in this bizarre pantomime of African-American history but this is what makes “Atlanta” incredible television: The blur between the surrealist, exaggerated plots and the accurate portrayal of human nature paint an introspective picture into Glover’s mind and how he sees race, gender and privilege impacting society. In this case, the ugly truths about privilege, a partner’s perceived value in a domestic relationship and the value of a domestic relationship to society. “Atlanta’”s foire into telling these cold truths about existing as a minority in America allow Glover and his creative team to tell these incredible, bizarre, introspective stories that represent so many other corners of American society that are disenfranchised by systematic oppression.

Glover’s casual weaving of stories of blacks, women, transsexuals, mentally disabled, poor characters almost creates a mirror effect for viewers. While the typical storytelling elements are strong, “Atlanta” tries to also paint existence into a story and provide a voice and perspective to hear from those that society usually ignores. Glover doesn’t necessarily provide the answer, but he allows us to begin searching for the answer by creating an illusory world, yet telling the real everyday stories of those whose existence is far too often devalued.

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