Now that we've seen the final episode of Atlanta's debut season, we have the fun task of figuring out what in the ATLien hell we all just experienced, and acknowledging that something pretty damn cool has occurred that we kind of did and didn't expect.
See, nobody knew what we were getting when FX announced that Donald Glover had been green-lit to develop and star in a TV series called Atlanta, but we figured it would be weird, in a good way, and at least hoped it'd be something special. Those anxious hopes turned out solid ratings and great reviews, Atlanta got renewed for a second 10-episode season (even before the fourth episode aired), and the entire country learned the hook to Paper Boi's breakthrough mixtape single. It's a great time to be an Atlantan who does not appreciate The Real Housewives.
So what made the show so memorable, and how are we supposed to feel? Did Atlanta nail it? Let's talk through it now.
Everybody loves a troubled weirdo hero
With his general vibe of melancholy detachment, Glover's character Earn Marks served as a pretty well-rounded representative of the personalities you can actually find not only in Atlanta but in most American cities where intelligent black men of working-class means are working their way through young adulthood. Earn is a snapshot of many things millennial people of color might experience in the years during or immediately following college, based on current economic realities and the effects those have on people.
In my own experience as a black guy living in Atlanta, I have to say it's amazing how much I can relate personally to Earn. I dropped out of a highly respected college, had a child before I was married, spent a couple years borrowing beds in other people's homes, struggled with super-soul-sucking jobs beneath my ability, and stumbled through a lot of disappointments and personal failures. Atlanta has always taken care of me, somehow, some way, especially when I compare the city to my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, where it's much cheaper to live but much harder to be a black outsider.
Earn feels incredibly authentic and doesn't do well with other people's bullshit, although he's clearly not afraid of whatever circumstances he finds himself in. Whether it's shootings, strip clubs, or business negotiations with shady folks, the only thing that seems to scare Earn is failing to provide for his daughter. It's refreshing to see a reminder that black fathers are just as great as dads of other colors, especially as we enter the twilight of the first black presidency -- a dad with two daughters who has chided black men who haven't taken responsibility for their children, but also refuses to speak badly of people who practice Islam just because some people insist that he call them radical terrorists.
Here's a secret: Black people are sometimes the hardest on themselves. Earn is the loser we all love -- everybody's best down-but-not-out black friend.
You don't have to be black or live in Atlanta to dig it
While I happen to have both of those boxes checked off, I don't pretend that I'm the only person who could appreciate the show. Lots of people have previously attempted to do what Glover and those supporting him have pulled off here: an exploration of what it's like to be in the black community all the time, without alienating people who aren't. Atlanta realizes that it needed a multidimensional audience in order to be successful, so it cleverly turned the experience of being a so-called "minority" into an experience that pretty much all non-African-Americans would have just by watching it.
I've certainly had conversations with white friends and strangers about Atlanta, and outside of a few buddies who live here in the city and completely get/love it, there's a certain catching-up factor that's also fun to watch. Sure, there's the usage of black slang you might be familiar with, but there have also been cultural cues intended to reach those who already knew about them, and to test the commitment of those who didn't, like the infamous "lemon pepper wet" scene from the second episode. They are indeed a thing -- usually lemon pepper wings are just naked and fresh out of the fryer, with a Costco-sized helping of sour yellow seasoning salt dumped over them as they dry. But the wet? Sheeeit; yes please, for real.
Glover's experience as a writer, actor, comedian, and musician was sure to come in handy, but it's been great to see him use skills he's acquired and honed on Community and 30 Rock to make a real attempt at turning an abstract TV comedy series into a continuing conversation piece. It took risk, but it felt like a chance worth taking once you begin figuring out that it's possible to poke fun at one's personal cultural experiences without risking the exposure of a whole group of people to unintended insults caused by misinterpretation. Just look up Dave Chappelle's thoughts on "I'm Rick James, bitch!" and the conflict he felt about who was laughing the most at his jokes, and why, before he famously walked away from his wildly popular Comedy Central show.
If someone is talented, respectful, and brave enough to keep things as balanced as they are funny, there's a huge opportunity to do some comedic gap-bridging with shows like Atlanta, and others such as ABC's Black-ish and HBO's Insecure. Glover easily could have played it more safely, or just taken a check to have Atlanta be the next Key & Peele-ish fruit to fall from the Chappelle's Show tree, but he didn't. He was sneakier with the punchlines and made you earn your understanding of them by staying tuned for whatever "lemon pepper wet" moment was coming next.
Things that aren't funny can sometimes be funny, which is uncomfortable
Did you also laugh a little bit when the Uber driver got shot down in the finale? Right up until then, did you have the same feeling that we were all about to watch an unfortunate art-imitates-life scene between the three main characters and the Atlanta police? Yeah, that was also weird.
The fast-moving camera action and the timing of how Brian Tyree Henry's Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles says "Ooooooh" when the driver goes down in a misty spray of blood somehow lets you feel OK about the absurdity of the killing. Maybe because it's fiction, and we know it's not real, it's possible to be both removed and familiar with this scene in a way that lets you giggle, then realize you giggled, and feel tricked into confronting what might be your own safe distance from those bullets. There's a sense that the show wants us to be better people tomorrow but is willing to meet us where we ignorantly are today.
Then there's the exploration of homophobia and transphobia in the black community, which we encounter twice. First there's the jail episode, where an assumed tough guy in cornrows accidentally discovers, in view of other detainees, that he's had a flirtation with a transgender person in the same holding area. We'd just gotten over laughing at the actually hilarious Atlanta dialect and slang used by one of the guys in the cell. Now we have to decide if it's OK to laugh when the same guy can make fun of what the cornrowed guy did with "booty holes."
Then we get to Episode 7, where Paper Boi is interviewed on a panel during a fake TV show called Montague, and makes no apologies for tweeting that he is not attracted to Caitlyn Jenner. It turns into a discussion between Paper Boi and a trans activist who finds out that you can't shame a guy who refuses to engage with your philosophy. This, out of all the episodes, is probably the one that most shook the audience, looking for sensitive types who weren't ready for the direction in which Glover wanted to take the show in the future. Since it's the only one he both wrote and directed alone, we can assume he knew what he wanted, which was to find out how down for the conversational ride everybody might be.
And of course there's the quirky race-baiting stuff -- free-flowing usage of the infamous "n-word," the absence of a white person who isn't somewhat suspect, and questionable race-related wisdom, such as Darius' declaration in the third episode that Genghis Khan is the reason so many Chinese people are short. Is it true? I have no idea, but it sure does sound racist, which is funny, because Darius is black. Can black people be racist, and is that understandable? Maybe!
All loves matter
One of the best things about this great show was the character development of Vanessa, or "Van," played by the lovely Zazie Beetz. When we first meet Van, she's laying next to Earn in bed, being kissed even as he describes her morning breath as curry-like. She's wearing a headwrap and a sleep shirt, naturally beautiful. By the end of the show, particularly during the scene at Van's apartment before Earn walks to his storage unit temporary home, we realize Van is drop-dead gorgeous, still with limited frills. We've learned from the sixth episode, which is almost entirely dedicated to a Van vignette, and the ninth, in which Earn escorts her to a bougie ATL mansion party that is fun for neither of them, that she really does love him. We aren't yet sure that he completely reciprocates, but we're rooting for them. It is perhaps only Earn's disregard for Van's tolerance of him that we dislike about his character.
When she's fired from her teaching job for the rookie mistake of admitting she's smoked weed to an administrator, she doesn't seem too devastated, but we feel for her. She's the kind of woman who is all too familiar in Atlanta -- one who may not realize her value, simply because the man she loves and has tied herself to seems too spaced out by his own misfortunes to simply be thankful for what he's got.
This isn't just a black love thing, obviously. Lots of fat, bald, dumbass dudes are being sponsored in Atlanta, due to the crazy ratio of women to men. Last time I heard, there were 80k more single ladies than guys. Earn is someone we want to see succeed, but he's also a jerk. He sleeps with another woman even though he's homeless. He misses several chances to do right by Van, sometimes because he's down on his luck, and other times because he's just an insensitive dick.
And even though we know their relationship status is technically up in the air (thanks to the hilarious "good for her!" Earn's mom says in the first episode after hearing that Van's dating other guys), we see her cry in the bathroom during the Juneteenth mansion party, and it's a little heartbreaking. It's nice to see Earn's look of worry when his airport co-worker Swiff stares suggestively at Van through the cracked front door on the final episode, and asks if, in the event Van and Earn split, it would "be weird." Sure, it looks like Van and Earn had themselves a little romantic roadside relief after agreeing to leave the wackness of the Juneteenth party, but as the series comes to an end, your heart is kinda beating for them to work it out, for the sake of dumbass men of all colors who are loved by some lady other than their mother.
Obstacles come in many unexpected forms
The conundrum of poverty is explained perfectly by Earn in the third episode, when Darius leads him to "invest" money he doesn't have on a sword, which is then traded for a high-value breedable dog. The internet is simply a distraction that has no moral floor. Nightclubs are just places where people are free to be their favorite types of frauds.
And Justin Bieber, who in real life conveniently gets to wear an urban costume whenever it benefits his stage persona, is parodied by a black actor, possibly to make us all consider who he really thinks he is, and what privileges he has that the average rappers -- from whom he's borrowed much in terms of style and swagger -- are simply not given.
These are all things that in various ways are standing in the way of our heroes being lifted up where they belong. Some are hilarious at the belly-bending level. Some are smirk- or wink-worthy. And others are just there to make you consider the experiences that Darius, Earn, and Alfred go through on a daily basis. It makes you realize how cool they are, especially considering the constant drama you have to laugh at in order to keep.
It's hip to be absurd
Sometimes the silliest joke is the funniest. I personally laughed hard as hell when the Future-inspired rapper from the club episode drove over people in the parking lot in his invisible car, which he'd "shown" us via Instagram earlier.
Then let's talk about guns, which are easier to get in Georgia than most jokes. It was pretty nifty when Darius took his own dog-shaped shooting targets to the gun range, and ended up being walked out at shotgun-point when other patrons took offense to him practicing his aim on a canine silhouette. As he's done throughout the series, Darius reminds us that there might be another way to look at things, even if the way he suggests smells a lot like weed. But there was a good question to his point: Do we value dogs more than people when it comes to which living creatures are OK to shoot?
Who knows -- this is Atlanta, and we're country, gun-happy, and not-always-good people. Just don't ask anybody who used to throw footballs for the Falcons.
There's no beginning and there is no end
Atlanta started randomly with a side-view mirror getting kicked off Paper Boi's car door. We don't really know why -- maybe it was karma for him calling a female who turned down his parking lot cat-calling a bitch; she'd walked by with the guy Paper Boi shot in the beginning.
But aside from the jail scene we didn't find out if any charges stuck. We also don't know if Van got a new job, or what happened to Earn at Princeton to make him drop out. We didn't hear much more music from Paper Boi or see him in the studio, so who knows if a new mixtape is coming soon, but at least we hear he has a chance to go on tour with an established rap artist before the show's final episode ends. And when Earn turns out the light while laying in his storage locker, we're both happy that he's coming back next year, and hopeful that he finds better circumstances. It's a nervous ending that at least gives us the comfort of knowing he's gonna get another chance.
It's still not fully clear what Atlanta's first season really was about. It could be about what is at stake in a city that's quickly being gentrified now that folks with more money and less melanin are moving in and rebuilding historically black neighborhoods for themselves. It could be that Glover & Co. wanted us to get to know the characters on an esoteric level before really establishing rigid plotlines. That might not have worked with other shows, but because the experience of living in Atlanta is so rich, there was plenty of room to sort of freestyle.
The one clear thing is that Atlanta gave us all a reason to love it, and a springboard from which to have a national dialogue about how not even black people are immune to being lovably weird human beings.
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