Ruminating on Donald Glover’s brand of southern, urban surrealism in a place called Atlanta.
It starts out innocuously enough. A young black man, a teen or in his early 20s, walks through an apartment complex in the morning. Inside, he finds a friend, playing what looks like Pro Evolution Soccer on Playstation. We learn that the character we’ve been following (let’s call him our guide) is on his way to work. When he tries to drink some juice straight from the bottle, his friend chastises he should get a cup. They talk for a bit, about nothing of seeming importance. Just two young black men chopping it up. Then, our guide makes mention of wanting to get high first–to take the edge off his daily routine. Some prozac for the common man. His friend nonchalantly tells him that they can score a little somethin at a local fast-food restaurant, that’s also a dope spot. Our guide is disbelieving, but his friend assures him it’s true. They decide they’re definitely going to roll through and see what they can cop.
Next we see them, is in a car at the drive-thru. They place an order, using what we gather is coded language for items not available on the menu. The intercom repeats their order to make sure. There’s a pause, then they’re told to drive up. The two laugh. Our guide’s friend’s entire demeanor is, “I told you so.”
The camera switches to the inside of the restaurant, where a black man–a maybe thirty-something busied manager with a headset–is stashing foodstuffs (and maybe more?) into a bag, while calling for another worker to take the register. When he turns to the approaching car seen through his drive-thru window, he pauses. The driver is wearing some kind of overly big cartoon mask. It’s freakish looking, with a grin, like some creepy mascot. As he watches, another cartoon-masked figure squeezes his way up and out of the passenger side window, wearing a backpack. Only, he’s also got a gun pointed.
The bullets hit the drive-thru window. The manager ducks and runs. In moments the masked gunman is over the top of the car, through the shattered glass and inside the restaurant. He’s shouting about a backroom amid lots of screams. He runs, makes his way there, and checks in a bucket. Found it–a wrapped up brick of weed. Or coke. Something worth money. Grabbing it, he stashes it in his backpack then makes to get out. But he’s sent flying for cover when some new bullets ring out–faster, louder. The manager is standing there, mad as hell, and holding one big ass black automatic rifle. Read for war!
The scenes after that are like something out of a Scorcese flick. A shootout in the back of a fast-food chain. Bullets everywhere. For a while it seems the masked robber is caught. But he makes a desperate run, and somehow gets out of there. The getaway car is already rolling when he reaches it. The manager is fresh on his heels though. Out in broad daylight, he shatters the quiet of the morning with the brrrat! of sprayed bullets at the fleeing vehicle. Then the car stops. It backs up. And there’s a bewildering pause. Out of the back seat, a figure is thrown out. A young woman. She’s screaming. Blood is pouring down her face. The manager watches her, looking stunned. The getaway car peels off.
We’re left sitting there thinking–WTF? In our heads, we’re trying to put 2 + 2 divided by the square root of Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers into place. The masked robber–that was our guide. He and his friend weren’t coming to get high, they were out to rob. Haven’t we heard of some fast-food joint getting busted in the news for selling coke along with their orders? Is that where this is from? Wait, wait, wait. Back up. Was the gun-toting robber really the baby-faced damn near a teenager we’d been following? Maybe we got it wrong. Maybe there was another car between them. But no, it had to be them. And who was the young woman in the back seat?
Then we realize, the credits ain’t even rolled yet. Welcome to FX’s Atlanta.
I might have gotten some of the above earlier details wrong. I’ve only seen the episode once. I thought of going back and giving it another look, to get things just right for the blog. But decided not to. I want to give my impressions as I remember them, even if faulty. Because that’s something this show does–it sticks with you. Makes you not just remember the scenes, dialogue, and characters, but dwell on them, recreate them in your head, try to decipher them. That’s an imperfect exercise. My recounting of the opening scene above, that plays out in the first episode of Season 2 of Atlanta, is exactly this process of re-imagination that makes the show so…well…memorable.
Atlanta is the brainchild of Donald Glover, aka the rapper Childish Gambino, aka a comedy writer for shows like 30 Rock aka Troy from Community. It mostly follows the daily ins-and-outs of Earnest “Earn” Marks, our young down-on-his-luck protagonist struggling to get his life on track. Earn is poor, as he often reminds us. Very, very poor. He sleeps in a rented storage unit with his belongings. Or at least, he did until he was recently kicked out. Earn has a daughter who he shows a great deal of affection towards. Only, he can’t provide for her (that very poor thing) and so it leaves him in a strange dependent relationship with Vanessa “Van” Keefer (actress Zazie Beetz soon to be Domino)–the mother of his child, sometimes girlfriend, and main breadwinner trying to hold down a teaching job.
Yet if you’re thinking, I’ve seen this story already–poor, impoverished, young black male, no family, probably dropped out of high school–nah. I’m gonna have to stop you right there. Earn grew up in a middle-class home. We meet his parents. A regular ass functional Black family. With a nice house. They just decided their grown son needed to leave the nest. Earn did drop out tho–from Princeton. We aren’t given the full story yet. But we do know he isn’t some cookie-cutter stereotype of black masculinity. He’s complicated. He’s human.
Most of Atlanta centers around Earn’s latest attempt at gaining some financial stability–managing the burgeoning rap career of his cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (actor Brian Tyree Henry). Paper Boi is the brash image of the Southern rapper. Spends his day getting lifted, trying to push his album out the back of his car trunk, and knows more than a few seedier characters of the city. Yet even he doesn’t fit the bill of what you’d expect. Paper Boi isn’t the hardened persona he puts out on his records. He’s wisely astute about the world around him. And, even without ever getting into Princeton, he has a firmer grasp on real life than Earn–including a much more stable and shrewd approach to his finances.
But it’s Paper Boi’s friend and partner, Darius, that at times steals the show. Darius is played by actor Lakeith Stanfield, who most people know as the brotha in the Sunken Place who gave the worst response to a fist/pound in recorded Black History. We’re never exactly clear on what Darius does (sometimes he’s a driver, or a chef concocting odd recipes) or his exact relationship to Paper Boi. But he brings to Atlanta that surreal and strange magic that knits all these disparate parts and figures together.
Ask Darius the time and he might tell you that time is just relative. If Darius tells you he can find a way to help you make money, know that it’ll entail traveling through a chain of far-flung yet interrelated bartering that would put the Great Material Continuum of the Ferengi to shame. Even Darius’s questionable moments leave you pondering. In the same episode with the “Great River,” Darius rails against the Chinese. Earn points out the absurdity of his racism, and turns to apologize to a young Asian man following behind. Darius chides, “He’s not Chinese.” The guy affirms it, “I’m not Chinese.” Somehow, Darius manages to turn his anti-Chinese rant into a moment that exposes Earn’s own racial short-comings.
Darius is at his best though, when he’s departing bits of wisdom. These things always, always, sound absolutely ridiculous. Like the kind of thing you hear in barber shops from that one bruh who wants to hip you the dangers of chemtrails. Only in Atlanta, it’s Darius who often ends out being vindicated. In one memorable episode, he makes mention of a rapper who has an invisible car. You think it’s a throwaway line that’s just meant to allow Paper Boi to give Darius a “n*gga what?” face. He tells him, “That sh*t ain’t real.” And of course it isn’t. That is, until the very end of the episode, when in a serious moment that sends people fleeing a shooting at a club, what is obviously AN INVISIBLE FRIGGIN’ CAR runs over some pedestrians!
What will probably go down in the Darius Hall-of-Fame tho, is the premiere episode of Season 2, where he relates to Earn the story of Florida Man. It all starts when Earn mentions that his parents are in Florida. Darius warns they’d best watch out for Florida Man. Earn confused, dares to ask. Darius spins a tale of a mysterious character called Florida Man that’s always in the news. He’s thought to be some white, rural, alt-right, deviant and psychopath. You always hear about him, Darius says: Florida Man shoots black teenager in a car listening to music, Florida Man crashes wedding, Florida Man high on drugs eats man’s face. The joke of course, is that Darius’s Florida Man is just the generic term of television newscasters. The commentary on that alone is hilarious. But it’s also a bit dark, because every one of those events did happen. In Florida. Committed by…a Florida Man.
A newspaper review of the show last year (I can’t remember the source) called Darius the “always high” or “stoner” friend of Paper Boi. That’s about the whitest and wrongest interpretation of his character ever. Go sit in a corner! Darius isn’t some stoner out of an 80s suburban teens movie. He’s surreal blackness. A mix of conspiracy theories and street wisdom along with a wide intellectual range that we take for granted. Like a 3rd Stage Guild Navigator, his mind moves in strange directions. He sees what we can’t and tries to translate it to us, if we bother to listen. He’s the show’s Ford Prefect, a spaceman or an extra-dimensional being just visiting for the moment.
It’s Darius who weaves the most obvious magic into the show, but bits of surrealism are everywhere. In this Atlanta, transracialism (in a reverse spoof of Rachel Dolezal) appears in a news montage of a black man who earnestly says (and believes) “I’m a 35-year old white man.” Club promoters who don’t want to pay you can vanish at will, through secret passages and hidden revolving doors. Teachers are weirded out by black kids who sit smiling like silent cherubim while wearing white-face. In this Atlanta, there’s a Black Justin Bieber, the Migos are drug dealers who do creepy sh*t out the woods, and strange wise men that look like Fruit of Islam offer sage advice on buses while making a nutella sandwich. There’s even an Alligator Man.
This doesn’t mean Atlanta departs fully from the real world. Never that. You get that reality in abundance, from police who shoot fleeing suspects in the back to that young woman who is tossed out the car after the shootout–a commentary perhaps on innocence caught in the crossfire. Even the ostensibly silly children’s cereal commercials drip with meaning. That’s what makes Atlanta’s surrealism so effective. Everything here feels like it could happen. Like it does happen. Like you’re watching our world, just through a slightly distorted fun house mirror. Or maybe, from the other side.
It’s fitting for our times, where we often look at the news and say, “that sh*t ain”t real.” Then outta nowhere, BAM! We get run over by a damn invisible car.
Season 2 of Atlanta, “Robbing Season,” is on FX every Thursday night.