As funny as the show might be, watching Donald Glover’s FX series "Atlanta" can often feel like a tortured exercise in figuring out when it’s okay to laugh. The comedy, whose first season wrapped up this week, tells the tale of an Atlanta-based Princeton drop-out (Glover) who starts managing his rapper cousin Alfred, a.k.a. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). But it’s also quickly proven itself home to some of the most complex, absurdist humor to disrupt the TV landscape in the last decade, thanks to its fearless satire of characters of all races. Glover’s “Atlanta” is a world in which non-black characters feel comfortable enough to freely use the "N word” in front of black people, but it’s also the same world in which people identify as “transracial” and Justin Bieber is black (with nary a qualifier or word of explanation).
A messy, thrilling bundle of contradictions, “Atlanta” is unafraid to tackle the often uncomfortable topic of race in America — which Glover presents often without reassuring laugh cues, and which rests on a razor-thin edge between hilarious and profoundly unfunny. And while “Atlanta” might be commentary on millennial black culture and the ways in which white America appropriates from it, the show is also a satire without prejudice, where characters of all ethnicities and races — black, white, and otherwise — all fall under Glover and his writers' room's delightfully eviscerating glare. Take a look back at the most beautifully complex and awesomely ridiculous characters from "Atlanta"'s first season, here.
The White Radio DJ With Selective Language Skills
The first taste viewers get of the absurd comes in the very first episode, "The Big Bang." Newly self-appointed as Paper Boi’s manager, Earn runs into an old radio DJ friend to ask him to get Paper Boi’s new track some airplay. He tells Earn a story about a "wack" DJ who played Flo Rida at a party, and ends the tale with a racial slur: “And I was like, really n----?” Watching this scene unfold, the audience is meant to be shocked, as is Earn, who is clearly put off by his friend's use of the "n" word. Everyone knows this type: the white person who feels a little too comfortable around black people. The DJ later meets Paper Boi and his sidekick Darius, and as a sort of racial litmus test, Earn slyly encourages the DJ to tell the same story, expecting him to repeat it verbatim. But of course, he doesn’t, his vocal affectation tightening up. He leaves the slur out at the end, confirming a presumed suspicion Earn has about himself, which is that his embodiment of black masculinity not seen as a “threat” to white people, but that Paper Boi’s and Darius’s might be.
The Social Media Troll of Indeterminate Race
A little later, in episode four ("The Streisand Effect"), there is what is not exactly a repeat of the radio DJ situation from the first episode, but a variation on the same “type.” Standing outside a club, Earn and Paper Boi become accosted by a social media obsessed troll (initially perceived to be a fan) named Zan who calls Paper Boi “my n----,” to which Paper Boi and Earn respond, “Are you even black?” Zan’s race and ethnicity are never explicitly defined, but it’s clear that Paper Boi, Earn and Darius are all perplexed by Zan’s ability to syphon from black culture for his own profit and brand. (There is a treasure trove of accounts like Zan’s on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and more.) From his vocal inflections to his use of memes and slang that were developed by and within communities of black youth, Zan’s affectations is a reminder of both the ambivalence of racial and ethnic categories, but also the problem of the Internet as it pertains to appropriating black culture for profit.
Black Justin Bieber
Imagine a world in which Justin Bieber was black. What kind of music would he make? What would his style be? Would he “sound black”? Bieber’s style of music directly descends from R&B performers, just like those who signed him to his initial record deal, and over time we have seen his brand evolve from teeny bopper to wannabe bad boy. The black Justin Bieber in "Atlanta" completely misbehaves, and yet charms everyone — basically, this character is the exact same as the “real” Justin Bieber, the only difference being that he’s black. This is an essential element of Glover’s thesis that celebrity and personifications of race and ethnic identities are performative at their core.
White Woman Who Mistakes Black Guy For Different Black Guy
In the same episode in which black Justin Bieber appears, Earn meets a white talent agent named Janice (played with supreme intensity by Jane Adams) who mistakes him for a different (presumably also black) agent named Alonzo. He plays along because she brings him to a high-powered networking function, but soon Janice’s motives are revealed — apparently, once upon a time the real Alonzo stabbed her in the back. Janice turns on Earn, telling him to “wipe that sharecropper smile off your face,” and that she will ruin his career. Earn tries to tell her that he’s not Alonzo, but she won’t hear it. The scene is harsh, but reminds both Earn and the viewer that a black man in the business world should never get too comfortable.
The Black Best Friend On a Whole Other Level
In "Value" (episode 6), one of the strongest episodes of the season, Van, Earn’s on-again-off-again girlfriend and mother of his child, gets an entire episode centered around her narrative as a single working mother. She goes to dinner at an expensive restaurant with a close friend named Jayde, whom she barely gets to see due to the fact that Jayde is now high-priced arm candy who private jets across the globe with famous athletes. Not only is this episode important because it gives Van a voice and a narrative — she’s working hard to provide for her daughter, but she also wants to enjoy her twenties — but it also is a key moment in the series that highlights the variance in social class among black people and the dissolution of friendship between women over time. Van immediately notices the disconnect between herself and Jayde — they present themselves differently, they no longer share certain life experiences. The condescending way Jayde speaks to Van clarifies the impression that they’re on different levels, and is a testament to Atlanta’s ability to blend the strange and the familiar.
The White Woman With a Ph.D. in Black Masculinity
Episode 7 ("B.A.N.") deviates from the rest of the season in that it is a self-contained televised interview between Paper Boi, a feminist activist, and a television host named Montague, packaged as a public access show for the “B.A.N.,” a riff on Black Entertainment Television. The episode includes absurd, existential commercials about cars and cereal, a satire of the advertisements that target black communities — sorry, the “urban” community. It also features some interstitial segments with tertiary characters viewers have never seen before. Paper Boi sits down for the interview and spends the entire segment sparring verbally with the head of the “Center for Trans-American Issues,” Dr. Deborah Holt, the self-proclaimed expert on masculinity in the black community, and the effects rap music has on understanding sexuality and gender.
The Transracial Teen, a.k.a. Reverse Rachel Dolezal
As a term like “cultural appropriation” begins to lose its valence in the lexicon of progressives, performances that skewer both those who do not understand its definition and those who believe it does not exist become increasingly important. “B.A.N.” features an interview segment with a black teen who, in a reverse Rachel Dolezal plot, self-identifies as a 35-year-old white man. The scene is completely ridiculous but also thwarts easy interpretation. It pushes the viewer to reconsider the matter for themselves.
Craig, the White Man Whose "Hobby Is Black People"
The penultimate episode of the first season focuses on Juneteenth, a holiday dedicated to commemorating the end of slavery in the United States on June 19th. Van drags Earn to a Juneteenth party hosted by a well-off couple, asking him to keep up the facade that they are still in a married, monogamous relationship so that her own social status might be elevated for the benefit of their young daughter, Lottie. Upon arriving at the elaborate mansion where the party is held, Earn and Van meet Craig, the white husband of the black host, who promptly shouts from the top of the stairs, “Happy Freedom Day!” and gives Earn a very specific type of handshake, which makes Earn visibly uncomfortable. Earn continuously points out to Van how out of place they are in the whole extravaganza (later in the evening Earn facetiously remarks that the party feels like “Spike Lee directed Eyes Wide Shut") pleading her to recognize the preposterousness of this party. Craig gets too comfortable with Earn, asking him why he’s never been to Africa, and even performs, without an ounce of self-awareness, an enthusiastic round of slam poetry.
The Black Woman Obsessed With Status and Wealth
In the same episode, Monique, Craig’s wife and the host of the Juneteenth celebration, confides to Van that she recognizes how absurd her husband's behavior is, but that putting up with him is a necessary cost. As she tells Van, “I like Craig. But I love my money.” The entire episode is another unusual step the show takes towards identifying different classes of black people. This party offers a specific look at one one very well-heeled group.
All of these wide-ranging characters constitute a world in which a viewer may never be certain whether they are watching an alternate reality or our present one unfold. The show is a constant revelation, showing us the absurd nature of the ways in which we all perform and consume race, gender and class.
In 2016, "Atlanta" is the most American show on television.