‘Atlanta’ Doesn’t Make Grand Pronouncements, and That’s What Makes It Great
Donald Glover’s new FX show Atlanta has achieved critical and commercial success in just seven episodes. Already picked up for a second season, the show has been praised by Vibe, The AV Club, and HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall. Last week’s episode, “B.A.N.”, was the silliest Atlanta has got, while simultaneously addressing one of the more serious issues facing America today: transphobia. It’s a tough topic to address, especially with an (apparently) all cisgendered writing staff. Twenty-four trans people have been killed in the U.S. this year, the majority of whom were transwomen of color. And as the “Fuck Portlandia” sign outside of In Other Words shows, the radical left isn’t afraid of calling out comedy they perceive as transphobic or otherwise fucked up. Happily, “B.A.N.” deftly navigates this space. For the most part.
Atlanta stars Glover as Earn, a Princeton dropout who is now “technically homeless.” Mostly crashing at his baby mama’s house, Earn is trying to manage his cousin Alfred (aka Paper Boi) as his rap career takes off. Earn gets Paper Boi’s eponymous single (basically just a cover of Purple Ribbon All Stars’ “Kryptonite (I’m On It)”) played on local radio, which sets the two men off on the intolerably slow grind of showbiz. Glover has called it “Twin Peaks but with rappers,” which is pretty accurate. “B.A.N.” is one of the most surreal episodes thus far, even more so than the episode where Justin Bieber is a black man.
B.A.N. is the name of a BET-like cable network, Black America Network. We watch a broadcast of B.A.N.’s Tavis Smiley/Charlie Rose-style public affairs show, Montague. Paper Boi has ostensibly been invited to the show to defend tweets where he indicated a lack of sexual interest in Caitlin Jenner. But, really, he’s been brought on the show to represent all of hip-hop. The bulk of Montague is a debate between Paper Boi and Dr. Deborah Holt of the Center for Trans-American Issues, brought on to represent shrill white womanhood. The debate centers around why Paper Boi (and thus all of hip-hop and all of black culture) hates Caitlin Jenner (and thus all transwomen and thus all LGBTQ people).
Wisely, Atlanta doesn’t make any grand pronouncements about trans identity. Really, the only grand pronouncement the show makes is that grand pronouncements suck. People in the minority are held to extra scrutiny, especially today with the 24-hour news cycle’s endless appetite. They have to represent their entire race, or gender, or class, because the media doesn’t make enough room for other representations. Everything by a black artist has to be capital-I Important, something that Glover has expressed resistance to in interviews. The closest “B.A.N.” gets to having a definitive statement on trans people is that one character, Paper Boi, thinks it’s kind of weird. He explicitly says they should have all the rights a human being is entitled to, but that the concept is new to him and weird. He doesn’t hate all LGBTQ people. He just doesn’t want to fuck Caitlin Jenner.
This is not the first time trans people and sexual fluidity have come up on Atlanta. In the second episode, Earn sits between a man and a transwoman in lockup. The man goes from bragging about having dated this woman, to yelling abuse when he realizes that she is trans. It’s an uncomfortable scene, with the only comedy coming from the ex-boyfriend’s insistence that Earn sit in between him and his his ex for the entire altercation. Earn tries to stay uninvolved, only mumbling that sexuality is on a spectrum and pretty much everything’s OK to do. Because we’ve seen one character already express an opinion on sexual and gender fluidity, Paper Boi does not have to represent Atlanta’s (and thus Donald Glover’s) opinion. He’s free to be one specific character.
The jail altercation is one of many scenes on Atlanta where a person entirely flips the way they relate to others based on who they’re talking to. It appears to be one of the show’s main interests: the fluidity of identity — especially when influenced by capitalism, racism, and fame. There’s very little sympathy for these people who change. They’re usually made to look foolish for having no center, no unshakeable self that endures all the -isms of the world. In the pilot, Earn runs into a white friend from school. This white friend casually drops an n-bomb into a story he’s telling, as a way to conversationally flex nuts. Later, Earn introduces this white boy (who we’ll call WB for the sake of brevity) to his cousin Paper Boi. WB is shy around the trap-hop artist and doesn’t feel comfortable enough to be casually racist when Earn asks him to tell the story again. We are supposed to understand that this man is a coward because he modifies his behavior depending on who he’s around. Contrast that to Paper Boi, who curses constantly on Montague, even though he knows he’s on television. This man is awaiting trial for shooting someone, is a known drug dealer, and recently got into a physical fight with Justin Bieber. He probably shouldn’t call his co-panelist a bitch. But because Paper Boi changes for no one, that’s exactly what he does. Atlanta divides people into the real and the fake: those who behave the same under any social circumstances, and those who bend to their surroundings. From this point of view, nothing could be more real than the trans experience. Trans people are told they are one thing, but live their real selves in defiance of social expectations and the very real threat of violence. Paper Boi probably wouldn’t see it that way, though.
“B.A.N.” happens to be one of the funniest episodes of Atlanta, too. It has real jokes, rather than the show’s usual deadpan observations. Flanking each segment of Montague are fake ads targeting the African American audience, like one for pre-dumped Swisher Sweets and another that satirizes bodega markups. In the world of Atlanta, Arizona Tea’s slogan is “The price is on the can, though.” Even the segment that falls flat, an interview with a “transracial” black teen, has some of the best jokes. If you ignore the false equivalency of comparing transgender identity to a kid who thinks he’s really a 35-year-old white man from Colorado named Harrison, you can still laugh at Harrison practicing white things to say. “Excuse me, what IPAs do you have on tap?” and the like.
One of the funniest moments in “B.A.N.” comes when Paper Boi and Dr. Shrill Feminist actually come to an agreement on something:
Paper Boi: It’s hard for me to care about this when nobody cares about me as a black human man, you feel me? Like, Caitlyn Jenner is just doing what rich white men been doing since the dawn of time, which is whatever the hell he wants. So why should I care? What makes him so special?
Dr. Holt: But as a black man in this country, shouldn’t you care about the civil liberties of others, since they’re so closely related to your struggle for equality?
Paper Boi: What are you talking about? I do care. Look, I don’t have a problem with gay people, transpeople, because that’s tolerance, but where’s tolerance for people like me? You know what I’m saying? I should be able to say something is weird without people hating on me. All right? Look, I never… I never said anything about taking away nobody’s rights. Never.
Dr. Holt: I… I understand what you’re saying, but some people found your remarks offensive.
Paper Boi: Yeah, well, freedom of speech, [bleep].
Dr. Holt: You’re right. I agree.
Montague is stunned. He desperately tries to force the two back into their adversarial roles, but they keep agreeing. Finally, he yells “You hate women!” at Paper Boi, who responds with a stunned “[Bleep] what?” It’s a great moment that shows exactly how the media pits people against each other for sheer entertainment value. Montague has no show if the black man and the white woman can get along. Glover directed the episode, and he leaves enough awkward silence in the scene to make it really jarring and funny.
Black people aren’t given the same space to grow as humans in this country, let alone as artists. Seinfeld can have a show about literally nothing, but art by black people has to be about everything. Atlanta is about specificity. The comedy, the drama, the soundtrack — everything is about one group of people in a very specific place and time. It’s not about all of Atlanta, it’s not about all of black culture. It’s about Earn, a Princeton dropout who has a child but still walks around the city with a backpack looking like a child himself. It’s about Alfred, a man who is achieving the things he’s always wanted — fame and wealth — and finding that they’re as stifling as poverty and anonymity. Atlanta is not all things for all people. It’s about two cousins. But paradoxically, the more it zooms in on these two characters, the more it can touch on broader themes.