One of Donald Glover’s stated goals for his new comedy-drama, “Atlanta,” is “to show White people, ‘You don’t know everything about Black culture.’” From the characters’ dialect to the quiet desperation enveloping their hustles, the multi hyphenated artist’s series succeeds in its offer of an intimate glimpse into Black absurdity and subtlety rarely see onscreen.
Credit for this authenticity goes to Glover and his all-Black writing team. Throughout the first four episodes, their scripts guide Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover), cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) through trials both humorous and painful—such as Earn’s struggle to properly manage Paper Boi’s burgeoning rap career while Paper Boi continues to sell drugs with Darius for a living. Episode 5 airs tonight (September 27). Herewith, five of “Atlanta’s” most startlingly real depictions so far [note: spoilers ahead]:
When That White Guy Says The N-word to Earn…But Not to His Tougher Looking Comrades
In Episode 1, Earn meets up with a corny White hip-hop radio station staffer named Dave and asks him to play Paper Boi’s single on air. Dave, who uses Black slang poorly while passive aggressively asserting his White privilege, tells Earn a story that ends with him calling a party DJ who kept playing Flo Rida the n-word.
After Dave walks off, Earn asks a tall, stocky, middle-aged Black maintenance man if Dave had ever used the n-word around him. He scoffs at the prospect. The Dave scenario exposes the all-too common occurrence of wannabe-cool White folks violating the boundaries of Black people whom they don’t find threatening.
Luckily, Earn gets his revenge by slipping Paper Boi’s CD (with money attached) to Dave’s supervisor. And when Dave tries to confront Earn about going over his head, Earn makes him retell the Flo Rida DJ story in front of Darius and Paper Boi. Guess if he used it with them.
When Prison Guards Beat and Violently Restrain a Mentally Ill Person
— Lil Chano From 79th (@chancetherapper) September 9, 2016
While waiting to be processed at a local jail in the second episode, Earn watches a Black arrestee with an undetermined psychological problem fill a cup with toilet water, drink some of it and spit some on a White officer. Given how police too often see people of color with cognitive or behavioral issues as problems, an officer beats the man and his colleagues join in. Earn, who is in jail because he’s witnessed a shooting, watches all of this with concern. Before the beating, he tells another officer the man needs help before that officer tells him to back off.
When a Traditionally Masculine Man is Shamed for Reminiscing With His Fomer Lover, Who is a Trans Woman
Later in Episode 2, Earn’s awkwardly caught between a man and a trans woman, both Black, as they reminisce about a previous fling. Eventually, the surrounding arrestees start mocking the couple. Earn’s attempts to explain sexuality as a spectrum fall on deaf ears as he struggles to extricate from a situation made even more uncomfortable by his trouble communicating. Given the disproportionate and awful violence dealt against Black trans women by cops and civilians, that scene was a brief and unfortunate reminder of the marginalization trans women of color experience every day—even by those who purport to know and care about them. The man’s harsh reaction to the ridicule of other arrestees evokes the ways masculinity turns toxic through sexist peer pressure.
When Darius Stereotypes Chinese as Short
In Episode 4, Darius and Earn go to meet with Asian gangsters to ”trade-up” a pawn-shop sword for a more expensive pit bull. Darius, who knows full well that the gangsters aren’t Chinese because they’ve said so, makes an offhand comment about Chinese people being short. Earn retorts, asking if he should look it up in “the racism book.”
Darius, who is permanently high on weed and full of nonsensical explanations for almost everything, insists on the stereotype of Chinese people because, he claims, Mongol leader Gengis Khan killed anybody “bigger than this wheel he had.” “Plus, Chinese people don’t like Black people anyway, look it up,” he added to Earn’s chagrin.
Darius’ casusal defense of this stereotype reminds us of a larger and enduring tension between some Black and Asian-American communities. Those tensions, famously manifested in the killing of Latasha Harlins by Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, publicly resurfaced in the conflict over Officer Peter Liang’s trial for killing Akai Gurley, a Black man fatally shot in a Brooklyn stairwell. That Darius distinguished the gangsters as not Chinese only adds to the absurdity of such an arbitrary distinction.
When Earn Drops Real Shit About Being Really, Really Broke
The aforementioned sword-for-pedigree-dog exchange begins when Darius took Earn to a pawn shop to trade in his newish smartphone for about $200 in cash. But Darius spies the sword, which is much more valuable, and convinces Earn to take it for resale. Darius flips the sword into the dog worth $2,000 to $4,000, without explaining to Earn that the White man who bought the dog would give them cash in a few months. Earn, not prone to outbursts, loses his cool. “I’m actually kind of fucked,” he says. “See, I’m poor, Darius, OK? And poor people don’t have time for investments, because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor, OK? I need to eat today, not in September!”
Earn’s predicament basically encapsulates what social scientists have tried for years to explain about the lives of under resourced people in America This is precisely why Earn is working to make his cousin famous: So they can get the kind of money that allows them to cultivate real, intergenerational wealth that racist public policy robs from so many people of color. As the show keeps exploring that premise, it will undoubtedly deliver more truths amidst all the laugh-out-loud absurdity that makes it so easy to watch.
What was your favorite poignant moment in “Atlanta?” Let us know in the comments.