I have only seen the first three episodes of Atlanta, created by and starring Donald Glover. The show has already told me what I need to know about it, in no uncertain terms. First of all, this show was not made with me in mind. It doesn’t need me to feel included. It isn’t trying to teach me anything. It is invested in its own physical environment, and in the very specific circumstances (specific but, to a lot of people, highly relatable) of being a young black man in Atlanta trying to make a career for himself in the rap scene. It has nothing to do with me, and it doesn’t care. I’m in.
I wrote a few weeks ago about Nick Kroll’s Big Mouth, and about how I ended up appreciating the show’s inclusivity, I could not have bought into that show the way I did if it hadn’t demonstrated that its writers and creators had taken the time to think seriously about what kind of stories its audience wanted it to tell. That show, I argue, needed to make a demonstrable effort to include everybody. The whole premise of Big Mouth centers on the painful, awkward loneliness of puberty and how universal that experience really is, contrary to how it feels when you’re living through it. It had an obligation to include us all.
There is one white person in the series premiere of Atlanta, Dave (Griffin Freeman), and he is a completely oblivious sycophant who tries to win the approval of Earn (Donald Glover’s character) with a story about how he proudly wielded the n-word to chide a deejay for playing Flo Rida back-to-back at a party. Earn is visibly uncomfortable. “You really said that?” he asks. “Yeah man, I had to!” the guy replies. What else is there to say? “Cool.” replies Earn. Moving on.
It is not Earn’s job to teach this dude that he can’t say the n-word. Why waste his breath? If the guy would not only use the word in public, speaking to a black person, but then also tell Earn, proudly and without a hint of irony, that he did so, then what’s the use? Just like that, the show moves on. It made its point, and it has no more time to waste on people like some white guy who is apparently too cool for Flo Rida.
I respect Atlanta for not feeling responsible for this guy’s redemption - this kind of cold stare at white obliviousness is also what endeared me to HBO’s Insecure, another show that for the most part didn’t feel the need to speak to me or cater to me. I wanted to hear what it had to say, and I am similarly there for Atlanta. Insecure, if anything, was at times even too charitable towards the oblivious white characters whose concern above all is to make it clear that they are good, non-racist people; its main character, Issa (Issa Rae) rarely confronts them unless it’s in her own imagination. Atlanta, on the other hand, is going to get its revenge on White Dave. Towards the end of the episode, Earn runs into him once more, and this time he’s riding with his cousin Alfred, also known as the up-and-coming rapper named Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Paper Boi’s right-hand man. Earn, without a trace of mirth in his voice, prods Dave to “tell that Flo Rida story, it’s so funny!” Now Dave is the one who is visibly uncomfortable. He obliges, reluctantly, and this time his rebuke to the DJ is just a limp “Really?” The fact that he knows better than to include the n-word in present company suggests that maybe he has learned something of a lesson, but Earn certainly didn’t feel the need to be benevolent in teaching it to him. And, just for one last laugh in Dave’s face, Paper Boi responds with, “I don't know, man, I like Flo Rida.” The burn is complete. Dave shamefully backpedals. “Yeah, I mean, that was a wack-ass story, man, I don't know why he made me tell that.” No, Dave, I think you know exactly why he made you tell that. But this isn’t about you.
I remember tuning in for the first two episodes of ABC’s Black-ish and then tuning out for several reasons, some of which had little to do with the show itself. First, I was slowly losing interest in most network sitcoms about cute families - I had tried and failed a few times by then to get into Modern Family despite all the accolades it was receiving. Furthermore, Anthony Anderson had been fairly well etched into my brain as the terrifying Antwon Mitchell of The Shield, and it was hard to see him as anyone else, let alone a warm and fuzzy dad-figure struggling to have The Talk with his son (similarly, I can’t ever watch Michael Chiklis as anyone but Vic Mackey). None of this was Black-ish’s fault, but what cemented its fate, at least for me, was how hard it had to try to please a white audience in order to stay on the air. As AV Club reviewer Pilot Viruet wrote about its second episode, “The biggest concern after Black-ish’s very good and unique premiere was whether the show would maintain its dedication to intelligently remarking on cultural diversity while putting race at the foreground or … instead fall into the trap of becoming nothing more than a simplistic family sitcom (albeit one that makes the stray reference to a prominent aspect of black culture).” If you’re thinking yikes, that is a tall order, you are correct! Black-ish has been recognized many times now for its excellent writing, acting, and cultural commentary, and in all fairness I should absolutely watch more than two episodes of any show before having an opinion on it. I think that in comparison to my first-two-episodes experience of Atlanta, though, the observation is meaningful. Because of its network status, Black-ish serves multiple masters, and it has to on some level invite white people in and include them. That’s not a bad thing at all, and if anything, the show has earned its praise by staying relevant and observant and edgy while still walking that line. The thing about Black-ish, though, is that it can’t embarrass Dave in a parking lot and then just leave him there. It can’t be unabashedly scornful of oblivious whiteness - while pointing it out in some instances, the show remains fundamentally optimistic about the ability of white people to learn something from it.
Atlanta will give us another white person in Episode Three, a bubbly waitress at a fancy restaurant who drives Earn crazy by encouraging his girlfriend Vanessa to order all the most expensive things on the menu. He’ll ultimately find a way to be pretty harsh with her, too, and we’ll end up feeling unsure as to how much she deserved it. But that will be it, because the show doesn’t really care about her fragility. Maybe it’s too simplistic to say that this is a show that Trump’s America made, while Black-ish’s hopefulness is much more of the Obama years. Maybe it’s especially too simplistic to make such an observation about two shows of which I have seen, respectively, two and three episodes total. Fair! All this is to say that as long as Atlanta continues to fundamentally ignore me and do its thing, I’m here to watch.