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ATLANTA: The Existential Quest of Life

Recent Princeton dropout Earnest “Earn” Marks (Emmy-winning creator/showrunner/star Donald Glover) is on a journey of self-discovery. But he’s flat broke and his parents have not only cut him off, they also refuse to allow him into their house because, as his dad tells him, “I can’t afford it.” So Earn meanders from place to place, struggling to make a living while balancing nascent paternity; negotiating a complicated on-again/off-again relationship with his ex-girlfriend/baby momma Vanessa “Van” (Zazie Beetz); clinging to a soul-sucking part-time job at the airport; and staking everything on the success of his cousin Alfred Marks’ (Brian Tyree Henry) budding music career as the rapper Paper Boi. But reality conspires against Earn at virtually every turn. The guy’s not exactly jinxed, but Murphy’s Law is kicking his ass.

Nevertheless, we root for Earn because he’s a well-intentioned, technically homeless underdog. And we laugh at his smart quips and antics in the situations he finds himself, with the same mixture of befuddlement as Earn himself. Glover’s face rarely expresses consternation or outrage, but more likely conveys, “Can you believe this shit?” It’s a half-hour dramedy version of the blockbuster horror movie Get Out. Atlanta’s Season 1, Episode 9, “Juneteenth,” could be right out of the first third of the movie, before everything turns gruesome. Both filmmaker Jordan Peele and Donald Glover are making a similar point, using humor in different ways. The movie veers into horror movie tropes (albeit crowd-pleasing ones), while Atlanta toes the line between situation comedy, shrewd satire and magic realism.

In the superb pilot episode directed by Hiro Murai, Earn is riding the bus home with his little girl in tow. It’s the end of another rollercoaster day, Earn is just beat, and he muses aloud if some people are just meant to be losers to make the winners in life feel better. Enter a mysterious Stranger in a suit and bow tie who resembles both Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. In the pilot script—which differs from the produced pilot—this Stranger is named Chris Bosh Man. (He’ll reappear in an infomercial in a later surreal/satirical episode entitled “B.A.N.”) But in the pilot, this Stranger’s sage advice functions as a human life preserver to the drowning Earn. In the script, they meet in a park. In the produced episode, it’s on the bus:

Chris Bosh Man is making a Nutella sandwich on his lap. It’s messy.

I think I’m a loser. I think I’m just supposed to lose. It’s in front of me and I can see it, but I just...I’m not supposed to have it. I can’t even be a good father.

    (looking out)
Resistance is a symptom of the way things are. Not the way things necessarily should be. Actual victory belongs to people who simply do not accept failure. You’ve accepted your losses. That’s why you feel like you’ve failed.

A moment. Then, slowly, the man brings the sandwich to his mouth and bites into it. Creepy.

Who are you?

Chris Bosh Man chuckles.

In the script, that’s the end of the scene. In the produced pilot, loud sirens and flashing red lights disrupt their encounter. Earn turns to see what’s happening, and when he turns back around, the Stranger has vanished. Earn is spooked and looks outside to see this mysterious man crossing the road and disappearing into the bushes. This might have just been a random, imaginary incident, except the Stranger passes by the same dog we—and Earn’s new friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield)—had spotted in the incendiary teaser. The teaser (also not in the pilot script) features Paper Boi’s confrontation with a vandal/pimp/thug in a parking lot; Paper Boi pulls out his gun. The thug indicates his own gun. Then we go to an aerial shot and hear a single gunshot. We’ll later learn that Paper Boi shot the thug (in self defense?), and this crime looms over Paper Boi, Earn and Darius for the whole first season. But the reappearance of that stray dog lifts the scene on the bus with the Stranger into magic realism. Sure, this could be a coincidence, Divine Guidance or synchronicity. Like the most effective magic realism, it provokes us to question the nature of reality but provides no definitive answers—which perfectly parallels Earn’s existential quest.

By layering in touches of magic realism in this and subsequent episodes, Glover shows us how belief and perception can baffle, awe, inspire and sustain us through life’s biggest challenges. Maybe my life sucks, or maybe there’s more to life than meets the eye and we’re just supposed to laugh and wonder at the ridiculous absurdity of it all? Donald Glover doesn’t hedge when he writes about racial inequality, police brutality and why Black Lives Matter. Sure, life isn’t fair, but the deck is undeniably stacked against the African-American community. 

In the anomalous episode “B.A.N.” which stands for the fictitious Black American Network, writer/director Glover satirizes and lampoons BET (the real Black Entertainment Network) via a nighttime talk show called “Montague,” featuring Alano Miller as Franklin Montague, the erudite host. In this surreal episode, Paper Boi, who’s in the spotlight for saying he would never want to have sex with Caitlyn Jenner, is a guest on the talk show to discuss “toxic masculinity and transphobia in hip hop,” along with Dr. Deborah Holt (Mary Kraft), a humorless scholar. There’s also a pre-taped segment on the talk show about a black man who identifies as a white male, if only he wasn’t trapped in a black man’s body. (It later turns out that Dr. Holt agrees with almost all of Paper Boi’s views.)  

But this faux talk show is punctuated by fake commercials that speak to the black experience—and these ads are laugh-out-loud funny, but also sting like a motherfucker. One of the commercials is animated for a kids’ cereal much like Trix, but instead of a Silly Rabbit, we get a wily coyote who tries to steal the black kids’ cereal and is arrested by a brutal, fat Caucasian cop. The cop beats the cartoon coyote, cuffs him and crushes the cereal mascot’s windpipe with his boot. It’s a shocking, disturbing display that mirrors real life, and even more than the faux talk show, this ad makes Glover’s point.  

The “B.A.N.” isn’t technically magic realism, but it feels magical by essentially interrupting our regular programming (i.e. a more conventional episode) with an episode set in some kind of trenchant alternate reality. If you’re binge-viewing Atlanta, this episode exists in its own universe, and Glover blurs the line between real commercials for this episode, and the fake ones. The ads for Mickey’s beer and Dodge Charger look and feel much more authentic. And then there’s an infomercial featuring the same Nutella Sandwich Man from the bus in the pilot, but this time as a Miss Cleo-esque tele-psychic. To me, the “B.A.N.” episode is a dark and surreal magic interlude; it takes reality and twists it into satire. It’s genius writing.

In the surrealistic Episode 5, “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” Paper Boi finds himself in a rivalry against Justin Bieber—who happens to be black in the Atlanta ethos. But nobody comments on this altered reality. It just is. And the color of the guy’s skin turns out to be beside the point; it’s not his blackness that makes Black Bieber famous, it’s his mainstream pop sensibility and inherent charm. A pretty reporter tries to calm Paper Boi’s outrage at this daring punk’s popularity, by counseling Paper Boi to embrace his bad boy rapper role and let the Biebs be; “there’s no use in trying to be something you’re not” is one of the overarching themes of the series. The story smartly doesn’t overuse magic realism, for reliance on it would become a device or a formula, and the brilliance of Atlanta is that each episode feels completely unique, including its shift in POV from Earn to Van in the episode “Value,” as well as that B.A.N. episode which focuses on Paper Boi and the satirical talk show.

There’s also a surreal sequence involving an invisible car that runs down patrons outside a club called Primal. Earn, Paper Boi and Darius all witness the carnage, but later the TV news reports it as a “nightclub shooting,” with rapper Paper Boi wanted by the police for questioning on an armed robbery (which really did occur) at the club. So it’s guns, not an invisible car after all. The guys are too drunk and stoned to remember how it really went down, but we witnessed their POV, too. Once again, we’re asked to question the nature of reality, but there also exists a more grounded explanation.

In “Value,” we’re introduced to the elementary school where Van teaches, which happens to be the same day she flunks her mandated drug test (having smoked weed the night before). We know Van’s not a pothead (unlike Earn) and it was an isolated event. The Principal (Milli M.) explains that it’s not the weed in her bloodstream that’s cause for termination; they don’t even test for marijuana. What gets Van fired is her pre-test-results confession that she got high last night. Van had planned to use her daughter’s urine to pass the test, but then the condom she used to hold the clean urine burst and splashed all over her, in a series of humiliations that befall Van in this episode. (Usually Earn is the unlucky dupe.)

The Principal allows Van to continue on the job until they can replace her, and Van goes to her classroom where she encounters a black student who’s come to school in white face, like a mime. The other teachers are at a loss and don’t know how to handle the situation, but Van’s got bigger problems, like making the rent and providing for her little girl. The white-faced kid raises his eyebrows flirtatiously at Van, as if to say, “Everything would be easier if we were white.” The moment speaks volumes without a word.

Episode Cited:

“The Big Bang,” Atlanta, written by Donald Glover; RBA/343 Incorporated/MGMT Entertainment/FXP.

Neil Landau's writing credits include "Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead," "Melrose Place," "The Magnificent Seven," "Doogie Howser, M.D.," "MTV’s Undressed," and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Freeform, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Fremantle. He has served as Executive Script Consultant for Sony Pictures Television and Columbia Pictures. Among his animated films are "Tad: The Lost Explorer" (winner of the Spanish Academy "Goya" Award for Best Adapted Screenplay), "Tad Jones and the Secret of King Midas" (winner of the Goya for Best Animated Feature for...
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