Friday, August 31, 2018

Getting Out: The Dangerous Weirdness of Atlanta's Second Season

I wanted to write something about the first season of Atlanta, Donald Glover’s groundbreaking dramedy about a young black man trying to make it big by managing his cousin's rap career, but I couldn't figure out what. You know that feeling when something is brilliant, and rich, and clearly begging to be discussed, but you can't figure out your angle of entry? In particular, I wanted a conversation about the show's use of surreal and fantastical imagery. These ran the gamut from the numinous—Glover's Earn, at the end of a long day, being handed a Nutella sandwich by a stranger on the bus in the series’s premiere episode—to the sinister—Earn's girlfriend Van (Zazie Beets), having spent the day frantically trying to outsmart a mandatory drug screening and eventually maneuvering herself out of her job as a teacher, takes her final class, only to meet the level, mocking gaze of a student who has arrived in school in whiteface. Some were simply absurd, as in the split-second glimpse of an invisible car mowing down a pedestrian—an image that ended up feeling so emblematic of Atlanta's unique blend of social realism and inexplicable weirdness that it's brought back for a brief callback in the second season.

There are any number of reasons why Glover might have chosen to incorporate the fantastic into his show, but to me the most compelling argument for it has always been that it's something that stories about black people don't tend to do. There have always been stories in which black characters are plugged into a traditional form of magic like voodoo, or even an undefined hedge magic, as seen recently in Jessmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing. In the last few years, we've been seeing more black characters take center stage in the pulpy, fantastic genres, everything from Black Panther to Sleepy Hollow. But the type of weirdness that permeates Atlanta—the sense that the characters are walking on the skin of the world, and that just beneath it is a deep well of strangeness and wonder that humans are only dimly aware of—often seems off limits to black characters. Particularly ones, like the heroes of Atlanta, whose lives are hardscrabble.

In his use of rich symbolism and uninterpreted weirdness, Glover resembles no American artist more strongly than David Lynch, but it's notable that Lynch's most famous televised creation excluded people of color—and African-Americans in particular—almost entirely, and had nothing to say about America's fraught history with race. Atlanta's choice to incorporate Lynchian fantasy into its world feels like an assertion of its characters' humanity. In the midst of their hustle, they too get to look up and marvel at the world's strangeness, to feel the brush of an angel's wing, or the terror of an unfeeling Old One's gaze.

In its second season, Atlanta's use of the fantastic shifts, and it's perhaps for this reason that the show has come into focus for me, become easier to write about. The fantasy in Atlanta's second season becomes simultaneously narrower and broader. Narrower, because instead of a range of fantastic elements, the show focuses on the tropes of horror. Haunted houses, monsters out of German folklore, sinister fraternities, dark woods where knife-wielding strangers await, are littered throughout the season. Broader, because where the first season allowed the fantastic to pop up in and out of the characters' lives, in the second season the sense of horror seems to suffuse them. The entire neighborhood comes to feel like a house of horror where any wrong step can lead to calamity.

The use of the horror genre to convey the horror of being black in America got its widest-reaching expression in 2017, in Jordan Peele's Get Out. The influence of that movie is felt throughout the second season of Atlanta. Most critics have pointed to the obvious homage to Peele's movie in the season's standout episode, "Teddy Perkins", in which holy fool Darius (Lakeith Stanfield, who played a supporting role in Get Out) finds himself trapped in the palatial home of the title character, a Michael Jackson-esque recluse of indeterminate race (played by Glover under heavy makeup), who has been driven insane by his father's abuse and the fading of his musical career. But Get Out informs the entire season, not only in the constant eruption of horror into the characters' lives, but in the constant urging they receive—from one another, from background characters, and from the universe itself—to make their escape. This time, however, instead of a single house of horrors, the trap the characters must get out of is the more devilish one of being black and poor in America.

In the season premiere, "Alligator Man", Earn tells his uncle, an eccentric, troublesome man being kept on the kindness of the younger generation, that "What I'm scared of is being you. You know, someone everybody knew was smart but ended being a know-it-all fuck-up Jay that just lets shit happen to him". In the season finale, "Crabs in a Barrel", Earn and Van are advised by their toddler daughter's teacher that the advanced-for-her-age Lottie should be placed in a private preschool. When they demur at the cost, the grandmotherly teacher turns suddenly demonic, informing them that Lottie's current school "is awful" and that "if I see a steer smart enough to get out of the pen, I leave the gate open". Leaving the meeting, a stunned Van and Earn observe that their daughter's teacher has just compared her school to a slaughterhouse, but for the audience this might come as less of a surprise. We have spent the season watching our heroes strain against the limitations of their origin, and we know that it is closing in around them unless they can find a means of escape.

While Atlanta gestures at the traditional means of "getting out"—working hard at school, going to college, getting a good job—it also expresses a great deal of doubt towards them. This is the path that Earn initially took, in his career at Princeton whose failure the show has yet to elaborate on (though his dark comment to Van, that at the school they've been advised to send Lottie to she would probably be the only black student, suggests some possibilities). In the episode "Money Bag Shawty", Earn, flush with cash, finds that he can't spend it. His hundred dollar bills are dismissed as fakes. Merchants and proprietors feel free to ignore or belittle him. To escape the trap of being lower-class black, Earn learns, it’s not enough to have money in his pocket. He has to be the right kind of black person, one whose fame has eclipsed his origins—like Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), the rapper to whose star Earn has hitched his wagon.

All of Atlanta's characters spend the second season in a keen awareness of living in a society that values black culture, but not black people. The only real path to "getting out" is to become the special black person whom white society finds interesting—a rapper, an entertainer, the writer of a prestige TV series. Glover has expressed his ambivalence about filling this sort of role in the music video "This is America", released shortly before the season's end, in which his character dances and distracts a troupe of black children while, in the background, black people are killed by police or commit suicide. (The video was directed by Hiro Murai, who has also directed most of Atlanta's episodes.) A crucial difference between Get Out and Glover's work in both Atlanta and "This is America" is that in the show and music video, black people who become commodified by white audiences are not necessarily consumed. They can benefit from the exchange, albeit at great psychological and moral cost.

Most of the characters in Atlanta aren't at that stage yet (though Alfred, who is repeatedly thrown by the way that his fame changes the way people treat him, making him simultaneously larger-than-life and dehumanized, comes close). They're still trying to find a way to stand out from the pack. In the episode "Champagne Papi", Van and her friends attend a New Year's Eve party at Drake's mansion, where Van hopes to snap a picture with the rapper in order to prove to Earn, whom she has recently broken up with, that she's doing fine without him. What she eventually discovers is that Drake isn't even in the country, but that some enterprising women have set up a cardboard cutout and are charging $20 to take pictures with it, promising Van hundreds of new Instagram followers in exchange. A successful outcome of that path is Alfred's sometimes-girlfriend Ciara (Angela Wildflower), who has some vaguely defined lifestyle brand which she hopes to buttress by taking her relationship with him public, to his great chagrin.

Atlanta is relentless in drumming in the very real advantages of becoming a "special" black person. In the episode "North of the Border", Alfred and his entourage perform at an all-night concert organized by the black students of a nearby college. When an altercation with some of the students forces our heroes to make a hasty getaway, they end up at the door of a white fraternity whose members are so divorced from black life that they didn't even know the concert was happening, but who nevertheless recognize Alfred as the rapper Paperboi, and invite him inside.

Sitting in a gun-lined den under a gigantic Confederate flag, Alfred and Earn are treated to a multi-layered demonstration of how fame (or its proximity) has allowed them to temporarily opt out of blackness, as the frat brother hosting them gushes over his favorite rappers, and compels a row of pledges (stripped naked and wearing hoods, an image that seems designed to recall slavery despite the men's whiteness) to dance to D4L's "Laffy Taffy". It seems obvious that none of our heroes would be safe in this house if it weren't for Alfred's status as the special black man—getting out in one way has obviated the need to get out in another.

Subtitled "Robbin' Season", the second season takes place late in the year, a time when the looming holidays and the grind of poverty inspire people to take what they want. And there are, indeed, multiple acts of robbery and larceny over the course of the season, from the humorous—Alfred's friend Tracy (Khris Davis) carrying several boxes of shoes out of a store where he knows there is a "no chase policy"—to the terrifying—a trio of young fans jumping Alfred on a deserted road, forcing him to struggle for a gun and run for his life. But a more shocking, more terrible sort of violence lurks beneath the surface, the violence demanded of anyone who wants to get out. As Matt Zoller Seitz observes in his keen analysis of "Teddy Perkins", Teddy's father, and his obvious model, Joe Jackson, may have been monsters, but they were also black men who wanted their children to succeed in a world that did not value them. Where does the line lie between being an abusive parent and preparing your child for an abusive world? And what do you need to sacrifice if you want to get out of the trap of being black in America?

The season's penultimate episode, "FUBU", flashes back to Earn and Alfred's childhood, when Earn happily wears a knockoff shirt to school, only to be accused of poverty by a boy whose father bought him the real thing. For the rest of the day, Earn's social circle obsesses over which shirt is fake. Just as he's about to be exposed, Alfred comes to Earn's rescue, insisting that the knockoff belongs to the other boy—who then goes home and commits suicide. It's a rather abrupt turn in the story, almost After-School Special-like, if it weren't for the follow-up. Earn and Alfred's reaction isn’t to repent and promise to do better. It's obvious to both of them that the cost, in social currency and physical safety, of being seen as a poor pretender would have been insurmountable. The situation was kill or be killed, and the lesson learned isn't a moral one about treating others with compassion, but the survival of the fittest.

The question before all the show's characters is how much of themselves they are willing to change or sacrifice in order to survive and thrive, and it comes in various guises. For Van, there have been multiple offramps from her dead-end life that always seem to come at too high a cost. In first season episodes like "Value" and "Juneteenth", she is urged by more successful black women to follow their example towards an excellent life, but demurs, seemingly out of the sense that the path they offer would require giving up too much of herself. That dilemma is crystalized in the second season episode "Helen", in which Van and Earn travel to the titular town for a celebration of Van's (white) German heritage. It's a setting where black people are such a curiosity that a fellow reveler, mistaking Earn for a Zwarte Piet cosplayer, tries to rub the black off his face. But Van herself is perfectly comfortable—at least until that comfort is pointed out. When a friend who is also biracial observes to her that "I chose white; you chose black", Van is incensed, but can't put into words why the implication that she has chosen her current life situation is offensive. Van remains Atlanta's least-developed main character, but here at least there is a sense that her vagueness is rooted in a character trait, not a lack of attention by the writers.

Darius, meanwhile, has always been the character most able to seemingly opt out of the implications of his identity. He's clearly aware of race and how it impacts him, but his reactions to it take the form of trolling. In the first season, he takes a shooting target with the image of a dog to a range frequented by white customers, waits for the inevitable outrage, and offers the obvious retort. In the cold open of "Teddy Perkins", he spots a baseball cap with a Confederate flag and the legend "Southern Made", and defaces it so that it reads "U Mad". This makes it an interesting choice to put Darius, not Earn or Alfred, at the center of "Teddy Perkins", and indeed, his response to the horror he discovers in Teddy's house is compassion, and a call to recognize the full humanity of others. Of the four main characters, Darius is the one who isn't interested in changing or escaping—not least because his puckish nature seems to keep him comfortable and safe, always able to find a way around the restrictions that seem to hem his friends in.

But the season belongs to Earn, Alfred, and the conflict between them. Throughout the season, Earn keeps falling short of the manager Alfred wants him to be, either because of his tendency to get in his own way with sarcasm and self-importance, or because he doesn't have the connections or the ability to open doors that white people in the business do. Other black people on their way up keep marveling to Alfred that he isn't getting the opportunities he should, the free swag he should, and while he demurs, it's clear that this troubles him. In the episode "Woods", Alfred undergoes his own horror story when he becomes lost in the woods and is accosted by a transient, who may be a manifestation of his own fear of being left behind. It's why, in "North of the Border", after another one of Earn’s fuck-ups, Alfred reminds him that "Money is important. I see exactly what's happening out here. It's getting colder, it's getting harder to eat. … I gotta make my next moves my best moves". The two cousins seems on the verge of a parting of the ways.

It’s clearly significant that "North of the Border" and "Crabs in a Barrel" are separated by the sudden flashback of "FUBU", with its cruel, law of the jungle message. It's now up to Earn to prove that he's willing to do what it takes to get out. Before that, he's reminded of the limitations that hem him in. When a young Hasidic man offers to put him in touch with his uncle, an entertainment lawyer, Earn asks whether there is a black lawyer who can offer the same level of service. After a moment's hesitation, the man admits that while skill-wise, there definitely is, no black lawyer has the requisite connections and contacts, reminding Earn that he will always be operating at a disadvantage. The crisis point comes when, just as he's about to go through the metal detector at the airport to accompany Alfred on a European tour, Earn realizes that the gun given to him by his uncle in "Alligator Man" is still in his backpack.

In the next scene, we see Earn, Alfred, and Darius getting their bags after the security check, just as a hubbub begins when the gun is discovered in someone else's bag. Alfred, who observes the switch, decides to keep Earn on, because his willingness to push someone else down in order to achieve his own escape demonstrates the zeal Alfred has been waiting to see. Even in this moment of triumph, however, there is a reminder of Earn's limitations. After Alfred's competitor, the rapper Clark County (RJ Walker) tells the cousins about the gun discovered in his manager's bag, Earn reveals that he actually put the gun in Clark's backpack. But Clark's manager is white, and he can therefore do things for his client—like take the fall for a serious crime—that Earn, with his criminal record and lack of privilege, could never do.

In the season's final scene, Alfred and Earn sit on the plane, shell-shocked by the crimes and sacrifices that were necessary to get them there. Glover has spoken about the prevalence of marijuana use on the show, and suggested that most of his characters are self-medicating for PTSD, from years of having to observe and do the unspeakable (a similar suggestion appears in "This is America"). This shared trauma is the only balm Atlanta is willing to offer for the experience of living in its house of horrors. As Alfred tells Earn, "You the only one that knows what I'm about. You give a fuck. I need that". This is the answer that Robbin' Season offers to the horror story it turns out to have been telling. Yes, you will have to sell yourself, turn yourself into a commodity, and ignore every ounce of human decency to get out of the condition of dehumanization you've been born into. But if you're lucky, you'll be able to keep the people who truly know you along for the ride.


Jack Rodgers said...

Outstanding work as usual. Some thoughts I had:

1. I'm curious what exactly is the timeframe that this season is taking place over. I know the promotional materials say that it's set over course of a few weeks during the run-up to Christmas, but it feels like it's taking place over a much longer span of time (episode 7 out of 11, for instance, is set during New Year's Eve). At first I was thinking that maybe it's a sly joke: that Robbin' Season is really year round, that it represents a permanent mentality rather than a specific time of desperation.

But there are also clues that some of the chronology here is wonky. The biggest one is that in episode 4, "Helen," it's stated that Van has been a stay-at-home mom supported by Earn for some time now, and that she hasn't had a job since she was fired as a teacher back in season 1. But Earn starts off the season broke and homeless, and his windfall only arrives in episode 3 after he and Alfred start getting checks from the music-streaming company. So either Earn has been supporting Van for just a few weeks or there's a big time jump in there that's unaccounted for. (Obviously this is just nitpicking and doesn't affect my enjoyment of the season at all, I'm just curious if anyone else noticed this.)

2. Interestingly, you note in your review that the final scene of the season is Earn and Alfred talking on the plane. But that's not the final scene -- it's the second to last. The real final scene is Tracy coming back to Alfred's home with a date and demanding to be let in -- not even realizing that everyone else is off to Europe.

Tracy is a fascinating character within the context of Atlanta. He's a collection of negative stereotypes of African-American men: he's brash and obnoxious, untrustworthy, prone to stealing and dumb acts of aggression, unable to mimic "white" speech (as shown when he asks Earn for help on presenting himself the right way to white people before his job interview), and was recently released from jail. Tracy slowly becomes Earn's bête noir over the course of the season, and I think part of the reason why Earn hates Tracy so much is because he fears that society at large doesn't see a huge difference between the two of them. One of the themes of Atlanta is that black men must prove themselves to be extraordinary or else they're seen as disposable, and Earn, who starts the season on parole for the most minor of drug offenses, knows he must achieve real material success or be viewed as almost indistinguishable from someone like Tracy in the eyes of society's white elites.

That's why the final image of the season -- Tracy pounding on the door of an empty home, demanding to be let in -- feels so powerful to me. It's an image that represents total defeat (for Tracy) and total victory (for Earn), and that clearly elucidates the ruthless, dog-eat-dog world that the show is committed to describing. Earn, Alfred, and Darius don't just choose to leave Tracy behind; they don't even bother to let him know that he *is* being left behind. And for Earn, this represents not just a victory over his rival, but a sign that he's finally gotten smarter about learning to pick his battles. Earn ends the episode having proven that he has the ruthlessness to be one of life's winners. But I think the season concludes with Tracy in order to remind us that Earn's (tentative) success is an anomaly and that there are more and more people out there like Tracy who are fated to be late capitalism's losers: no job prospects, no home, and no true friends. It's a cold world out there.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Earn starts off the season broke and homeless, and his windfall only arrives in episode 3 after he and Alfred start getting checks from the music-streaming company.

In general, the show is pretty vague about the progression of Alfred's career and how much money he (and thus Earn) are making. But Earn living in a storage unit (from which he's kicked out of in episode 1) is a direct continuation of the S1 finale, where he did have some money to give to Van. It's possible that he's sending most of his earnings her way, especially if he's now the only person paying the rent and Lottie's school fees.

I think part of the reason why Earn hates Tracy so much is because he fears that society at large doesn't see a huge difference between the two of them.

I would complicate that a little: yes, in a lot of ways, society doesn't see a difference between Earn and Tracy, but at the same time, Tracy has ways of taking advantage of that fact that Earn doesn't. Because of his size and demeanor, he can play the thug in a way that Earn can't. I don't think Earn would have been able to pull off the "no chase policy" heist the way Tracy did, for example. If Earn wants to be tough, it has to be on a deeper, and ultimately much more ruthless, level than Tracy. Which is why, as you say, Tracy ends up getting left behind.

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