I finally binge-watched the first season of Atlanta this past weekend for the same reason most folks do most things: to talk to a pretty person about it. I met my brother’s best friend’s sister for coffee recently. She was gorgeous and tall, and I mentioned that I was reading Donald Glover’s New Yorker interview. She told me that she loved Atlanta, and asked me if I’d seen the latest episode. No, I said, but I’ll watch it and let you know what I think. I started watching the series the next day.
The Streisand Effect
In the time between the premiere of Atlanta and my binge session, a lot has happened. The show won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series. The second season has premiered to universal acclaim again. In the broader entertainment zeitgeist, Black Panther has made over a billion dollars, Sterling K. Brown won a Golden Globe for This is Us, Ava DuVernay directed a $100 million movie, Lena Waithe won an Emmy for best comedy writing for Master of None. All good things, right? But it’s 2018. Two Thousand Fucking Eighteen. We’re talking about firsts for honors which have been awarded annually for decades.
That same thread of pessimism is woven throughout Glover’s New Yorker interview. It’s an exploration of a psyche ground down by racism in spite of his apparent success. He describes the hoops that he had to jump through to get his show made, and then the compromises he had to make during its production. Even with Glover’s clear level of talent, he still has to please white people.
Take the episode “The Streisand Effect.” Earn and Darius have a conversation towards the end of the episode about the money Earn thought he would be earning. After learning that he wouldn’t be paid until September, Earn says:
“See, I’m poor Darius. Okay? And poor people don’t have time for investments because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor, okay? I need to eat today, not in September.”
Earn is obviously not talking to Darius in that scene, because Darius knows what it’s like to be in that situation. That’s why he responds with,
“Right, I asked you in the pawn shop, if you needed the money, take the money.”
Earn is not talking to his Black audience either, which can relate to Earn’s situation either through firsthand experience or knowing someone in that predicament right now. That scene is Donald Glover talking to his white audience, trying to make sure their dumbasses know what’s going on and why Earn is upset.
The Lando Situation
Success also brings a new kind of white person to deal with — the self-effacing liberal who knows all of the talking points of liberation, yet is still there to make sure that even if you somehow overcome hundreds of years of shit being shoveled at you, you don’t get too uppity. You don’t fly too high. That you still know which side your bread is buttered on. Lena Duhnam, Chevy Chase, the executives at FX — perpetrators of a crime which we’ve all experienced. Glover says:
“The system is set up so only white people can change things… If I gave a dog an iPhone, it couldn’t use it, because a dog doesn’t have an opposable thumb — that’s true of everything made for white people. I can say there’s a problem, you can all laugh at it, but it has to be a group of you guys who change it, because it was made by and for you.”
The tragedy is that Donald Glover is infinitely (and I mean that literally, as in “limitless or endless in space, extent, or size; impossible to measure or calculate”) more talented than Alden Ehrenreich, yet he’s not getting top billing in the Han Solo movie. The tragedy is that the movie is about Han Solo at all; there’s a far better story waiting to be told about Lando Calrissian and how he transitioned from a scoundrel to the respected leader of an entire city. But that movie will never get made, because it’s still more likely that a green puppet monster will get a star vehicle than a Black character.
The tragedy is that things are better, but they still aren’t good. In his review of “The Jacket,” the A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston wrote of the final scene,
“After a season of couch surfing, Earn is finally ready to stand on his own two feet… As great as that moment is, it feels like the conclusion of a throughline we haven’t seen most of. Earn began the season in dire straits without reliable income or a passion in life. The shot of him looking perfectly content in his dank storage space is a lovely symbol of how far he’s come. But it’s the neat bow wrapped around a season that has repeatedly told me not to expect neat bows.”
After reading Glover’s interview, I think this interpretation is plausible but ultimately incorrect. The throughline is not about Earn’s maturation, which would conclude with him sleeping alone in his storage unit as a metaphor for him standing on his own two feet. The throughline is the utter hopelessness of his life. There is no practical difference between Earn sleeping at Van’s house or Alfred’s house or in his storage unit. It’s all equally as fucked up, and after ten episodes’ worth of schemes and plans and zaniness, nothing has changed for the better for his friends either. In fact everything is objectively worse: Alfred is under investigation for two crimes, Van is unemployed, and Darius is still Darius. The ray of sunshine, Alfred tossing Earn a roll of money, doesn’t materially change their circumstances. It just makes survival possible for a few more days.
The Fate of Black People?
That’s the reality of life at every level for Black people. If Shonda Rhimes were white, she wouldn’t just be the queen of ABC’s Thursday night, she’d be the queen of ABC period. Black athletes can make millions of dollars slamming their heads against each other, but they’re barely allowed to coach themselves, much less own the teams they play for. Whatever level of achievement or success we obtain is constrained by our race, such as President Barack Obama releasing his birth certificate. The throughline is no matter how great or how stupid you are, you’re still Black, and that’s still less.
Donald Glover may or may not be a genius, but the point is that he feels like he is one, and the walls built around his life (and by extension all our lives) give, but don’t break. Read the interview, then watch the first season. Atlanta is a sad show, not because Earn and his friends can’t get their shit together, but because even if they do, it will still be within the four walls of what they’re allowed to have as Black people.
The title of this essay comes from Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. Brutus and Cassius are discussing how Caesar must be stopped. A larger excerpt from that scene reads,
“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
The quote is often shortened to, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Taken this way, it’s used to explain that fate and destiny do not determine our mistakes, but that our errors are our own. The full quote though is saying something much different – that for Brutus and Cassius, the fault is found in them for being underlings, that their station in life is both cause and justification. I thought about that passage as I read Glover’s answer to the question of whether he looks up to anyone. “I don’t see anyone out there who’s better,” Glover replied. He’s right, yet he must still continue to look up. That’s the saddest thing of all.
Oh yeah, the pretty woman I watched Atlanta for? Turns out she has a boyfriend.