With only the season finale left to air this coming Tuesday and a very full season to look back on, this is a late (but not too late) review of Season One of Atlanta, Donald Glover’s new FX series.
“Atlanta” doesn’t progress chronologically so much as sideways, exploring tangential aspects to Earnest’s (Donald Glover) work managing his cousin Alfred, stage name Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry), rap career and his life. Earn’s strained relationship with his daughter’s mother, Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), risks any pretense of civility in “Juneteenth” when Van ropes Earn along to a wealth-encrusted Juneteenth Party. As a quick note: to all other white readers, Juneteenth or Juneteenth Independence Day commemorates June 19th, 1865 when African-American slaves were emancipated throughout the Confederate South and Texas. Of course, there’s a holiday for that, why wouldn’t there be, why did I never think of that; oh wait because for all my life I’ve had the privilege of never having to consider slavery outside the classroom. Okay great, I’m a little embarrassed and we’re all on the same page.
Earn is at his most uncomfortable, unlikeable and withdrawn in this ninth episode. He wakes up late from a one night stand and can barely string words together in front of his hook-up. He’s running late for Van to pick him up, so she sees the pants-less woman that bids him goodbye. Once in Van’s car, he’s childish, non-verbally bickering by pushing the window down while she wants the window up. For all the plots hinged on predictable frustrations in “Atlanta” and the weariness of being a straight man in a ridiculous world, the reveal of Earn as less reasonable than he pretends to be is always rewarding. Glover’s performance as blatantly sullen blurs with his snarky effort to pretend to have fun at Van’s insistence; it’s difficult for other characters to tell whether he’s kidding or outright mad. Well, until he’s actually outright mad. Then it’s pretty clear. When asked what he does by a group of society women, Earn’s monologue on why he does nothing compared to all that Van accomplishes, rings true. The words are so self-deprecating and cloying, the cheek kiss that finishes it all off is so practiced that the speech is clearly mean-spirited, but there’s also a genuine awe obviously hidden somewhere behind all that spite. While Earn and Van explore the ambitions and hypocrisy of Atlanta’s upper-crust, Earn never embarrasses Van, even when inebriated, in front of others. He saves those interactions for just the two of them. “Juneteenth” is so cringe-worthy, it makes their relationship seem salvageable.
The sight of white people in “Atlanta” is always jarring, like a cop car that happens to be alongside your car at an intersection. In nearly every episode, the appearance of one is so rare that a spotting means something is wrong or just about to be. So it is with the human joke of “Juneteenth”, the husband of Van’s friend Monique (Cassandra Freeman) and light-skinned co-host of the party, Craig (Rick Holmes) an optometrist with a fascination for African culture. His obsession with “the Motherland” would be equally uncomfortable and just as fitting if it was a love for all things Eastern, with an accompanying samurai sword collection. When he gathers the entire party (generally African-American) to hear his slam poem, he talks about how haunted he is by Jim Crow and that “I don’t want to be in an electrical appliance”. It’s such an absurd line devoid of any cultural significance or use towards social justice that it’s wonderfully deluded. The flimsy and elaborate handshake Craig forces on Earn upon meeting him is so half-assed, it couldn’t be rehearsed; Rick Holmes’ physical commitment to a lack of self-awareness speaks louder than his lines. For all Craig’s one-liners or his strange painting of a Black man assaulting a Bald Eagle, his smallest and saddest moment is when Craig tells Earn “I would love any honest criticism”, in reference to his slam poem.“Atlanta” tends towards the slow and realistic approach of evaluating the many effects an attitude or action has and the fetishization of African American culture as decor or the replacement for a personality is absolutely as unsettling as old-fashioned hatred. But Craig is a comedic beacon in the episode, at least in a social context, and his fetishization of African Americans is outweighed by his lack of self-awareness. The sadness of his character doesn’t arise from how well he gets by in social situations, but in the context of his own life. Of course, Craig doesn’t know he’s a walking joke. His good intentions are entirely too much, but his African-American wife will genetically never be responsible for his blunders, so as an opportunist, she has no reason to correct him. He has no idea that for every situation he curates, he is the fool. It can be agreed upon that all the pitfalls of the Black experience in America is ineffable to Whites; Craig is the embodiment of a shortcut where that history can be attainable to whites by admitting they can’t imagine, like the self-awareness to know you can’t understand is the same as knowing. He’s a sad, rich paradox.
Amidst Glover’s small writers’ room, a few names pop out: Donald’s, his younger brother Stephen and now screenwriter Stefani Robinson, the force behind two of the season’s nine episodes. There’s “Value”, the sixth episode co-written with Donald Glover, and this latest episode she’s listed as the sole writer of, “Juneteenth”. As the title “Value” might suggest, both of her episodes use the social worth and literal financial worth of African American women as a measuring stick and an ambivalent parable. In the former, the on-again-off-again but mostly off girlfriend of Earnest (Donald Glover) Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) loses her teaching job as the consequence of living like Jayde, an old friend and current globe-trotting NBA trophy-girlfriend. In the most recent “Juneteenth”, Monique, the friend Van hopes to inherit social connections from, says, “I like Craig, but I love my money”. Despite her foolish husband, Monique’s got everything she wants. Even if her husband’s biggest hobby is Black people. Van drunkenly asks Monique if she regrets not having an understanding spouse. It’s an easy perspective to side with, but conversely, Van doesn’t have a spouse. She and Earn maintain the facade of marriage to get along with Monique’s high-society company. Earn attended an Ivy League, which Monique judges him for, but he’s broke and barely has a job. Sure, in “Value” Jayde’s got no fulfilling job so much as the pressure of a constant, fake life but Van losing her job was a quick, easy, impersonal move. Morals can be compromised by money, but it’s not much better being poor. It’s a theme Stefani Robinson has returned to with differing approaches.
The absurdity of post-“Louie” dark comedies is that it all resets; although the comedy arises from the lack of reprieve from all annoyances and trials, these devastating wrongs have almost no lasting impact on the universe. In “Model”, a season four episode of “Louie”, Louie is demanded to pay an insanely huge sum as reparations for elbowing a model in the eye. The rest of the season isn’t about Louie scraping together the money; the impossible sum is forgotten as soon as the ensuing feeling of doom settles in. Despite the common themes and realities, every episode of “Atlanta” resets; after blowing up over Monique labeling Paper Boi a “trifling thug”, Earn will apologize to Monique. After Earn pulls over at Van’s insistence and the two clamp on to one another, it’s unclear whether sleeping together will affect Earn and Vanessa’s relationship at all. For every condescension Craig releases, he’s just as kind and apologetic. “Atlanta” keeps the realm of home life, and Vanessa, versus professional work, and Paper Boi, fairly separate (the two have their first, very loaded interaction in that sixth episode) so it’s difficult to gauge how any progress in “Juneteenth” will affect the rest of the series. Despite the malfunctions, you can’t help but root for Vanessa and Earn. It’s tough work loving an imperfect person, but there’s no one else to choose from.