Brow Beat

Atlanta’s Surrealism Is What It Feels Like to Be Black

The show’s shifts from the mundane to the uncanny are sudden, but they serve a purpose many overlooked.

Brian Tyree in Atlanta.
Brian Tyree Henry in Atlanta.
© Copyright 2018, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

The first season of FX’s Atlanta is laced with dread. The pilot opens in media res with Donald Glover’s Earn begging his cousin, the rising rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), to put away the gun he’s leveled at a disrespectful passer-by. Chants of “WorldStar!” bubble up around the conflict, and the feud takes on the social media–ready, almost stock, appearance of a street beef about to turn deadly. That is, until Paper Boi’s constant companion Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) voices his creeping déjà vu and begins predicting, with uncanny accuracy, what will happen next. Eventually, the tension boils over, Darius’ supernatural prescience is confirmed, and the show moves fully from the expected to the dreamlike.

Surreal moments like these, where mundane events suddenly shift into the bizarre without comment, appeared throughout Atlanta’s first season. They also played a central part in much of the show’s coverage. Some saw them as affirmations of creator and star Donald Glover’s natural comedic fixation on the uncanny. Caroline Framke wrote in a great piece for Vox that “Atlanta’s deliberate jolts of weirdness were always a welcome change from what we’ve come to expect from TV—though knowing Donald Glover, we really should’ve seen them coming.”

Others covered the show through the lens of its fresh perspective on black America—taking their cues in part from Glover, who famously said he wanted the show to “make people feel black.” But while these two approaches dominated the conversation, they rarely overlapped, even though Atlanta’s surrealism makes the most sense through the prism of the black experience. Like its precursor Twin Peaks, Atlanta cultivates its surreal atmosphere by grafting bizarre moments onto everyday ones. But where Twin Peaks used those details to evoke the danger hidden in small-town America, Atlanta employs them to replicate the fear, anguish, and unpredictability constant in the daily lives of lower- and middle-class black Americans.

Take an especially outlandish detail from the first season: black Bieber. In the episode “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” Paper Boi attends a celebrity-basketball game where his opponent is an entitled, bratty Justin Bieber. The twist? This version of Bieber, played by Austin Crute, is black. More importantly, his race is never remarked upon, just taken as a given. Most of the coverage of the episode focused on the juxtaposition between the real-life Bieber and black Bieber, and how it deftly poses the question of whether society would as readily forgive the Biebs if he wasn’t white. Black Bieber’s ability to misbehave without consequence is not an option for Paper Boi, a dark-skinned gangsta rapper who, by his own admission, “[scares] people at ATMs.” After brawling in the middle of the charity game, peppering the crowd with curse words, and urinating in public, black Bieber gives a corny onstage apology and promises to change. Before breaking into a dance routine, he declares, “I’m not a bad guy. I actually love Christ.”

As black Bieber goes on to perform a new single, Paper Boi stands in the back of the crowd, disbelieving. The rapper eventually asks a newscaster he’s been hitting on if she could interview him, maybe show the world a side other than his public persona—as black Bieber has just done. She responds that Paper Boi should play his part and be the villain the world expects of him as a rapper. This is a quintessential part of the black experience: watching others shed their worst moments while yours tether you down. Paper Boi’s viewpoint helps the audience see the anguish that comes with being able to view the structural forces that keep you down but not surmount them. His vantage point gives the surrealist juxtaposition weight and purpose.

Two episodes later, the show again loses its grip on reality amid escalating racial tension. In “B.A.N.,” Paper Boi appears on a Tavis Smiley–esque talk show on a BET stand-in. The conversation is a freewheeling, racialized discussion of transphobia, masculinity, and homophobia. In between segments, faux black-targeted commercials are shown as if this were a real broadcast. At first the commercials appear normal, if somewhat comical—a Dodge Charger ad featuring a toothy black owner, an upscale rebranding for Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor. From there, they get stranger. The last commercial is a riff on classic cereal ads: A cartoon wolf attempts to get his paws on “Coconut Crunch-O’s,” until it’s thwarted by three plucky children. But at the point where a normal commercial would end, with the wolf captured by the police, this one continues as the wolf is brutalized by a white cop. The black children then begin to protest, and the scene evolves into an jarringly familiar police brutality standoff. The eerie realism of the Coconut Crunch-O’s ad speaks to how racism permeates the black community—even something as banal as a children’s cereal commercial—able to appear at any moment. Other audiences might be able to see a cop arresting a suspect as playful, even comical, but that’s not true for the black community, or our ads.

In an interview before Atlanta’s premiere, Glover said,I always want people to be scared, because that’s kind of how it feels to be black.” Peril is the steady thrum of the show’s initial season. It ebbs and flows, infusing everything from Paper Boi’s police sixth sense to the hopeless attempts of Van, Earn’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, to keep her job. If the first trailer is any indication, Robbin’ Season (the title for the show’s second season) will lean even more into the danger and unpredictability inherent in the black experience. As the bizarre events ramp up accordingly, we must remember that these moments aren’t mere window dressing. They’re recreations of the volatility that goes hand in hand with being black in the United States.