On the same night he pulled double duty on Saturday Night Live as host and musical guest, Donald Glover released the horrific, manic video for his musical alter ego Childish Gambino’s new song “This Is America.” A four-minute audiovisual spectacle that plays on imagery of Jim Crow, South African schoolchildren, Dylann Roof, and more, it reaffirms what anyone who’s kept up with Atlanta already knows: When it comes to Glover, there’s no such thing as a “safe space.” There exists only a precarious balance between the aftereffects of an off-kilter, disorienting high and a nightmarish fever dream.
This is Atlanta too, but especially Atlanta Robbin’ Season (as Season 2 is officially dubbed): The baseline is unsettling, the exact opposite of comforting; the point of watching it is not to feel good, hopeful, or even content in the moment (though as a black viewer, the sheer awe of the brilliance and execution may produce those feelings after the fact). Each episode takes the seemingly mundane and warps it into the stuff night terrors are made of, whether it’s a trip to the barbershop, a night out celebrating a big payday, or picking up a piano from a stranger’s house. It’s designed that way, as was made abundantly clear in the New Yorker’s Glover profile, which found the multihyphenate creator and others in his orbit pontificating about how the show speaks to aspects of blackness in ways that have never been seen before. “People come to Atlanta for the strip clubs and the music and the cool talking, but the eat-your-vegetables part is that the characters aren’t smoking weed all the time because it’s cool but because they have P.T.S.D.—every black person does,” he said.
“This Is America” comes at a time when Glover can do (and is doing) anything, combining the erratic visuals and mood of Atlanta’s bizarro world with the introspective musical persona of Childish Gambino. But their co-existence didn’t spring from a vacuum. The seeds for their shared bleak points of view—on blackness, whiteness, hip-hop, class, and so on—were planted in his early (and concurrent) work as a polarizing rapper.
Pre-Atlanta Glover was looked upon warily by hip-hop fans, with some treating his musical pursuits as some sort of a joke (due to his origins in stand-up, as a writer on the early seasons of 30 Rock, and then as the goofy Troy on Community). Others—namely, black people—found his heavy reliance on “blerd” anxieties (“Culture shock at barbershops ’cause I ain’t hood enough/ We all look the same to the cops, ain’t that good enough?”) and his overstated fixation on and fetishization of Asian women to be side-eye worthy, a reason not to bother with him at all. While 2011’s Camp, his first studio album following a string of mixtapes, features some inspired and dexterous verses, Glover’s lyrical desperation to prove himself a credible rapper wears down even the catchiest of its songs.
Still, it’s fascinating to read Atlanta through the lens of some of those tracks, each of which is laced with an undercurrent of autobiographical sadness in the most Drake-ish of ways. On “Outside,” a verse juxtaposing his childhood with his cousin’s foreshadows the strained relationship between Earn (Glover) and Alfred aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) : “You’re still that kid who kept the older boys/ From teasin’, for some reason,” he raps mournfully. In last week’s “F.U.B.U.,” this exact scene played out in the flashback to that relatable hell that is middle school. Atlanta, however, goes further, taking that tender, good-hearted act on young Al’s part and undercutting it with the suicide of a classmate at the end of the episode. And Earn’s character more generally isn’t meant to elicit sympathy in the way Glover seemed to ask for in “Outside.” He’s a figure of depressed apathy and unfulfilled potential (a Princeton dropout with no real ambition and poor business skills), just a few years and a few more bad choices away from ending up like his deadbeat, alligator-possessing uncle Willy (Katt Williams).
On Because the Internet, his 2013 follow-up to Camp, Childish Gambino hews even closer to what’s now recognizable as Atlanta’s dreamlike aesthetic. Earn’s tenuous romantic connection to his young child’s mother, Van (Zazie Beetz), plays out in “Telegraph Ave (Oakland),” a trap-inflected midtempo track that finds Glover rapping about a simultaneous desire for and fear of commitment:
I don’t really mind the drive
But I think I’d rather die
In Oakland, in Oakland
With my hands on two and ten
So I guess it all depends
On Oakland, on Oakland
And I’m nervous, truth be told
I never saw me growing old
In Oakland, in Oakland
And if I married you tonight
It would probably start a riot
In Oakland, in Oakland
In the video, directed by frequent collaborator Hiro Murai, Glover and singer Jhene Aiko wander through the gorgeous landscapes of Kauai, laughing and gazing at each other lovingly until, in its final minute, things take a sharp right turn into “Thriller” territory—Glover is run over by a car out of nowhere, and it’s revealed that he’s some sort of alien figure, as tentacles emerge from one side of his bloodied body, killing the drivers. He stares at Aiko, and she stares back, and that’s the end; no reasoning is given for this surprise twist. Compare it to Atlanta’s “Helen,” in which Earn and Van’s uncertain future comes to a head within the exaggerated whiteness of a Fastnacht celebration, complete with German-speaking revelers and jarring masks that add to the nightmarish qualities of the show as a whole.
In Because the Internet’s “3005,” a bouncy, carnivallike instrumental track underlines Glover’s isolation in the face of fame, where he raps about “blow[ing] that like Coltrane” and “leav[ing] it like Cobain.” The lyrics’ fear of how fame affects the people around you plays heavily into Paper Boi’s persona in Atlanta, as nearly every interaction finds his character being taken advantage of, whether it’s by his longtime drug dealer or would-be fans he encounters on the street. (The video for this track is also a notable precursor to Atlanta’s unnerving approach, finding a disaffected Glover riding a Ferris wheel next to a giant stuffed bear that becomes increasingly distressed as the video progresses.) “Worldstar” and “Zealots of Stockholm” create similar auras, but with even deeper sonic dives into the paranoia over social media and viral fame.
There are more recent examples to point to as well—the psychedelic “Zombies” and “Terrified” on Awaken! My Love, released after the first season of Atlanta, render Glover’s recurring themes on commodification and dehumanization of black bodies as literal horror stories. (“We’re coming out to get you, we’re all so glad we met you/ We’re eating you for profit, there is no way to stop it.”) But just as Robbin’ Season ramped up Atlanta’s weirdness (see Glover in whiteface in the bonkers “Teddy Perkins”) and broke what few rules the show had established (Glover appears in even fewer episodes than he did last season), so “This Is America” reworks Childish Gambino, the moniker he’s said he plans to retire following this upcoming album and accompanying tour. Each new image and lyric seems to be a misdirection from the last, upending one expectation after another until all that’s left is a sordid, cacophonous blur.
A man—who is not, to be clear, Trayvon Martin’s dad—enters the frame and sits on a chair, playing a light African guitar melody, only to be shot dead by Gambino (whose slacks-and-no-shirt ensemble gives off strong Fela Kuti vibes) a few seconds later, just as he leads with the opening line: “This is America.” Yet the pose Gambino strikes when putting that bullet through his head is stylized and deliberate; he cocks his hips to the right, with one knee bent and one arm akimbo—a stance eerily derivative of images of the 19th-century Jim Crow character. It could explain the odd, bug-eyed facial expressions he fixes upon his face while dancing, the embodiment of both minstrelsy and the Jim Crow laws that sanctioned the widely publicized lynchings of thousands of black Americans.
The dead body is quickly dragged away as Glover takes center frame and the deep Atlanta-inflected downbeat kicks in, continuing his frenetic movement as a group of dancers dressed like schoolchildren—they seem to be a nod to a viral meme of South African kids dancing—join in. Chaos (people running with bats, shooting off guns, minifires) continues in the background, but Gambino and the kids are perhaps too mesmerizing for a viewer to really notice it on the first (or even fourth) viewing.
This pattern is repeated and upped going into the second verse, when Gambino callously guns down a black choir, reminiscent of the Charleston massacre of nine black church members by a white supremacist in 2015. In the video’s final moments, he dashes through a darkly lit hallway, the whites of his eyes prominently lit, as figures chase after him, juxtaposed against Young Thug’s closing lyrics: “You just a black man in this world, you just a bar code, ayy.” It surely seems meant to conjure up images of runaway slaves, but I also can’t help but think of Melvin Van Peebles’ groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,* in which the titular character spends much of the film running from racist cops (and the Hell’s Angels), framed for a crime he didn’t commit. In the final sequence, hunting dogs are set off after him, but he manages to escape from California to Mexico, and the title card promises that “a baad asssss nigger is coming back to collect some dues.” (Another part of “This Is America” goes, “America, I just checked my following list and you go tell somebody/ You mothafuckas owe me/ Grandma told me, ‘Get your money, black man.’ ”)
In that New Yorker profile, FX CEO John Landgraf is quoted describing what Glover and his team have done with Atlanta as “an existential comedy about the African-American experience, and they are not translating it for white audiences.” Ditto for “This Is America,” which has stirred up welcome debate around its meaning. By rocking those uninhibited moves flanked by picture-perfect black kids in the foreground of disturbing violence, is Glover taking us—black people—to task for not paying attention to the “real” issues at hand? That’s one way to look at it, and, especially at a time when “up by your bootstraps” logic has recently resurfaced in our popular culture, having one’s antennae up is understandable. But if we accept a reading of Glover-as-Jim-Crow (it’s not him, a black man, shooting that guitar player and those choir members; it’s institutional racism), it seems more complicated. Knowing Glover now wrestles with being beloved by the white establishment (to the tune of two Emmys and a Grammy) and finally being accepted by a large segment of the black community who wanted little to do with him fewer than five years ago, one could read the erratic mishmash of symbolism as him challenging our comfort with seeing someone like him occupy such an elite, unprecedented space. Yes, exciting and excellent black art surrounds us in ways it never has before, he seems to be saying (SZA makes a brief cameo in the video as well). But the systemic effects of racism will (should?) never allow us to get too complacent, or to fully enjoy it.
*Correction, May 8, 2018: This piece originally misstated that Mario Van Peebles directed Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It was Melvin Van Peebles.