In The New Yorker’s recent profile of Donald Glover, the Atlanta creator revealed something surprising: He’s a little envious of Adam Sandler. “What’s frustrating to me is that when Adam Sandler does The Waterboy, about poor whites, he doesn’t have to worry about ‘What are poor whites going to think?’” he said, before detailing the questions he asks himself when making his his own show: “‘What are black people going to think? Are other black people going to call me a coon?’”
So far, so good: Glover’s approach — a sort of abstract comedic storytelling through fictional realism — feels as new as it feels true, even if the surreal experiences of Atlanta are not familiar to everyone watching, and the show’s audience is reportedly 50 percent black. And because Atlanta is already one of FX’s most popular shows, and because his music as Childish Gambino is reaching new creative and critical peaks, Glover is going to be the guy that gets to hold the microphone for the next couple of years. But as his star continues to brighten, and more eyes and ears are drawn to what he says and does, there’s a distinct possibility that Glover — with his unique viewpoint and ability to express blackness in such an honest way — will collide with America’s lack of understanding of racial and cultural identity. That could make things even weirder than an episode of the show. (Mild spoilers for Atlanta season two follow.)
Glover hasn’t talked much about the plot of season two, which is subtitled Robbin’ Season (“Our characters are in a desperate transition from their old lives to where they’re headed now,” executive producer and writer Stephen Glover said), but he told The New Yorker that he’s been trying to make his recent work “more and more accessible.” Part of that includes embracing the culture clash. In Robbin’ Season’s second episode, Earn (Glover) and Alfred/Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) are walking into the hipster-infested offices of what appears to be a music streaming service and branding company. Alfred talks openly about killing a young man who recently robbed him, saying “I at least have to pistol-whip this nigga to death,” just as the camera cuts to a wide shot of the office door being held by a young white female employee. She hears both the threat of violence and Alfred’s language, but she seems unfazed. The moment stuck with me; I prefer my black people to call each other “niggas” and discuss violent retaliation when it’s just us, but obviously the Glover brothers and team don’t mind the overshare, and pushing past comfort boundaries.
Later in the episode, Earn and Alfred meet a white executive at the streaming company looking to make a deal with them, and who attempts to connect with them by cheekily calling himself “35 Savage,” in a bit of friendly trap nickname appropriation. When Alfred records radio “drops” for the streaming service as his rapper alter ego Paper Boi, he’s asked by the young white engineer to record his vocal shout-out a different way, to “be cool.” He punctuates the exact same lines with the word “nigga” at the end, which is only met by a request to try it differently again, in a way that suggests the awkwardness suddenly created between the two men. Surely, it was what the engineer wanted, but it was also outside his comfort zone. They didn’t know how to talk about it, because this is only a show, not real life.
It’s already hard enough to create when you have to obsess over every which way your work might be misinterpreted by the worst possible people.
After so many cues to the cultural mismatch, the office scene ends with a visibly uncomfortable Alfred, getting ready to perform the song “Paper Boi” in front of employees as they’re working in a common area. As the song begins, Alfred repeats the opening ad-libs into a microphone as the recorded track plays in the background. In a moment of realization, his mood shifts from nervousness, to irritation, to a sudden understanding that he’s playing himself. It’s obviously an unnatural fit. Just before the background track gets to the famous “Paper Boi / It’s all about that paper, boi” chorus, he simply walks out of the room, not even stopping to wait for Earn, who’s going through the same set of emotions as he leans against a wall. Neither man is willing to be displayed as meaningless entertainment for people who don’t get them.
Rap music has always said whatever it wanted, and viewed a retreat from the realities of street life and lower-class citizenship as a lack of authenticity. This penchant for the sometimes-ugly is not lost on Glover as a useful tool, as he made clear to The New Yorker. “Y’all are forgetting what rap is. Rap is ‘I don’t care what you think in society, wagging your finger at me for calling women “bitches”—when, for you to have two cars, I have to live in the projects.’” This is part of what makes the subtitle of Robbin’ Season, which refers to the uptick in robberies around the holidays, so appropriate: It’s a real thing in Atlanta that people don’t really talk about. (It’s at least part of the Atlantan musical tradition: Big Gipp rapped about it on Goodie Mob’s “Sesame Street” from Goodie Mob’s Soul Food album — “Somebody just filled they Christmas list off me and the family and damn, I just missed them” — and OutKast’s “Player’s Ball” is a Christmas song where Andre 3000 and Big Boi remind you that they’re carrying pistols as they ride through the city looking for fun.)
I guess that makes it cultural. But what really happens when “culture” is black-on-black robbery? Does it become just another funny thing that only happens to black people? Are the situations only funny to people who don’t have to be so close to them and experience the actual threat? Because of comedy’s particular ability to catch fire amongst wider crowds, black comedians have often found themselves in a position of wondering who exactly their audience is. Dave Chappelle famously walked away from Chappelle’s Show and $50 million after the filming of one typically edgy sketch, when he noticed a white spectator laughing a little too hard. I know people who refuse to acknowledge Chris Rock’s immense talent to this day, simply because they can’t forgive his famous “Black People vs. Niggas” bit from more than 20 years ago, a joke he soon stopped performing because of the way it was misinterpreted by actual racists.
Richard Pryor was one of the first mainstream comedians to integrate the N-word and other counterculture topics into his comedy, and gained notoriety as a controversial social critic. That is, until a trip to Africa caused him to have another epiphany, this time personally disavowing the use of the word in future comedy performances, telling a crowd, “I’d been wrong,” and explaining that “that word is dead. We’re men and women; we come from the first people on the earth!” But even within that moment of professional and personal clarity, when he told the crowd that an unknown voice in his head asked him, “Do you see any niggers,” you could hear a few laughs coming from the audience.
It’s already hard enough to create when you have to obsess over every which way your work might be misinterpreted by the worst possible people — which, as far as you know, could be anyone with a different color skin. And in the case of Atlanta, a city rapidly gentrifying and already experiencing some of the worst economic inequality in the country, the thought that people find the experiences of Earn, Alfred, Darius, and Van to be merely funny can give pause to those of us who are very proud of what the show really shows us: stories about real life for black Atlantans. “If Atlanta was made just for black people,” Glover told The New Yorker, “it would be a very different show. But I can’t even begin to tell you how, because blackness is always seen through a lens of whiteness—the lens of what white people can profit from at that moment. That hasn’t changed through slavery and Jim Crow and civil-rights marches and housing laws and ‘We’ll shoot you.’ Whiteness is equally liquid, but you get to decide your narrative.”
It’s got to be exhilarating and terrifying to be that narrator — to know that every nuance and joke, subtle or not, will be seen as something critical of society by some, and as just another hilarious thing black people say and do by others. Glover is a rarity — a true polyglot spanning mediums and audiences, as people see him as the young Lando Calrissian may not know he’s the same guy who made the song from the beginning of Get Out. He has positioned himself as both a throwback and a symbol of afrofuturism in entertainment; it’s not a stretch to say he’s one of the biggest black stars of today, and is about to get much bigger.
As for me, I absolutely love Atlanta. It feels like everyone involved in writing, producing, directing and starring in the show is brilliant, and are innately aware that they’re doing something meaningful through this strange and funny portrayal of black Southern life. And I’m hopeful for Glover in particular, because as a just-over-Millennial-aged black man born in the South and living in today’s Atlanta, I understand what it feels like to walk that line, whenever I have the chance to write about my experiences for mainstream audiences. I hope for Atlanta’s sake, and America’s, that the show’s audience is willing to avoid taking the easy route of slumming through the story for laughs. But I also hope Glover — as he said when he talked about brushing off Chevy Chase’s racist jokes — doesn’t worry about it. Whether we’re coons today or geniuses tomorrow, making others understand the beautiful struggle of being black in America is a struggle itself, but the show must go on.