Whatever or whoever is stuck in your shadow, probably thinks you’re a monster. Yet the reverse is also true: whatever you hide is your monster. This duality of identity is nowhere near done as well on any other show as it is on Donald Glover’s Atlanta.
Robbin’ Season has been awash in monsters; of those, we glean clean off ourselves and those we encounter along the way. The crocodile in episode one’s “Crocodile Man” is literally kept inside a room in Willy’s (Katt Williams) house. Somewhere in the middle Earn slyly asks, “Was that here when I was here?” The answer is yes, and as he steals a picture of a young Willy with his parents, we’re set up for a hilarious thrill ride through the psyche of American Black folks. Willy needed to let that croc’ out if he was going to escape, and at the end of the episode, he’s running through unmanicured streets into an uncertain future.
But nothing could have prepared us for “Teddy Perkins.” The episode has, rightly, fostered a litany of think pieces. From the perspective of the white gaze — a glare literally brought forth in the episode — the chapter is a madcap example of what it means to be consumed. Teddy’s delusional admiration for a father who beat him and his brother into submission is actually hatred at not being loved by the person who should have loved him the most. Yet, in the show, it is a simple reality. From the side normally considered the monsters, this kind of behavior is all but normalized. How many of us grew with our parents enacting swift, fierce discipline whenever we did something out-of-bounds? Some of us attribute that kind of rearing to good parenting. We understand our parents were trying to prepare us for a surreal world where one mistake can mean certain doom. Others view it is as a thing which helped transform our innocent childhoods into knowledge; into the world of humans.
Doom and transformation are extremely vital parts of the Black psyche, and it is part of the genius of Black comedy.
Doom and transformation are extremely vital parts of the Black psyche, and it is part of the genius of Black comedy. Richard Pryor, our God of the art, grew up in a brothel, was sexually abused, grew to enormous fame, then set himself on fire. Michael Jackson, the entertainer who the show most specifically references, was once told by his father that there were snipers in the rafters who’d murder him if he missed a single step on stage. We saw his skin slowly lose pigmentation over the course of his career. We saw plastic surgery render his features more slight. Then we watched him become a potential monster, with accusations and court trials flying about his abuse of children.
In “Teddy Perkins,” fathers are the monsters who sacrifice their children for excellence. Teddy was robbed of his childhood, and he ends up dying for it, as he’s been dying his entire life. But Atlanta has a keen way of pointing out that we, the audience, are also a kind of monster. We unnamed, yet constantly wanting, constantly expecting from creators, unfeeling and uncaring, not ever considering where this genius is coming from. For me, in the end, I felt like Dr. Frankenstein, forcing, or trying to force, Donald and this crew of people to move, especially after the supernatural standard set by the “Teddy Perkins” standout.
But Atlanta knows that double consciousness in the Black community manifests itself in numerous ways. In the following episode, Van goes on the lookout to find Drake at a party after seeing Earn in his foulness. In this one, Van goes on a wild ride, eventually coming to the realization that the person she’s looking for isn’t there. That he couldn’t be there. Why would he be? And that we’re grubbing off the celebrity of someone who is unknowable. In fact, we’re all unknowable. Except for Darius. He’s the only one telling the truth.