I’ve got a friend from Newport News, Va. He still seems out of place in New York, genteel where he should be brisk. When I asked him if he watches Atlanta he lengthen his “Nah” into what seemed like a full minute. Atlanta is the South, he said. I’ve lived it so why would I watch it?
That is to say that the best show on television is so good, so haunting, that it is often hard to watch. Each week when a new episode of Atlanta comes around I feel a cringe that creeps up my left thigh and lands in my chest. Reality is so mind-bending right now that it feels overwhelming to be a thinking, feeling, soul in the world. Atlanta, with its shape-shifting, takes on loneliness, heartbreak, rootlessness, friendship, and melancholy sometimes hits too close to home.
The finale of the show is just such an ordeal. Earn is running around trying to get Al’s and Darius’ lives together, and his own. For Al, it’s lawyer after lawyer, who, for the nascent rapper, aren’t “Jewish” enough. These encounters are shadowed by his growing disapproval of Earn. For Darius, it’s working out how to get the space cadet a passport at the last-minute before Al’s European tour. At the same time, he and Van’s daughter Lottie is lagging in school and the teacher thinks it’s because she doesn’t have a stable enough home environment. The short answer is she doesn’t. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Her parents are still kids in their own right, finding their way — itching to make the right choice. In Atlanta, though, as in America, the right choice is almost always a constantly shifting, evolving set of circumstances jerry-rigged together to lead you to one thought: get your money, Black man.
So Earn does. All that activity has made the once-promising Princeton co-ed forget his uncle’s golden gun in his bag — a sly reference to classic first-person shooter Goldeneye 007 I missed in Alligator Man. And he’s got to ditch the thing as they head through TSA. At each turn for Earn and friends, the show is propelled forward when they have to navigate an authority figure: The lawyers, the teacher, the TSA. Here, the golden gun vanishes only to end up in the bag of Earn’s competition, Lucas, the man Al was going to hire because Earn wasn’t being aggressive enough as a manager. By the end, he applauds him for the move saying, “These niggas do not care about us, man.” Well, Lucas is probably thinking those exact thoughts at this moment, as Earn has left him and his emcee Clark County blowin’ in the wind.
It’s a wonder this show is on the air at all. It could only be pulled off by Glover, who is a polymath at this moment so on the pulse of culture that he makes distressingly difficult feats seem nonchalant. But with that intimacy comes a strain. Glover is dead set on showing us what it’s really like to be a celebrity. A gilded cage that only a few, if any, survive.
In his latest iconoclastic video “This Is America,” his and Hiro Murai’s sordidly gorgeous take on the American mind, he is a man out of time. Events swirl around him and some of the acts he even partakes in, but America is happening without him regardless. In the psychosphere of social media, this takes on a more visceral understanding. Each thought is a roiling lava flow, edging and consuming the thoughts around it, wrestling for prominence within the psyche of the group. These dynamics lead to events that seem to multiply out of thin air as reactions become resentment. Two Black men get arrested in a Starbucks, and the ensuing reaction leads to tears from the CEO Kevin Johnson. It leads to closing all the stores for training. But it also leads to a counter-reaction. Some people think racism doesn’t exist at all and become altogether racist when others insist that it does. Suddenly a woman is getting manhandled in a Waffle House. A man is harassed grilling in a park in Oakland. A Yale student gets the cops called on her while sleeping in her own dorm’s common room. Each thing leads to the next, and everything multiplies.
So then has Atlanta’s majesty. It exists in a world apart from everything else on television. Its universe is a manic-depressive wonderland, fraught and exhausting. Nothing is as it seems, and while poverty played a huge role in season one of the breakout show, season two finds us firmly in the grip of the irreality of money. How its tendrils escape you and turn you into something whether you know what that is or not. How it forces you to make a choice. Earn has made his, even while everything around him continues to burn. Even as the choice he made to leave the world of whiteness gives him an edge on his competition.
Get your money, Black man. Just know that you’ve sacrificed something you may never get back.