Atlanta is a TV show created by and starring the multi-talented Donald Glover, who earlier in 2018 briefly broke the Internet with a hard-hitting music video called This is America. The show itself is loosely pitched by Glover as “Twin Peaks, but for rappers” - by which I personally take away that it eschews the steady pace of a narrative arc for irreverent non sequitur explorations of various scenarios within the thematic context of being black in America.
Atlanta is not a comedy, though there are some darkly funny moments. But it isn't a drama either - at least not in the sense that the narratives in each episode are designed to be suspenseful, sensational or otherwise theatrical in any way. It is not a documentary, it does not have a “message”. It isn’t particularly fantastic but I’m tempted to think of the show as “magic-realist” anyway… but please understand that the magic we’re talking about here is capricious and somewhat malicious that one nevertheless has to learn to live with, like the most delicate snowflakes blowing in through broken windows making it impossible to even light a fire to stay warm. Sublime perhaps to someone else somewhere else, but actively unkind right here right now and unfortunately one has to get through the night under these conditions regardless.
Atlanta does not exist to invest you in its protagonists, who are neither archetypes nor anti-heroes. In fact, the main characters refreshingly resist any sort of simple classification because they are meant to be fuzzy, amorphous, confused, adaptive human beings - just like real people. They are not seeking your admiration, approval or sympathy. (If that sounds unusual, one should rightly question why other TV shows inevitably present walking-talking clichés who can be entirely captured with 5 adjectives or less.)
In fact, the pacing of a typical Atlanta episode can be best described as meandering, taking its own time with every scene, feeling out the edges. And yet I feel one should not see these pregnant moments as filler frames between significant events, but rather as an intentional effort to create a living ambiance. Everything about Atlanta - from the characters, locations, narratives and dialogues - is not designed to entertain by filling up the screen-time to the brim with audiovisual stimulation. Rather it seeks to let you, the viewer, enter into its empty negative spaces…
And when you inevitably enter, you discover you are in an almost surreal world that on the surface looks a lot like the one you just left. Perhaps it’s not exactly a location that you’d pick in particular, in the midst of an endless suburb with the familiar steel-and-glass skyline of a modern city in the background at a maddening distance that is at once so close yet so far away. Like most suburbs must feel to the typical urbanite, there is a sense of ennui that is thick like the humidity of a tropical summer afternoon, and an unmistakeable restless feeling that nothing interesting happens here, ever. (Why are we even here? What happened here? Who even lives here? Why would anyone stay?)
You immediately realise, perhaps to some dismay, that the camera isn’t moving that fast. It pans and hovers rather deliberately, and not always to capture the most flattering compositions. Inevitably your eyes start settling in and picking up more details… Long-standing cracks in the pavements, faded road signs, abandoned shopping carts on the lawn, utilitarian cars, houses that have the veneer of respectability but at the same time bearing telltale signs of disrepair and neglect. This neighbourhood was never designed to be a destination, or it used to be once but isn’t any longer. Now it is just a halfway point between better places. This is the moment when other questions start flowing into consciousness, with the faux-politeness reserved for conversations between people from different socio-economic strata. (The characters are speaking now, something’s happening, albeit ever so slowly - what’s the big hurry anyway - but the languid pace is irritating enough to justify continuing this mental conversation even as the scene progresses.) It’s broad daylight but these men are still at home… Why aren’t they at work? What kind of work is there to do around here? Doesn’t seem like they work… oh but all of them have iPhones, is that a PlayStation 4 in the corner? Look at the house though, it’s a mess. If they’re not working anyway, you would think the least they could do is to clean up the place. He’s lighting up a joint - it’s broad daylight. Good luck getting any work done buddy. They’re making a plan - seems like they might going some place after all. Wonder where that might be...
In this peculiar way, Atlanta’s ambiance provokes a two-way conversation with the screen. What these add up to is an unflinching rendezvous with an unnamed character who is nevertheless present not just in this fictional world, but also back in the real world - the black experience. You might think we are now more aware of the black experience thanks to social media but, all too often, the outrage-storms about racial justice - especially under the banner of (unnecessarily controversial) wedge issues like Black Lives Matter - focus on isolated aspects of the black experience such as police brutality or implicit bias. Atlanta however manages to convey the day-to-day lived reality of the black experience that invisibly orders every second and every step of a black person’s life. In one episode for example, we see how an entire entertainment industry from record studio executives to interns are doing well for themselves based on the creative output of rappers like the protagonists, who do not even have proper recording equipment and so have to make do with noisy cellphone recordings. The socio-economic contrast could not be more obvious, and only dialed to 11 when the lead executive refers to the whole enterprise as an “outreach programme” for deserving black artists. In another episode, the main character and his girlfriend are told by their daughter’s teacher that she has great academic potential, perhaps deserving of the guidance and support that only private schools can offer. Normally this would be a joyous moment for any parent, but the helpless reality of poverty means the couple knows they cannot afford a private school education - it is not a matter of priorities and tough choices, it is quite simply an impossibility forever out of their reach. Again an unkind irony… the protagonist is himself a Princeton dropout and in that moment one imagines that he sees his daughter’s future in his mind’s eye, fast-forwarding and inevitably settling into a trajectory much like his own. Is it his fault? What could he have done differently? What options are there to change this future? Can anyone help? Will they?
There comes a gnawing ache from watching Atlanta that there is no light at the end of this tunnel, and nobody’s doing anything about that, and even if someone wanted to, where would they even start to fix this mess? It feels as if these characters are stuck in a Kafkaesque groundhog life - invisible to all yet uncompromising in effect - forced into a pattern of life because they simply cannot escape the gravitational pull of their circumstances. The protagonists have internalised this knowledge - they know this truth so deeply that they seem older and wiser beyond their years. They remain stoic in the face of endless frustrations and momentary joys, perpetually wearing a thousand-yard stare that is unflinching and rarely surprised.
This sparked for me a peculiar realisation that the restless anger that seethes in response to unfairness is itself a privilege reserved to those who have a reason to believe they can ultimately get justice, and have avenues through which to seek recompense. What if one has neither the confidence nor the means to seek fair outcomes? Imagine if your cries for help were never heard, and even if they were, they may be ignored. Perhaps the characters in Atlanta have learnt to stay detached because it is the only way they can get through each and every unchanging day.
Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe…”, are symbolic of this claustrophobic sense of being trapped in circumstances that one does not like yet cannot meaningfully control, let alone escape. This is the the most painful part of racism in my opinion - not the unkind words or the spectrum of prejudice that can elicit suspicious glances or erupt into violence - it is this inescapable feeling that one’s very skin is in fact a cage that will forever restrict what the world sees of the person within and equally, what the person within can do in the world. It’s a fucking shame of humanity’s own making…
Atlanta for me is the closest inkling of the black experience put to mass media since Jordan Peele’s Get Out. It perfectly follows the formula of “show, don’t tell”, thus giving the viewer the ultimate responsibility of deciding how they interpret the black experience for themselves. Definitely give it a watch sometime.