“Most people don’t realize their chakras are in another universe.”
Does the black community have a problem with the LGBT community, specifically the trans-community and if so is it merely a by-product of oppression fatigue? This question and many others (such as why an Arizona iced tea is ringing up at the register as $1.29 when “the price is on the can, though”?) are posed in the most adventurous episode of Atlanta yet. Structured around a faux Charlie Rose-style talk show hosted by a Don Lemon-type, Atlanta breaks format to expound upon ideas it has been building on all season. When the station I.D. rolled across the screen for Glover’s faux Black American Network with those familiar dancing silhouettes that welcomed every new-old Peabo Bryson video back in the day, I hollered. Not everything in this episode works here but it’s not for lack of effort.
Earnest Marks is noticeably absent (save for an off-camera shout out), as is the rest of the cast, from this episode with the exception of Paper Boi who has been booked on Lemon stand-in Franklin Montague’s show to discuss his recent controversial Twitter comments about Caitlyn Jenner. Joining him on set is Dr. Debra Holt representing liberal Dwight lady sensibilities to hilarious effect. Dr. Holt has an axe to grind with our dude Paper Boi due to some perceived inflammatory statements he’s made about the fluidity of Jenner’s gender. You see, Jenner is a trans woman who used to identify as a white man. A rich white man. And seeing as how the real-world Jenner has been called out for her tendency to overlook the intersection of race and sexuality as it pertains to trans women of color in her own community( such as the fact that 19 of the 22 trans women murdered last year were trans women of color), Paper Boi can’t understand why he should care about what this rich white person does.
Rich white people gon’ do whatever the hell they want to do just like they’ve done for hundreds of years. Paper Boi doesn’t see what all of the hullabaloo is about seeing as how he just found out trans people existed five minutes ago. Dr. Holt brought the damn receipts, though, by way of actual Paper Boi lyrics and she gets him to admit that he actually puts very little thought into the actual lyrics that he writes and is just “trying to get paid”, a struggle Atlanta has gone back to in theme several times during the course of the series.
The segment is cut short by a commercial break as viewers are granted entrance to the twisted recesses of Glover’s psyche. This and last week’s episode “Value” ushered in a temporary break in director duties from Hiro Murai and what both episodes lack in cinematic stylistics they more than make up for with a sharp tone and a tongue in cheek nod to black America that only we could accurately capture. I have a basic understanding of the way segmented marketing works so when the commercials began rolling I didn’t notice they were parodies, each resembling a specific commercial I can remember playing in between back to back episodes of Unsung.
When the first ad for the Dodge Charger (complete with “This is a closed course” warning at the bottom of the screen) aired I didn’t even pick my head up from the freshly dried laundry I decided to fold on commercial break. The joke was well-played the first time but the final reveal that dude’s just been driving that car around the neighborhood after losing everything in the divorce were well worth the set up. I think the next owner’s going to want to get that interior detailed as intricately as possible. Probably best to just throw away the whole damn seat.
The Nutella sandwich guy makes another appearance this episode (outside of my lucid dreams) in a commercial straight out of a Tim and Eric episode. Yes, that number is real and if you call it prepare to be creeped out. The small details of “blackness” found within the DNA of every commercial are what really work here. The suaveness of the guy in the Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor ad right up until the point where he isn’t, the wink to the camera at the fact that no black person actually smokes the tobacco found inside a Swisher Sweets Cigarillo, the way the animated police officer in the Coconut CrunchOs commercial refers to one of the little black girls as, “sir” right before threatening her, all lead to a complicated but accurate love-letter to black folk in America.
The connection between living in a society where transgendered people are often treated horrifically and a supposed trans-racial society where one can merely choose to identify as a race they were not born into is murky water here for Atlanta. No one would argue that there are those of who feel biologically born to the wrong gender and those people often go through a great deal of torment both internally and from the world to feel at peace. But in similar vein just because the Rachel Dolezal’s of the world like Girlfriends more than Sex and the City should they be granted blackness? Since race is merely a social construct can blackness or whiteness even be granted? Who controls it? Are only white people allowed to identify as something else since they created this shaky Jenga game of race relations we’re all forced to play here?
The panel exchange in the first segment was all over the place for me and made some parallels that I think could be dangerous if left in the wrong hands. Antoine revealing in his side-splitting taped interview for segment two that even though he appears to be a dark-skinned, early twenties black man currently living in Atlanta that he actually identifies as a 35 year old white man named Harrison is hilarious mainly because of how far-fetched something like that still seems in a society with a racial hierarchy. It also fine-tuned the point I think Glover was attempting to make in this episode as well as Episode 2’s prison scene. This is played almost entirely for laughs with Antoine’s insistence that he works as a systems engineer at Coca Cola even while his own mother admits he doesn’t have no job, Tommy! I laughed so loudly through the entire segment I had to watch it again to catch all the jokes.
Do all mid-thirties white guys wear thick brown belts and watch Game of Thrones on Sunday evenings? How long has Antoine been studying to be a white person? Is black life in America all just one big study on how to be a white person? Atlanta handles this segment with more clarity than the segment preceding it and does an okay job of tying the two together when they bring Antoine back after his “transformation”, flipping expectations on their head when Antoine/Harrison reveals he’s actually very much against gay marriage.
Dr. Holt is shocked (shocked!) that a person who understands the pain of being “othered” would step all over the rights of somebody else. The fact that she misses her own bias against Paper Boi and incorrectly assumes things about his character based upon what he looks like and what she ignorantly assumes that says about fragile black masculinity is clever character set-up by Glover. Dr. Holt’s liberal stance on sexuality in no way prevents her from seeing Paper Boi as less than enlightened before coming to an agreement that tolerance is sometimes the most that you can really expect from others. The episode gives us no real view to rally behind. Certainly not those of the opportunistic Montague who’s just disappointed he couldn’t get a black man and a white woman to fight on his show. Shots fired, Don Lemon. Shots all the way fired!
After hearing the familiar voices of Cree Summer and Kevin Michael Richardson in the cereal commercial I’m inclined to believe that the overarching message of the first season of Atlanta has to be that authentic blackness can look like anything just as long as it is in service to celebrating black folk. All black folk. Solange’s breathtaking album, A Seat at the Table, makes similar claims with tracks like "Don’t Touch My Hair" and "F.U.B.U.", intimating that blackness will rise or fall on our ability to love each other. To stand for each other and to create spaces where we can practice self-care in a world where the police flaunt their murders in our faces while the world wonders what pale ales are on tap at the bar. “B.A.N.” will more than likely require multiple viewings by me and may go down as a classic episode in the vein of our favorite Chappelle Show skits.
When it worked it really worked for me. It was hella experimental and I applaud it for creeping outside of the lines to bring us something truly unique, even if we had to miss out on what’s going on with Darrius for another damn week.
Jordan Kauwling is an early thirties Philadelphian but she tells everyone she's in her late thirties because she doesn't understand how math works. When she's not busy writing, singing, eating all the falafel or unsuccessfully finishing another craft project you can catch her talking junk on Twitter.