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'Atlanta' Is Great at Talking About Race Without Talking About Race

'Atlanta' might be the best show currently tackling both the big and small frustrations of race—all without ever losing its cool.
Screengrab from 'Atlanta.' Courtesy of FX

Warning: Spoilers ahead for episode five.

In just its fifth episode, "Nobody Beats the Biebs," Atlanta has proven that it is currently the best show to tackle both the big and small frustrations of race—all without ever losing its cool. In fact, "cool" might be Atlanta's most accurate descriptor; the series effortlessly oozes coolness throughout, whether it's the calm shooting that opened the pilot or last night's casual introduction of a black Justin Bieber. Atlanta has a chill vibe largely due to Earn's character who is more reactive than proactive: He watches things happen, he takes in the scene, he allows himself to be pushed and pulled by the events occurring around him. This gives Atlanta the space to breathe and explore deep topics calmly without coming off as preachy or desperate. Rather, it deals with racism matter-of-factly, never pretending that it doesn't exist or claiming to have an explicit solution to fix the world.


"Nobody Beats the Biebs" featured three vignettes of sorts, all of which could have been fleshed out to full episodes (but were cleverly condensed into one) and all of which dealt with the complexities of racism and microaggressions. The runner featured Darius with a simplistic (yet original) sitcom setup: He brings a poster of a dog target to the gun range and is met with complete disbelief and hatred from the other (white) shooters who balk at the idea of him firing at a dog ("My kid could be in here!") but who, ironically, don't see any issue with shooting a human target (even if, or especially if, that target happens to specifically depict someone that isn't white). It doesn't have to be spelled out that Darius likely would've been given a pass if he weren't black because Darius knows this, Atlanta knows this, and we know this. This plot also doubles as a clever send-up of the way that television and movie audiences seem to be totally desensitized to onscreen violence—or even, sometimes, cellphone videos of real violence—but will completely lose it when a fictional animal dies (see: Old Yeller and My Dog Skip). What's even smarter is that Atlanta doesn't linger on this storyline or blow it up for more than the few minutes it's featured within "Nobody Beats the Biebs." Atlanta knows when it has made its point (and it trusts its viewers to know this, too), and moves on.

Earn's storyline also depicts microaggressions when an agent (played by Jane Adams, who sells every inebriated or venomous line) mistakes him for "Alonzo" in an extended version of the "all black people look alike" stereotype. Like the majority of Atlanta, this mix-up is played for laughs as Earn ends up temporarily going along with it—after all, if someone's going to be racist, why not use that to bolster your career? It allows Earn an invite to mingle with some real agents, to network (sort of, he still doesn't have his own business cards), and to take advantage of the open bar. Until, of course, it backfires when it's revealed that "Alonzo" royally screwed over Adams, and she verbally attacks him, promising to make sure that he dies homeless. Joke's on her, though: Technically, Earn is already homeless.


But the real centerpiece of "Nobody Beats the Biebs" is, of course, black Justin Bieber. It's such a bait-and-switch, a slyly brilliant way to parody everything from Justin Bieber's personality, to his endless apologies, to our own expectations. Any other show would have Bieber remain an off-screen presence with characters remarking on his actions or maybe a random shot of the back of "his" head covered in a baseball cap. Atlanta, however, flips the script, switching the race and casting a black actor/singer, Austin Crute, as Justin Bieber. It's done with little fanfare—no one even so much as makes a meta-joke about it—which just amplifies how well this works. By not drawing attention to the obvious difference, Atlanta plays it off as normal, inviting viewers to simply accept and believe these new circumstances instead of providing us with a big wink that breaks the fourth wall.

Atlanta knows when it has made its point (and it trusts its viewers to know this, too), and it moves on.

By not changing much about Bieber's personality—he's still wildin' out, an out-of-control mess who pisses in the corner and responds to a fan's "I love you, Justin!" with a curt "I know, bitch"—Atlanta turns into a surrealistic comedy, daring us to imagine what Justin Bieber would be like if he were actually black and not just often trying to be. It speaks volumes about white privilege and what the real Bieber can get away with. If a black singer pulled the same stunts as the real Bieber, he would never be calmly dismissed with a "He's just trying to figure it out" but instead would be dissected and destroyed across the internet. His poorly written apology song wouldn't fly and certainly wouldn't evoke an "Aw, shucks!" response from a room full of press.

What's remarkable about Atlanta is that it never explicitly lays this out on the table. It's just played straightforward, casually dropping viewers into this world where a rich, baby-faced black musician can get away with all the same ridiculous shit that a rich, baby-faced white musician can, and allowing us to live there for a half hour. At the end, there are no grand declarations or political statements. There's just black Bieber, crooning false apologies and dancing across a stage.

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