Spoilers from the latest episode of Atlanta , obviously.
By the end of the aptly named “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta, I had to wonder when the whole thing flipped the switch on me; it went from a laugh-very-uncomfortably sort of episode to a full-blown horror.
Going in, the standard Atlanta-ish vibes felt the same: same mundane opening with ghetto-scholar-in-training Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) U-Hauling it towards a gated mansion in search of a piano. Same guest star intro through former famed musician Teddy Perkins (Donald Glover); the owner of said piano. But Teddy himself is odd. His voice is hushed. His mannerisms are mechanical. His dress style is weird. Michael Jackson-like, with post-bleached Jackson skin. And ten minutes in, nothing about Teddy feels normal...kinda like a 2005, King of Pop dancing on a damn car before a trial not normal.
By the 22-minute mark—yes, this half hour comedy turned into a 34-minute episode without commercial breaks— really bad things occur, and the unflappable Darius is appropriately flapped. There's something clearly disturbing and familiar about Teddy— Get Out 2 allusions aside, there’s a more personal story here, and it’s about mental illness.
Teddy was an abused child who grew up within a culture of fame. His issues have been internalized, to a point where music is the only lens to which he views the world. We’ve seen this story many times before; Elvis, Britney Spears, Richard Pryor, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and many more.
Fame can be isolating in many ways that punish a character like Teddy and bystanders are slow to identify that a famous artist could be in trouble and not just be “weird and tortured.” And it’s really hard not to watch “crazy” Teddy and speculate the character is an extension of Donald Glover himself.
Isolation of fame can be punishing in ways that create many Teddy’s, and the slowness to which bystanders such as us identify those issues are woven through our labels.
Much like “crazy” Teddy, who in many ways, could be an extension of Donald Glover himself.
Just back in 2013, just after leaving the beloved sitcom Community, Glover posted a series of troubling Instagram notes.
“I feel like I’m letting everyone down. I’m afraid people hate who I really am. I’m afraid I hate who I really am,” he wrote. “I’ve been sick this year. This is the first time I’ve felt helpless.”
He later went on to state, “If I’m depressed, everybody’s depressed. I don’t think those feelings are that different from what everybody’s feeling. Most people just don’t tell everybody.”
I often have to remind myself that Glover’s world is a place of analogies and symbols that don’t directly point to their problems. His subtle commentaries are no accidents. It’s no coincidence when The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison—a story about a black man who feels invisible in the world—gets referenced in the episode. We see our example of that invisibility through “Teddy Perkins,” played by Glover himself, whose black, famous and carrying issues that are equally hidden from view.
Glover is forever a ruse maker in that way. There’s even an in-and-out moment of humour, with the not-quite famous Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, Earn and Tracy, reminding Darius about how “crazy” the Teddy Perkins situation is over phone calls—a throwback to Lil Rey Howery’s character in Get Out. None of it was needed though, Teddy was weird enough to send the point home. But having outsiders comment on the “craziness” of yet another celeb was a brilliant way to highlight our lack of sympathy for real celebs with real problems.
It’s what makes “Teddy Perkins” such an amazing effort. The ease in which it slips back and forth from an uncertain creepiness to the heady topic of the cost of fame. This genre-bending Glover concoction is a damn amazing episode, not because it dances with a real horror, but because it reflects our reaction to it.
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