'Atlanta' Doesn’t Pander to Its Viewers, and I Love That
And it’s why it remains the best show on television.
Image via FX
There’s a memorable throwaway moment around the 15-minute mark in the “Sportin’ Waves” episode of Atlanta season 2, when professional couch surfer and B-level music manager Earnest ‘Earn’ Marks (Donald Glover) has the following exchange with Tracy, an ex-con friend of Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles; the scene pretty much begins mid-convo:
“Yo, don’t get me wrong, this is a funny show, but the way they dive into depression, especially what he did to her daughter, I was like, can I even feel bad for this horse anymore?” says Tracy.
What plays out next involves some stolen shoes, a shady gift card, and some next-level tutelage on no-chase policies—all things we won’t dive into but were easily understood. But that horse reference, it hung on me—it was like overhearing some out of context gossip. There’s no deep dive, not even a follow-up question from my man Earn for the assist, just a random Bojack Horseman shoutout from a black dude in a durag.
I’m not used to TV shows that have no interest in holding my hand over what I don't know or didn’t expect, which is just a less technical way of saying that Atlanta ain’t about “exposition” or explaining its jokes. You won't find shortcuts disguised as the “flashbacks” for character development here—something Orange is the New Black, This is Us, and How I Met Your Mother all rely heavily on. Then there’s the absence of the clueless dude/girl trope, where a certain someone asks a hanging question that needs an appropriate answer. The entire cast of Seinfeld filled in that role for the buffoon-like philosopher in Kramer, because his otherness needed a translation. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s own weed-smoking sage Darius continues to drop philosophy-filled bombs without further prejudice or examination.
Atlanta isn’t completely unique in its refusal to tie up loose ends. HBO’s High Maintenance and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks proved that these divergent paths can work. But the way Atlanta manages it all within the framework of a culture that’s so visibly black on its surface means that we can watch blackness work without stereotypes and assumptions. The enigmatic style just feels so much more rebellious here, and I can continue to fuck with that.
When looking at at Atlanta, by all accounts, we gotta see it for what it is: a series about a can’t-do-nothing-right Earn, and the shenanigans around getting his cousin Alfred up the hierarchy of Atlanta’s rap game. In the midst of all that, however, you get a show that refuses to pander to folks despite its many urban illusions. It only concerns itself with its own damn footprint. And by season two, you learn not to misconstrue this for a black show, a white show, nor a “me” show. It’s a “them” show—only edible when you accept what’s on the menu.
This feels especially groundbreaking when you recall old sitcoms like The Cosby Show in the late 1980s on NBC. They held the hand of a certain viewer, but it wasn’t the black sort. Instead it upheld an ideal of what the minority family needed to look like for a whiter viewership—molded straight out of middle/high-class sensibilities—where exposition was designed for the viewer without a black friend, basically. In truth, the Cosby family as a whole went down easy; no sides of “ghetto” or “opposition,” just that good ol’ organic shit (respectability politics). Great for the 1980s.
Atlanta, whether purposeful or not (though likely intentional, just given Donald Glover’s unorthodox nature) dissociates itself from its most surface-level audience (black folks) by neither pandering to white audiences nor people of colour, but landing somewhere in the middle.
A chief example comes from the same “Sportin’ Waves” episode where the most climatic moment begins with an apology: “I’m sorry about this bruh.” A random dealer who Alfred apparently knows, points his pistol in Alfred’s face during an apparent drug deal gone wrong. Standard hood protocol would suggest a dude screaming fuck yous and hurry the fuck ups with aggression, but instead, this scene goes for an odd friendly exchange, followed by profuse apologies on behalf of the stickup man, and a promise by said thief that he’ll pay Alfred back.
A completely separate scene several minutes later revolves around a discussion about black hair care and waves. For any non-person of colour, there’s a distinct possibility that you’ve never seen a wave, nor understand what the hell a wave is, but this entire couple of minutes dedicated to some black dudes chopping it up around a distinctively black tradition sits there without nuance. Other television sequences may have caved in and gone for the tirade approach about the intricacies of how a wave is done right—an exposition for the explanation—but not in this show.
Nothing about these situations feel like they’re told through a veil of blackness or whiteness—like you’re assumed to understand something based on who you are. In episode one, “Alligator Man,” we’re casually introduced to a black uncle named “The Alligator Man,” who just happens to own an alligator in his ATL lived bathroom, the reason for which is never explained. In episode three, Money Bag Shawty, the same perpetually broke Earn who couldn’t afford a damn mirror to look in (the best damn joke in the series), suddenly has the finances to rent out limos and “VIP” options a week later. How he attained said money? We don’t know. The absurdity of it all in and of itself just speaks to the acceptance that these people just are who they are, living a life that isn’t for the camera—alternative world building 101.
I appreciate that. It’s so unlike the white friend who gives me a fist bump in a misguided attempt to bond with me. Atlanta’s own moments of random non-explanations, character introductions without accompanying histories (Tracy) and plot holes (a death that’s never mentioned again) all give it the feeling of a camera dropped in the middle of a culture that’s already running on its own axis. My feelings don’t matter as much as what simply is. And nothing is more real to me in 2018 than a world that doesn’t play to my needs/expectations as a black—or anything—viewer.
Atlanta is heading further into season two demanding something from its audience that so few shows have the guts to do: Take us for what we are. And fuck, I hope Donald Glover and fam never stop asking that of me.
Follow Noel on Twitter.