I Went from Being an Agency Assistant to Writing for 'Atlanta'
Stefani with the cast of Atlanta. (Left to Right: Donald Glover, Keith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Stefani Robinson, Brian Tyree Henry). Images courtesy of FX
About a year-and-a-half out of college, I was working as an assistant at a talent agency, and I had just met my agent. It was just one of those things: I had written an original pilot, got it submitted to FX, and here’s a young new writer. It was at the same time they were hiring the Atlanta staff, and they were looking for one more writer, a girl, specifically, and it just so happens that I was actually from Atlanta as well. It was crazy—suddenly I was meeting producers, and then I was staff on the show.
Atlanta’s writers' room is super unique. Our process is different. In a more traditional writers’ room, there is more of a structure, more of a “We need to break this specific story today” feeling. Atlanta feels more like friends just hanging out, which definitely helps make the writing process super easy. We come at the show in a very indirect way, and it’s more about us and what we find funny or interesting rather than what we need to do to fit television scenes.
Regarding the "Juneteenth" episode, we wanted a Van-and-Earn episode to bring the audience into the dysfunction of their relationship. Myself and another writer specifically thought, Maybe a really bourgeoise Juneteeth party. When I was a teenager, my mom used to help put Juneteenth events on at the Marietta Square. I remember having to go and it being so hot out in Georgia. I didn’t think that it was a holiday or celebration that anybody except black people knew about, and not all black people know what Juneteenth is, which adds to the “bourgeoise-ness” of the episode. It’s so black, and to me it’s kinda funny. It was so interesting that it's a whole event that happens behind closed doors in this country. It’s such a specifically black experience.
As far as the "B.A.N." episode, the transracial kid was a conversation that sprung out of Rachel Dolezal. We were thinking, “White people get to do this but we can’t do that.” It’s so frustrating that she thinks she can do whatever she wants. She can be whatever race she wants, when we as black people, or really any people of color, don’t have the luxury to be like, “You know what? I’m actually white and I actually deserve a lot of money and to not be harassed by cops and be discriminated against.” The episode comes from the idea that it doesn’t go both ways. That’s where the humor came from for us. A black teenage dude can’t decide that he’s just a 35-year-old white guy. That would never work.
In Season Two, we step into Van’s life a little bit more. We get to see a life that isn’t necessarily through the lens of her relationships with men. We see her by herself and with her friends. It’s really important for us to explore the life of a black woman that isn’t contextualized by who she’s dating. Her character can hang out with guys, and she is cool and part of the gang, which I think is also important specifically in black culture: black women are usually just seen as hassling the guys. They’re not cool enough to hang out, they’re always nagging and they’re always on someone’s nerves as far as men go.
There is something a little bit more real about Van and Earn’s relationship. Relationships are complicated and there are some relationships out there that aren’t as easy as “We’re together," or "We’re not.” People are connected for life in a very complicated way, and do still have love for each other. Some people are connected for very strange reasons. Whether it’s through children or whether it's them mentally not wanting to let the other person go, it’s the less sitcom-y way to go.
To get more black people in writing roles, it starts with education. A lot of people in general want to get into acting because they don't know what's available to them. When I was a kid, I just knew that I loved movies and wanted to be a part of movies or TV someday. I didn’t really know about any black writers. I didn’t know that was a thing black people did, or know that black people were writing, editing, and shooting things, or that they were designing costumes. If you don’t see something, how are you supposed to know that it’s something you want, or that you can aspire to be it one day? As a young person, acting was the most relatable entry into the entertainment industry. Luckily, I was in a position doing theater and various acting programs and I had teachers who recognized my strength in writing and told me that.
I was fortunate to have parents that guided me in the right direction. As a kid going to film camp, I learned how to operate a camera, how to write for TV, how to edit, and how to direct. I had the opportunity to put myself in these activities where I got somewhat of a full sense of what it would be like to be involved in television or film. From there I was like, “You know what? I do really enjoy acting and I’m pretty good at it, but I have so much more fun when I’m writing." As far as people of color, specifically black kids, go, they need access and they need the opportunity and that isn’t always the case.
I don’t have advice in particular for black writers entering the entertainment industry, because so much depends on luck and a random opportunity, but the thing I will say is to just be prepared and to write. That has been the thing to carry me and still carries me. Never in my life will I be able to manufacture the moment that got me on Atlanta. I was just quite literally at the right place at the right time for that opportunity. The reason I was able to grasp it and to keep it going was because I was prepared. I wrote all the time. I was constantly thinking about ideas. My biggest advice is to constantly be writing, constantly be reading, and then on top of that, to be honest about what you love.
What really excites me about writers is when they are authentic to themselves and write about what they want to see on TV. That shouldn’t be based on what’s on right now. They aren’t shy about their inspirations, no matter how dumb. My favorite movie is Austin Powers. It’s a ridiculously dumb movie and I am not ashamed about that—it’s the key that influenced me, it made me laugh, and it made me want to get into comedy. Stay true to what influenced you throughout your life and hold onto those things. Don’t apologize for them or for yourself. It's easier said than done, but that’s what greatness comes from. There's something exciting about reading a script or watching a TV show or movie and thinking, Oh my God no one else could have done that. No one else but Donald Glover could have created the show with these specific writers in the writers room. I think that’s why people are excited about Atlanta: it has the unique voice of the people who write for it.
My mentor is probably Donald Glover, whether he knows he’s my mentor or not. We spend a lot of time together and I look up to him like a big brother. He's so smart, and the thing that I admire most about him is that he’s so open. I had never written anything professionally before writing for Atlanta, and he took a chance on me. He’s genius enough to realize that he needs all types of people, and I think there's something so great about that. I’m constantly watching him and I’m inspired by what he creates.
If I could have anyone on the show, I would have Eddie Murphy. I love Eddie Murphy. He's been laying low for awhile, but I just think he is so brilliant. I don't know what capacity we would ever use him in, but he is so iconic in comedy, and in black comedy specifically, that it would be an honor to have him on the show.
My goal at FX is to do stuff that hasn't been done before, or done from the voice of a 25-year-old black woman. I'll hopefully be working with people that I love working with, who inspire me and push me to be better.
Atlanta returns Thursday, March 1st on FX.
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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