Television Workshop: Donald Glover's Atlanta

By Caleb Michael Sarvis




Atlanta has fought our own categorical nature. It’s refused to allow us the pleasure of labeling it, much less build any reasonable expectations for what’s to come. Most recently, Atlanta has fucked around with form, perception, and even included its own series of commercials; however, while last night’s episode was a flex on the show’s part, I found myself most intrigued by the audacity in its honesty.

On Framing

The entire episode is framed within a talk show titled Montague. Franklin Montague, the host, welcomes Alfred (as Paper Boi) to comment on the nature of transphobia within the hip-hop community. He’s joined by Dr. Debra Holt (head of trans-American issues) to discuss not only the alleged hypocrisy in the hip-hop community’s intolerance, but to also analyze the “pro sexual spectrum” nature of Paper Boi’s lyrics. What we get is an honest discussion about Alfred’s perceived worth juxtaposed to that of Caitlyn Jenner’s celebrity. “Caitlyn Jenner is not super important to me,” he says. “Caitlyn Jenner just doing what rich white men have been doing since the dawn of time, which is whatever the hell he want.”

Because we’re given the episode through the lens of another television show, we’re also given a string of commercials made specifically for this episode. Through the commercials raw interpretations of their products, we get a parallel look at the honesty with which Paper Boi speaks. “Arizona, The Price is on the Can, Though” or “Dodge Charger, Keep it in the Divorce” are as equally transparent as Paper Boi’s claim, “I should be allowed to say that something’s weird without people hating on me.”

Towards the end of their discussion, Dr. Holt agrees with Alfred and his claims about free speech. Franklin is perturbed by their civility, a shot at the media it seems, and yells at Paper Boi, “You hate women!” just to manufacture some resemblance of tension.

On Satire

We’ve gotten splashes of exaggerated moments that feel like they are working for something more, but don’t come to full fruition. In the second episode of the series, a man in jail is confronted with his own sexuality when he realizes his ex-girlfriend is actually a man. Once it’s pointed out that they are in an all-male holding cell, and the other inmates attack his confusion, he turns angry and emotional, specifically at Earn. “Sexually is a spectrum, so you can really do whatever you want,” Earn tries but the man won’t listen. This is just an isolated scene five episodes earlier. A few episodes later, we have black Justin Bieber. Last week, a young student at Van’s school is sent to in-school suspension for wearing white-face. Again, it feels like an isolated moment that doesn’t develop into something more until this week.

A pre-taped segment airs on Montague in which they highlight the plight of Harrison (born Antione Smalls), a black teenager dealing with what they call “trans-racial identity.” He identifies as a thirty-five-year-old white man. His family doesn’t understand because they don’t know that race is “just a made up thing.” Donald Glover tackles honesty and transparency in a ludicrous way. The show is a fun-house mirror. At one point, Harrison claims that the perceived inclusion of other black men is an example of the discrimination he faces.

When they bring Harrison on live to get an update on his transition, we see he now has shaggy blond hair and has just finished looking at art spaces in South Carolina. In line with the episode’s sharp honesty, Paper Boi can’t keep his laughter in. “This is dumb,” he says. “Nobody told you not to do bangs?”

The real clincher is at the end of the segment, when we learn that while Montague and Dr. Holt have tried to equate the plights of trans-gender and trans-racial identities, and also criticize the transphobia permeating rap culture, Harrison himself is not tolerant of the LGBT community, “A man wanting to turn himself into a woman is unnatural.” It’s an irony too great that Alfred again loses it.

On Plot

“B.A.N.” ignores our traditional understanding of plot, especially at the television level. The structure with which they move the narrative is without shape, plot, or even narrative for the most part. I mentioned audacity above, and that’s the only label I feel is appropriate for the show, besides incredible. This show is audacious and incredible. Alfred is our only real link to previous episodes (besides Ahmad White, the Nutella sandwich guy from the pilot episode), and while he calls Earn by name, we never get so much as a reply from Earn. Darius, who felt like a necessary glue the first five episodes, has been absent for two straight, and the show is perfectly fine. Jason Ockert’s been telling me that I have to “earn my weird,” so that other decisions down the road will be accepted by the reader. Atlanta has certainly earned its weird, and this week’s episode is evidence of that.

Two Things Working For Me: It comes as no surprise, but the show’s almost-stubborn means of progressing in a manner we don’t expect and can’t predict is the best thing I’ve seen on television. It’s becoming an event in a way. As I look forward to the final three episodes of season one, I am excited by what I don’t know, which is what the best kind of writing does. Secondly, I’m very pro-Dragonball Z references. When Alfred asks Harrison if powered up because “you look Super Saiyan right now,” I was all-in.

Two Things I’m Not Sold On: I know it’s bad workshop etiquette to say there isn’t anything you would change, but I truly loved this episode. Ahmad White’s commercial selling spiritual enlightenment seemed like something that could’ve been thrown away, and we probably didn’t need three different Dodge Charger commercials, but as mentioned above, I felt the transparency of those interpretations fell in-line with the nature of honesty in this episode.

Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer in Jacksonville, where he lives with his wife and works as the Fiction Editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine. He'd love to hear from you: @calebmsarvis