Atlanta: A groundbreaking show ends appropriately — with us scratching our heads!
The surrealist television show is an instant classic and will be missed.
Watching the first episode of Atlanta hooked me. Two scenes reeled me in. From the very first scene, the confrontation in the parking lot outside a nightclub between the three protagonists, Ern, Paper Boy, Darius, and a young couple. The character Darius, played by Lakeith Stansfield, interjects the surprisingly tense scene by pointing out that the situation they are experiencing has happened before, proving it by pointing to a stray dog he said should be there. And the second scene, toward the end of that episode, is when Ern(played by series creator Donald Glover) is riding the bus at night with his baby girl when a mysterious passenger dressed elegantly in a suit and bowtie confronts him. The stranger offers Ern unsolicited philosophical advice and a bite of a jelly sandwich he just made on the bus. The man vanishes from Ern’s side but suddenly appears outside the bus, walking and disappearing in the woods (accompanied by a dog that suddenly appears).
Donald Glover, the genius behind the show’s success, served as the show’s writer, director, producer, and star, weaving a world, sometimes flinching social commentary grounded in surrealism. This approach allowed him to explore race, entertainment, crime, and especially black culture in a way that illuminated the conscious and subconscious, whether exciting or mundane, in a way that would make us second guess our outlook on American culture.
Glover made everyday experiences in the Black community sometimes bitter and sometimes funny as hell. I am familiar with many of the situations his characters experienced, and I expect many other African Americans have experienced many of the topics in his writing. The relatability of the characters wrapped in surrealist adventures made Atlanta so appealing. Like the saying, “Many a true word is spoken in jest,” many dreams are born in reality. From white people using the word nigger casually, or the barber that won’t shut up, or white people joyously celebrating African culture and Juneteenth to Black people trying to support Black restaurants even if the service and food sucks, Atlanta is reality cloaked in a deliberately opaque dream. Glover also aimed at celebrities such as Tyler Perry and Michael Jackson, which is something Black entertainers do not do on such a popular show outside of YouTube and other social media sites. It was refreshing.
By delivering tales through the lens of surrealism, the viewer was allowed to look inwards toward our subconscious and society. His Atlanta is filled not with real people but ideas of people; the record, producer, the rap star, the business mogul, the white friend, the crazy aunt, all of whom Glover reveals to be something other than what they appear. Most are either lonely, crazy, or all the above. Nothing ever happens the way it should, just like in a dream.
Glover described Atlanta as “Twin Peaks with rappers,” and the final episode exemplifies that by taking viewers on a psychedelic journey that leaves us wondering what was real and what was a dream. The show’s last episodes are the perfect bookend to the first episode of season one, when the entire confrontation in the parking lot may have been a dream in Darius’ head. We don’t know for sure, and I want to avoid getting a direct answer from Glover. I am content with living in the swirling world of avant-garde, surrealistic dreamlike worlds where exact interpretations only lessen the story’s impact. Atlanta is a case where the journey is much more important than the destination. Glover pulled out all the stops in Atlanta’s last season, which took tremendous courage.
Most writers would have stayed in the lane of the commercial template, i.e., a hefty dose of violence, sex, and baby mama drama. But Glover’s sometimes head-scratching episodes never fell into the usual tropes and veered directly into the cerebral instead. In a world where scripts are as commercialized for the broad lowest common denominator, Glover stands out as an artist that genuinely respects the intellect and taste of his audience. He does not explain or dumb things down. I appreciate that.
The cast was also part of the appeal. The characters always felt like real people instead of “tv people.” Joining Glover and Stanfield were Brian Tyree Henry, who played rapper Paper Boy and Zazie Beets, who portrayed Vanessa Keefer. Ending the show in its fourth season while it is at the highest popularity is a good idea, and I hope it is never reimagined or revisited in any form. After this last season, there was no other place to go, and it seems that Glover wrote each episode with that in mind, and that is why he let it all hang out. He’s the retired slugger who hit a grand slam on his last at-bat. Many people lamented the Beatles’ breakup, but did we want to see them hang around too long? Let’s capsulize this relatively brief show for what it was and leave it alone. This was the perfect time to end the show, and I look forward to seeing what else Donald Glover and the rest of the writers have to offer us in the future.