Jayson Buford fights for his edits like he’s Jimmy Butler in the team huddle.
Abe Beame knows that Mike Jones wasn’t a one hit wonder.
A Black boy is awakened by a dream he has of two men – one Black, one white – fishing at night. The white man starts a monologue about whiteness and its conditions. To this man – whiteness can be achieved through class status and also taken away under a different circumstance. The Armenians weren’t white until they became them. Jews are white, undeniably so, and have been able to use that to their success in America, but the Führer of Nazi Germany did think they were a separate race that needed to be eradicated. We’ve seen the dynamic of whiteness and Blackness discussed in Atlanta – from white men being comfortable using “nigga” around Earn, to Darius being held captive at the house of the skin bleaching and aspirational white man Teddy Perkins, to Van and Earn going to a Juneteenth party with a white man constantly trying to one-up Earn in terms of knowing about Blackness, or what he thinks it is, as to say – I’m a whitey that is Blacker than you. This first episode, a premiere that is four years in the making, is another episode based on Black people’s proximity to white saviors, white terror, and yes, white people.
Based on a true story of a white Lesbian couple that murdered their foster children in a murder-suicide, the Black boy is named Laquarius. Laquarius gets in trouble for acting out in class, dancing when the teacher says that they will be seeing Black Panther 2 in the theater. His mom, a stern woman, tells him to stop showing out for his white classmates or “these white people gon’ kill you.” She doesn’t actually mean kill you in that true sense of the word, it’s more like breaking you down until you kill yourself or make a fatal mistake. I believe that Laquarius wasn’t dancing for them. This unbridled cultural joy is just who he is, but knowing where you are and who is laughing with or at you, is an important lesson for Black kids surrounded by whiteness everywhere. That conversation is one I have heard told to me in my life and I definitely needed to hear it. Just like, in terms of class status, there are different rules for different people, it’s doubly so for race in relation to the dynamics of the American school system.
A white savior in the form of a guidance counselor sees Laquarius’s mom disciplining him and tells him “we’re going to get you out of there.” Soon after, Laquarius is taken in by a white Lesbian couple, played by a disconcerting Jamie Newmann and Laura Dreyfuss, who make shampoo out of olive oil and serve poorly made chicken. (All in all, this is a good comedic episode, it takes internet jokes about Whiteness and makes it uncomfortable and even sadistic). They make Laquarius a veritable slave, making him work in a garden that looks like a slave field and take the Blackness away from him like a funnel-shaped dentist cup. In a part amusing and uncomfortable scene, he raps NBA Youngboy’s “Make No Sense” but is told by his white guardian to sing something softer – a synonym for whiter. Eventually, Laquarius sees this dynamic for what it is: wite people using Black boys as slaves and gradually graduating to kill them. He goes to a cop – a call to the real Hart family which used their kid for an insulting photo-op with the police – and the cop, because of course, doesn’t take Laquarius’s claims seriously. A social worker sees through the white couple’s disguise and says that he is going to save Laquarius and it is assumed that she is killed by Jamie Newmann’s character.
This is a compelling episode for a lot of reasons. Atlanta dabbles with absurdity – which is ridiculousness with context – but it hasn’t been done quite like this. Glover is doing a dream sequence about white terror, racism, and unwanted assimilation. It doesn’t always work for me. There’s a difference between tinkering with what the audience is expecting (as all great artists do) and doing what Glover does in this episode, which seems more of an educated troll. Atlanta has done episodes that speak to what Glover is going for here that are more rooted in the universe that Atlanta, and all its characters, are directly a part of.
This felt a bit more an outlier episode with good ideas. Also, in real life, the kids died along with Sarah Hart and her partner. It wasn’t cinematic. It was depressing and caused a deep state of anger in the Black community. Despite that, this threat and what happens in the episode, is real. From relationships where white men, or white women, are micro-aggressing Black women and men every day to white co-workers commenting on Black hair or rapping along to “nigga” in front of their Black co-workers, we live in a world of white people being fucking terrible, scary, and racist, even if do it with a casualness that suggests that they don’t know what they’re doing is wrong. This episode plays on this idea of racism that isn’t visceral and is more hidden in the shadows until it comes down all upon you like guerilla warfare. The type of racism here is the one that stops you dead in your tracks and makes you aware of your surroundings as a Black kid. Laquarius eventually gets out by escaping the vehicle that the couple is going to use for the murder-suicide and comes back home to his Mom, who calls him “baby”, showing the Black motherhood that the white saviors didn’t think she had. If Laquarius wasn’t scared of the white people killing him, he definitely is now, just as Earn wakes up to start in his white-centric universe. Here to discuss this with me is Abe Beame. – Jayson Buford
Abe: Good afternoon Jay, and a special shoutout to the strange business decision Hulu and FX made to drop these episodes on streaming at 4 AM on Friday mornings. So let’s start with the intro, because I think it will prove to be a mission statement, the most important and explicit scene of the entire season. The two men on the boat appear to be on Lake Lanier, a snaking body of water in the foothills of the northern Georgia mountains. This scene explains my excitement, and my trepidation coming into this season of Atlanta.
On one hand, I am so tired of this model of intensive research, used as a kind of historical crutch to build a plot point around, as I will address in my opening recap of the next episode. Something I fear for this season of Atlanta is it’s going to lean heavily on the Jordan Peele model, that seemed much more fresh and original when this season was written three years ago. Back then, we’d all stand and clap for the homework you did because you tied your social/racial horror film into historical curios like Hands Across America. But we’re living on the other side of a culture that has been transformed and shaped by Jordan Peele and his acolytes. And at least for me, the model is getting stale. This episode was begging for a participation trophy and leaned on a lot of observation and humor that was edgy and insightful when The Chappelle Show was on cable.
On the other hand, there’s this. Potentially the best-written passage we’ve heard on this show:
White’s not a real thing. There’s no scientific basis for it, it’s social. White is where you are. It’s when you are. Armenians are white as hell, until they ain’t. When they damned the Chattahoochee, some refused to leave. They thought they were safe. They paid to be white. With enough blood and money anyone can be white. It’s always been that way. But the thing about being white is it blinds you. It’s easy to see the Black man as cursed because you’ve separated yourself from him. But you don’t know, you’re enslaved just like him. Cold whiteness. You’re hypothermic. You lose logic. You see the blood, and you think someone else is bleeding. Everyone is screaming at you to turn the machine off, but you can’t hear them. You can’t even hear yourself saying, “We’re cursed too.”
My impression, based off the trailer, was this season was going to be Glover taking on Fellini, specifically La Dolce Vita, a horror film about the destructive and corrupting influence of wealth and success. Based on episode two, we seem to be on our way towards that future, and it’s beautifully established by this opener, which as you insightfully call out, I have a particular sensitivity to as a Jewish elastically white person born late in the 20th century. It’s the mirage of whiteness, the Faustian bargain and empty promise of acceptance that could power this season and make it special, unique and important, if they can land the plane.
What I fear is they will use this post-Peele model of intellectual social justice horror to convey their ideas with this heavy-handed, oppressive formula, using a thread of the week model to hammer us over the head with Midsommar style, “isn’t this culture foreign and strange and creepy?” To articulate the alienation of the modern Black experience when pressed up uncomfortably against white culture and industry. Ok. Sorry, talked a lot. What do you think?
Jay: I, too, fear that the Peele model is getting heavy-handed. But there is enough realism here where it is less pronounced than something like Us or even the works of Ari Aster. My issue here wasn’t necessarily the use of it; but rather, the idea that he could have trolled the audience without having to do this. This story is one of real pain. I respect the idea. I even admire it. But I won’t go back to this episode, not in the same way I go back to B.A.N., Woods, or even Teddy Perkins. It’s one of those episodes that will go down in lore for the ambition but doesn’t strike me as what makes Atlanta a great show. That being said, they’re some tremendous moments. That script in the first minutes is great, as you pointed out, the type of scene that is going to be watched on YouTube for years to come. It was less Peele though, to me, and more in the realm of No Country for Old Men but about racism. It alludes to physical presence as horror. There’s a white terror that clouds each scenes and follows Laquarius wherever he goes. Oftentimes, it is staring him in the face: It’s ephemeral and uncompromising.
Abe: Jay, you probably haven’t heard about this because not a single person has mentioned or referenced it but me, but recently Donald Glover said this season of Atlanta was set up as a “Fairy Tale”, specifically, from appearances, a Grimm twisted tale full of ovens with room for children and cross dressing men eating foxes.
You used the word petty several times so far, and I think that’s exactly right. The burning of these straw lesbians feels so much like score settling, pitching to an elite few very online people who will pick up the signal that we’re dealing with the worst white lady reply gals going at Rihanna for appropriating indigenous language. I get this story is based on a real event, but the way they animate these symbolic side characters as hash tag regurgitating meme bots just makes me want to nap. I didn’t really buy them as people. I guess they make sense as evil stepmothers in a nightmare realm, but did we really need to dedicate one of like 19-20 more episodes we’re going to get of this show to this magical realist MFA workshop submission? I’m not sure.
Jay: Real people, even ones that are undoubtedly racist, usually contain more multitudes than the characters given in this episode. I agree. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t less real or less consequential. If you take it literally, perhaps, but I did not. Even the best white parents to Black kids are going to concede, or not understand, some racial lines and behaviors that are unique to Black life. It’s an allegory, or a comparison, of sorts. I don’t think it is meant to be taken in a completely strict and factual sense. It is a trick, using a true story to stand in for a similar truth, but slightly less profound view of white America’s relationships to Black kids and their Blackness. The white savior guidance is a good example of that. The mothering that the Black Mom shows, while not perfect, is something that I have seen before, in my family, and in the family of my friends.
Abe: I agree about the mother. She was great. Kind of reminded me of the mother from The Green Knight a little. I guess I’m taking issue with the cartoonish flatness of the villains. If I want to watch The Boondocks, I’ll watch The Boondocks. I think a major issue I have when the show goes off on these flights of fancy is the younger viewers seemingly don’t understand that it’s a joke refurbishing system for The Chappelle Show. There are multiple ideas in this episode that are quoting the show directly, and I don’t know. Kill Carlos Mencia but we’re just letting this show get away with IP theft?
Everything you said about the episode above is absolutely true, I don’t even know that I disliked it. It probably works as a standalone effort. But it doesn’t stand alone. In the context of the show and everything that came before it, and everything they’re communicating in making this the premier for the season, I have questions. I suspect I’ll never get answers.
Jay: And I don’t think Glover wants you to have the answers. He fancies himself as a serious artist, it bites him in the ass musically, but it suits him for Atlanta. It’s a genuinely existential show, with moments of absurdity that hits you in the chest with a truth that is impossible to escape. Even a broken clock strikes right twice a day. Saying that only the Sopranos is above Atlanta was looked at shockingly, but I won’t be surprised if this season is another great one. It’s a great show.