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‘Atlanta’ Can Be Whatever It Wants

Donald Glover takes his show to the ‘Boondocks’ in Episode 7

FX
FX

My colleagues Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, cohosts of The Watch, have celebrated Atlanta for its marvelous unpredictability, and the way it shepherds the audience with utmost confidence but otherwise scrambles anyone’s ability to detect where its characters are headed — or what, exactly, is going on inside Donald Glover’s head. This week, his imagination gloms onto a singular theme: personal transition.

The seventh episode of Atlanta, titled “B.A.N.” — short for Black American Network — isn’t exactly a half hour of comedy. Instead, it’s an immersive spoof of black TV networks like BET and TV One, complete with cheesy public-access music, current-affairs programming, serialized news reports from the field, and hella jaded taglines for the new Dodge Charger (“the official car of making a statement without saying anything at all”) and AriZona Iced Tea (“the price is on the can, though”). The episode’s focus is a TV interview that Earn arranges for Paper Boi, who quickly regrets his participation in what turns out to be a panel discussion on gender, sexuality, transgender rights, and “transracial” identity. It’s Atlanta’s most jarring episode yet, with great comedic risks that decisively earn every offbeat laugh.

Unlike last week’s “Value,” which turned the series’s POV over to Van as she reunites with an old, adventurous friend, “B.A.N.” is a Paper Boi joint. The episode tracks the rapper through a bizarre panel discussion. (There are a couple of competing definitions of “transracial”; the characters deploy it in the dubious, post–Rachel Dolezal sense, meaning someone who identifies with a different race.) Paper Boi spent much of Episode 5, “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” begging a local TV news reporter for an in-depth interview. In “B.A.N.,” he gets his star turn in front of a camera — unfortunately.

Wearing his best purple polo short-sleeve, Paper Boi sits for an interview with host Franklin Montague, a loose approximation of Don Lemon or T.J. Holmes, on a set that resembles Charlie Rose. Montague and his second panelist, Dr. Deborah Holt, president of the Center for Trans-American Issues, parse bits of transphobia and homoeroticism that they’ve identified in Paper Boi’s music. The panel is a disaster for all involved. Montague and Dr. Holt willfully misinterpret Paper Boi’s lyrics as well as his uninterest in news surrounding Caitlyn Jenner. Paper Boi withers under simple questions. At one point during the Montague show, a B.A.N. correspondent profiles a local black man who sincerely identifies as white.

The episode is a gallery of great Paper Boi double takes. He is Atlanta’s straight man; too bloodshot, beleaguered, and lazy to entertain the many pratfalls of everyone who surrounds him. So “B.A.N.” is a personal purgatory where the rapper suffers an onslaught of fools: a clueless news anchor, an overzealous civil rights activist, and a goofy race traitor (played by the comedian Niles Stewart, whom you might recognize as a classic Twitter meme).

On the whole, “B.A.N.” is a race comedy freak show in the spirit of Chappelle’s. The episode also recalls Cartoon Network’s adaptation of The Boondocks, which famously had its own spoofs of BET, Atlanta rappers, and hip-hop homophobia. Aaron McGruder’s take on these subjects was so venomous as to border on contempt. (In that show’s most furious episode, an alternate-timeline MLK abandons the civil rights movement and disavows “niggas” because he hates sagging and Usher.) Glover is careful in comparison; he isn’t roasting “PC culture” or exaggerating Paper Boi’s insensitivity so much as he’s setting black culture, including hip-hop, onto a dreadfully amusing collision course with progressive standards of conduct. It’s the sort of pop culture impasse that sabotages even the wokest, most impassioned participants in conversations at the crossroads of Gucci Mane fandom and politics Twitter. Paper Boi spends much of the interview rolling his eyes and tapping out.

The last couple of installments of Atlanta have upended expectations of what a single episode of TV might set out to accomplish, and “B.A.N.” marks a three-peat in this regard. It’s not quite a story, but more of a fever dream directed by Paper Boi’s own subconscious, presumably as he naps on that couch of his. In “B.A.N.,” Paper Boi is a rapper out of his depth. His refusal to engage with the pop-up media circus that he once thought he wanted may portend more-realistic obstacles for his rap stardom as he imagines it taking shape.

Perhaps it’s a bad trip; perhaps it’s a bad dream; perhaps this shit really is canon. In any case, “B.A.N.” drugs our perception of the world these characters inhabit, and the exquisite rhythm of low-key jokes is such that I, for one, was inclined to just go with it. As sketch comedy in the spirit of Adult Swim’s after-dark surrealism, “B.A.N.” might prove ephemeral and too absurd for popular tastes. As guerrilla theater of a beloved narrative character’s weed-drenched mind, however, it’s an astoundingly compelling conceit: Paper Boi is swallowed by an ostensibly sympathetic programming block that spits him back out as a thug straw man of the culture wars. Such is hip-hop — whether he’s dreaming big or hustling realistically “wherever mixtapes are … available.”