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The First Season of ‘Atlanta’ Was About Everything and Nothing At All

The FX show gave us exactly what we needed

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“The Jacket,” the final episode of the enthralling debut season of Atlanta, didn’t have anything to do with cracking a long-dormant case wide open. It had nothing to do with a new monarch dying over a golden piece of regalia. No one was poisoned, nothing blew up, there was no long-awaited reveal that brought our collective evening to a screeching halt. The questions we were left with weren’t pressing, but nagging ones — Has Earn matured emotionally at all? Will Earn and Van, or won’t they? — same as the questions that were ultimately answered, sort of. I should say, someone did die, but like most of the violence on the show, it’s played as an everyday part of life, which says more about America than it does about Atlanta.

In the finale, Earn (show creator Donald Glover) chases down a lost jacket by retracing his steps through a hazy night out. He goes to a house, ravaged by a postgame, where he’s worn out his welcome, to a strip club he only sort of remembers visiting, and finally to an Uber driver’s house, where the Uber driver, suspected of an unspecified illicit activity, is subsequently killed by the police. It ends with Earn lying down to sleep in a storage unit beneath an overhead lamp and amongst frayed mattress toppers, busted cardboard boxes, and other forgotten knickknacks, staring at two crisp $100 bills. Just a little over twice what he had to his name seven episodes before. André 3000’s verse on the song “Elevators” from Outkast’s 1996 ATLiens album, ultra-fittingly, fills the still air:

A recurring thing you’ll hear in the effusive praise of Atlanta is how it fills a space that no other show on television really had before, or at least, hadn’t in quite some time. Along with that you’ll hear stuff about the ways it looks at everything from sexuality as a spectrum to the impossibility of modern relationships to the quandary of racial identity to the less glamorous (read: more common and realistic) parts of the rap game. But the chance to do all of this is afforded by the fact that — thanks to an all-black writers’ room — the black experience isn’t treated as something that needs to be validated or parsed or made sense of. It’s simply something that just … is.

Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) carries a gun, sells drugs, and raps, too, but he doesn’t need to be defined by any of those things. Van (Zazie Beetz) is essentially a single mother, and a stylist, trapped in the life of a school teacher. Earn was an Ivy Leaguer and suffers from all the residual, casual elitism that entails. (This is more evident earlier in the season, but like unstable elements die in halves and never totally disappear, it’s still there as the credits roll.) And Darius (Keith Stanfield), well, Darius does whatever it is that Darius does.

Atlanta is essentially a show about nothing, but it’s about everything at the same time.

The plot advances in small increments, and there’s a warmth and familiarity to the problems the characters face. Alfred takes an entire episode to do battle with an internet troll. He also finds himself in hot water over not giving a shit about a rich white person’s life choices because he’s got his own problems. Darius goes to a gun range and has a close brush with the “Heritage Not Hate” set. Van tries unsuccessfully to cheat a drug test. Earn sneaks soda in a water cup after striking out on a kid’s meal, then reports his debit card stolen after spending over his $62 budget on a date. There are no coups, no giant, swirling, sinister energy spires, no slow-motion deaths. These are just regular degular everyday black people, living their regular degular everyday lives.

This is in contrast to Power or Empire — two other shows that have mostly black casts — which exist in this parallel shared universe where everyone steps out of their bedroom in a perfectly styled outfit and has stupid amounts of money despite being objectively terrible at what they do, and everyone does only terrible things to each other with limited repercussions. Black-ish is another close cognate, but everything on that show is bright colors and pristine hardwood floors; a representation of the relatively small black upper-upper middle class.

Besides, Black-ish is a sitcom with a disembodied laugh track busting a gut over things that are meant to be funny. Atlanta is a series of funny moments, but the show isn’t funny, at least not in the way that we traditionally mean it. These aren’t things that are expressly meant to be funny, or even uncommon. You get the feeling — through the show’s intentional sparseness — that this has all happened before, and before long it’ll probably happen again.

When you’re white, the pearl-clutching over racism is generally reserved for racism at its logical extremes. It’s a travesty that occurs far away from here, perpetrated by people that you couldn’t possibly be, not in a million years.

When you’re black, you encounter bullshit on a fairly regular basis. Bullshit that is such self-evident, glaring, bald-faced, predictable bullshit that you find yourself unable to do anything but laugh at it.

Someone who desperately wants to know how you get your hair to do that thing it does invites him or herself to run a hand through it. Some other someone who fancies him or herself an amateur anthropologist tries to tell you what black people are like as if you aren’t one, and standing right there. Some other other someone oversteps in another way, like mistaking you for someone else who shares no defining characteristics with you other than skin color, and then tosses out some flimsy nonsense about how they can’t be racist because they know at least one other black person.

With Atlanta, Donald Glover, at least initially, wanted to make people “feel black.” Over time — the show was conceived three years ago — that aim sharpened into something more attainable. “I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.” The show hasn’t shied away from detailing the uniquely white tendency to stumble in and make yourself at home. It’s all over Earn’s, Keith’s, and Alfred’s faces as they stared down camera at Headass White Henley Dude and, you got the sense, the whole of white america in the premiere, and you could see it in last week’s “Juneteenth” episode when Earn squirmed beneath Craig the optometrist’s suffocating enthusiasm for all things black people.

While the show does deal with capital-R racism — the Clint Eastwood–looking cop beating the mentally ill man within an inch of his life in the second episode — it also lowers the bar for what it normally takes for racism to be explored on television. Instead of hate crimes committed by dudes with a single brain cell and two first names in the way of burning crosses and such, Atlanta hardly presents anyone as obviously racist. Those people are out there. But what of the generally well-meaning white people who commit racial microaggressions in everyday life? Like Headass White Henley Dude and his dumb Flo Rida story. Like Janice mistaking Earn for “Alonso.” Like Craig being outdone that Earn, as a black person, had never been to Africa. “You gotta go man,” he says.

When you’re black, you encounter bullshit like this on a fairly regular basis. Atlanta shows you that you’re neither crazy, nor alone, and that even with all of that bullshit, being black is still pretty fucking tight. And being broke? Well, it’s not as good as not being broke, but it isn’t the end of the world.