In the first episode of Atlanta, Donald Glover’s character, Earn, is trying to give his cousin Alfred’s “Paper Boi” single a signal boost with some radio spins, so he goes to the local station to talk to an old friend who works there. This friend happens to be white, wearing a henley, and as it turns out, is a consummate headass. He spins Earn this yarn about going to a party where a DJ committed the unforgivable sin of playing Flo Rida — back to back, no less. The fact that he’s so excited about this mundane-ass story feels like a setup for a massive record-scratch moment. And then, it comes: Headass White Henley Dude did his civic duty by taking this hopelessly confused DJ aside and saying “Really, nigga?”
There was a similar record-scratch moment on Monday night, when David Simon, creator of everyone’s (yes, everyone’s) favorite TV show, The Wire, sent a really bad tweet.
As Simon would later explain to anyone who would listen, he was making a joke about Donald Trump holding a town hall meeting on African American concerns in Cleveland, on Wednesday, and naming decidedly not-black, very-white, sometime-y journalist person Sean Hannity as the host. This probably could’ve been done without Simon doing the commentary version of pulling up from half court, while using the N-word, regardless of whether it ended in an “a” or not. A reasonable person would admit the joke was in poor taste, or realize that, though it may have had consistent internal logic, it didn’t fucking land. Or maybe beforehand they might’ve paused to ask themselves “Am I white?” and then deleted the draft.
Simon, too stubborn, too woke, or too much of both, decided to Tweet Through It using a grab bag of buzzwords, #WellActually-ing himself into oblivion.
Simon has been doggedly railing against Trump for this entire election cycle, generally taking on all comers, so it’s not surprising that he’s refusing to move off of this “y’all just aren’t smart enough to get satire” thing, but I still find it insulting. I guess this is the kind of L you take when you have people gassing you up about how you canonized the prestige drama or deifying you for being vocally against things like mass incarceration and the war on drugs. You might start to believe you have some sort of laminated cultural pass that lets you go wherever and say whatever you please. And I suppose you do, but I have to ask: Would Simon say “nigga” to Michael Kenneth Williams’s face? Wood Harris’s? Idris Elba’s? J.D. Williams’s? All of them at the same time?
The next thing that happens in that Atlanta radio station scene isn’t what you’d expect. The exchange doesn’t end with Earn running Headass White Henley Dude’s fade, or even with a sternly-worded scolding about who can and can’t say that word, or who gets to draw those lines. (We haven’t reached a consensus on the first question, but the answer to the second question is: “Black people, and black people only.”)
Earn barely breaks stride, letting the teachable moment pass because, well, sometimes that happens. Glover’s character is faced with an all-too-familiar choice between doing something about it and getting nowhere and letting people openly — gleefully, even — disrespect you. Maybe sometimes checking people about their use of the word just doesn’t seem so important to us. But, White People, the safest way to play it is always: If you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying “nigga” to every one of us, then you shouldn’t be saying “nigga” to any one of us. Donald Glover actually had a stand-up bit about this back in 2011, in which he joked that everyone, including white people, should start saying “nigga” to rid the word of its power. Undertaking such a huge cultural and societal shift, Glover noted, means that “we will lose some of you in the process.”
White Henley Dude does eventually get his comeuppance near the end of the episode, when Earn makes him tell his stupid story again, but this time in front of two more black people. Suddenly aware of his own mortality if not his wrongdoing, White Henley Dude does not opt to double down, leaves the punch line out, and narrowly avoids becoming a casualty of “the process.” It’ll be interesting to see if Simon manages to do the same.
Simon isn’t the needle-headed White Henley Dude from Atlanta, but he sort of is, isn’t he? Regardless of whether you make Treme and Show Me a Hero, once you cross that line, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. And please, whatever you do, for the love of God, don’t tweet through it.