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Keith Stanfield Is the Secret Key to ‘Atlanta’

In his role as Darius, the 25-year-old actor continues his run of scene-stealing performances

FX
FX

In the second episode of the two-part series premiere of FX’s Atlanta, there’s this brilliant prison scene that manages to touch on racial profiling as it leads to Getting Caught Up in the System, the especially large stigma on mental health in the black community, and police brutality, all in the span of about four minutes. It ends with the blood-curdling screams of a man being crushed beneath nightsticks and boot heels, swallowed by ear-splitting sirens calling more hands to the holding area, leaving us to gape as the show cut to black. The next thing we know, Darius, a permanently stoned supporting character played by Keith Stanfield, is parked on a couch, staring at his phone with less than one eye open, deadpanning that Vibe has a piece claiming John Boyega is the new Magic Johnson.

Darius is Stanfield’s latest project. The 25-year-old actor first captured attention as a teenage poet with fragile confidence in 2013’s Short Term 12, but he’s turned in “breakout role” after “breakout role” since; as a puffed-up Blood member in Dope, a just-jiggy-enough Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton, and an inspiring Jimmie Lee Jackson in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. On Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Stanfield wonders aloud as a Zenned-out, marginal, third-wheel type, but it seems as though he’s the one holding it all together. If the show’s largest selling point is its elastic quality — its ability to produce genuine shock at the shitty banality of life at society’s margins, and laughter just moments later — Darius is behind it, more often than not.

The abstract of Atlanta is relatively straightforward: Broke-as-fuck Princeton dropout Earn Marks (Glover), in search of anything better than his commission-based job at the airport duping tourists into a credit card rewards program, pitches himself as a manager to his cousin Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), who has a burgeoning rap career. When reduced to the sum of its parts, the show is about two cousins trying to navigate the city’s rap scene and bridge the gap between fleeting notoriety and gainful stardom. But in truth, the series is a purposeful drama-comedy hybrid about the constantly moving goalposts of racial identity, looking askance on the lived experiences of black Americans. With such a large scope, Glover ran the risk of creating an overly self-serious mess. Toward the conclusion of his interview with Rembert Browne of New York, Glover said that he didn’t want “clapter” from his audience, a term coined by late-night host Seth Meyers to describe a favorable crowd reaction for neatly-packaged, politically correct humor that, on its own, isn’t actually all that funny.

Glover himself provides a good deal of camp as Earn to drown out the “clapter,” both real and imagined (though nothing so slapstick as his Troy Barnes character on Community). But it’s his costar, operating on an entirely different plane of consciousness, who provides the centripetal force to hold all of the show’s off-beat elements in place. The opening scene finds the unintroduced trio of Earn, Alfred, and Darius in the throes of a Nigga Moment outside of a liquor store. Earn stands in the middle of the standoff as it bucks out of control, threatening to jeopardize everything he and Alfred had only just started working for. But while Earn is helplessly trying to diffuse the situation and Alfred is ramping it up, Darius is just … there. Stopping and starting the action at his convenience, and scanning his surroundings for “the dog with the Texas on him” to confirm a case of déjà vu that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything that’s going on.

Darius could be written off as garden-variety comedic relief — he’s generally lost in his own head and prone to doing things that wouldn’t occur to people possessed of like, any inhibitions. For instance offering up — unprompted — the deeply personal fact that he’s sterile because his “balls got smashed,” or randomly asking Earn’s dad if he can measure the tree in his front yard and being damn near inconsolable when he’s told he’d be able to “later,” which “basically means no.” But in addition to providing side-gripping moments like these, Darius’s detached whimsy serves to keep the show’s ethos intact.

When Earn first turns up at Alfred’s (trap) house unannounced, Darius stands behind the foyer wall, holding a massive knife in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other waiting to be satisfied that Earn is just Earn and not a jackboy or who knows whatever else. When Darius lowers the knife and offers the intruder-turned-houseguest a cookie, it’s Atlanta in a nutshell; a balancing act on a knife’s edge, where levity and life-and-death tension frequently coexist.

With Darius, Stanfield adds another to a list of primarily fringe characters that wring the most talking points from limited screen time. Perhaps with Darius, and maybe with his upcoming role as L in Netflix’s North American adaptation of Death Note, Stanfield could push himself closer to becoming a household name. Making the jump from scene-stealing character actor to leading man is difficult but it is possible, and there’s a road that’s already been paved.

Don Cheadle didn’t land a big, leading role until 2004. And as surely as Cheadle would rend hearts as hero hotelier Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, he’d captivate as Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene in 2007’s Talk To Me with Chiwetel Ejiofor. But before earning top-billing status, Cheadle had nearly 20 years on his silver screen résumé, stealing everyone’s thunder as your favorite character actor’s favorite character actor, turning in breakout role after memorable breakout role. He upstaged the likes of George Clooney and Michael Douglas, and outshined Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress. But perhaps most notably (to me if to no one else) he ran away with Rush Hour 2 as the hilariously deliberate Kenny, who heard that Detective James Carter (Chris Tucker) was gettin’ his ass kicked out there in Hong Kong from reliable sources. [Waves disapproving and disdainful hand] Don’t you worry about that.

It seems perfectly ordered that Keith Stanfield found himself in Cheadle’s orbit, playing Junior to Cheadle’s lead in last year’s Miles Ahead biopic. Though Stanfield was consummately twitchy as the heroin-addicted horn player or the “hype with a heart of gold,” it wasn’t enough to steal the spotlight from Cheadle’s raspy emulation of Miles Davis’s genetically unattainable cool. But with his take on Darius in Atlanta, Stanfield has bench-pressed the standard for first impressions. Again.