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Katt Williams: Prolific, Marginalized, Unraveled, and Now, Emmy-Nominated

Acknowledgment for the comedian’s guest appearance in ‘Atlanta’: “Robbin’ Season” is well-earned, but more than a little surprising

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, the Television Academy nominated Katt Williams for an Emmy. No, not for his latest stand-up comedy special, Great America, which Netflix premiered in January. Rather, the Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series highlights Williams’s performance as “the Alligator Man,” a.k.a., Uncle Willy, in the second season premiere of Atlanta. Indeed, this very website has obsessed over the performance in question: In “Alligator Man,” Williams plays an eccentric hothead—a petty Scarface—blasting René & Angela while haggling loudly with his wife over $20 as Donald Glover’s Earn arrives. As his nephew attempts to defuse a tense situation that has the police at the door, Uncle Willy proves wild and yet wise, offering genuine advice before unleashing a real-life alligator and fleeing the scene barefoot. In a whimsical season, the Alligator Man was the earliest indicator of Atlanta’s sophomore brilliance. And it remains the standout cameo in the show’s two-season run so far.

The Emmy nomination is Williams’s first, and it comes, frankly, as a great surprise. Katt Williams is a black comedian whose persona and material have never quite crossed over into the white mainstream. Black audiences love him; white critics largely ignore him. His breakout material in the 2000s—including The Pimp Chronicles Pt. 1 and his voiceover performance as A Pimp Named Slickback on The Boondocks—presented Williams as a hyperactive wiseass whose compact physical stature, coupled with his unlimited energy, afforded him a sweaty invincibility. But that invincibility did not last into the 2010s. In recent years, Williams has become a dark and marginal figure, more so recognizable as the subject of ridiculous gossip headlines than as an active entertainer. He’s the DMX of stand-up comedy—once a prolific performer across film, TV, and music, he became a walking spectacle of self-destruction and violence against women and children. In 2016, he fought an Atlanta teenager on camera—and, notoriously, lost. Accordingly, Williams succumbed to his own infamy, inviting critical disregard, while still touring and performing new stand-up material every year. Katt Williams unraveled.

In his most recent stand-up material, and in his Atlanta role, Williams has mellowed to new, compelling effect. Now, he’s haggard. He’s contemplative. He’s washed; and proudly so. “The pimping is mostly dead and the alligator shoes are just house slippers now,” my colleague Micah Peters wrote about the Alligator Man. As Uncle Willy, Williams seemed to be performing his own redemption narrative as his character cautioned Earn to forsake his youthful arrogance in family matters. “You homeless, Earn. You don’t even have a mirror to look at yourself,” he says. “If you don’t wanna end up like me, get rid of that chip on your shoulder shit. It’s not worth the time.”

There’s real spite in Uncle Willy’s eyes as he schools Earn, knowing that his insight, at this late stage in his life, must serve someone other than himself. It’s powerful dramatic acting from a comedian who might have simply been spitting his realistic truth—though Uncle Willy’s pet alligator is a nice, ridiculous touch. It’s true to the actor’s life, and the Emmy nomination is true to his talent, which Williams has often, unfortunately, obscured.