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The Black Fairy Tales and White Nightmares of ‘Atlanta’

On Episode 5 and Donald Glover’s attempts at mythmaking

FX/Ringer illustration

Donald Glover is television’s consummate mythmaker. Every season of Atlanta arrives like a prepackaged sausage. Depending upon your appetite, the mystery meats that go into the show’s creation are just as interesting as what appears on screen. It’s become TV lore that Glover and Co. had to “Trojan horse” the surrealist ambitions of the show’s first season to a less-than-enthusiastic FX. Less than two years after the show premiered, Glover compared his vision of the plot-light follow-up to the 1992 direct-to-video classic, Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation. So when Glover revealed that his desire for Atlanta’s penultimate season was to make a “Black fairy tale,” the grand design felt as quaint as it was potentially fraught.

The true asshole of a fairy tale is often in the eye of the beholder. Sure Hansel and Gretel are starving, but common sense dictates you shouldn’t eat an old lady’s home even if it’s made out of dessert. Similarly, it isn’t enough that Goldilocks is a thief; she also has to stomp on Baby Bear’s chair like Rick James. For kids to learn a morality lesson, someone needs to suffer whether it’s just or not. Similarly, for Atlanta’s “Black fairy tale” to have a happy ending, whiteness would have to live through brutal nightmares.

The moral of Atlanta’s latest season arrives like a sledgehammer from Dr. Umar, as unsubtle as it is racially charged. In the first five minutes of Episode 1, a white liberal dressed in redneck clothing named Earnest (a.k.a E) fishes at night with a Black friend. Like a Jiminy Cricket figure, E delivers the moral conundrum and thematic backbone of the season as he tells the story of “a self-governed Black town” that drowned in the body of water years ago (similar to folk tales of Lake Lanier). “They’d paid to be white. With enough blood and money anyone can be white,” E explains. “But the thing about being white is it blinds you. It’s easy to see the Black man as cursed, because you’ve separated yourself from him. But you don’t know you’re enslaved just like him.”

This “curse” is the big bad wolf of the season, the malevolent force haunting every story line. Instead of fairy-tale lessons of yore like teaching poor children the virtues of being grateful or teaching young women how to stomach arranged marriages to aesthetically challenged beasts, Atlanta in 2022 ponders how white suffering (often in the short term) may lead to Black liberation in the long term. As Marina Warner wrote in her 2014 book Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, “Fairy tales evoke every kind of violence, injustice, and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue.” For racism not to continue in the world of Atlanta something or someone has to give.

Each episode of Season 3 sees a white figure punished for an act of racism that they’d typically avoid the consequences of in the real world or a Black person becoming the beneficiary of karmic justice usually unattainable in our universe. In “Three Slaps,” the real-life killing of Black children at the hands of a lesbian white couple is subverted. The fictional Loquareeous, a stand-in for Devonte Hart, escapes a car crash and his Black siblings survive while their tormentors face a grizzly fate. The climax of “Sinterklaas is Coming to Town” sees Earn escaping unscathed from a racist tour promoter who beats up a semi-innocent man in blackface—*cough, cough* how innocent can anyone be wearing blackface???—who he assumes is Paper Boi’s manager. An episode later, Paper Boi enacts revenge on a white billionaire by destroying the possession he most cherishes with no consequences.

Episode 4, “The Big Payback,” is the most overt example of short-term sacrifices leading to long-term liberation. Marshall Johnson, an unassuming white man who loves NPR, has his life upended when it’s discovered his ancestors enslaved people. When a Black mother named Sheniqua demands reparations under a new court ruling, Marshall has to sacrifice his job, apartment, a chance at reconciling with his wife, and a relationship with his daughter to atone for his ancestors’ transgressions. At Marshall’s lowest moment, E arrives to underline the moral of the story. “The curse has been lifted from her, from all of us,” E says about the aftermath of mass reparations. “We were running from it, but now we’re free.” With the curse broken, the episode ends with Marshall smiling as he lives a comfortable, less wealthy life serving a room full of Black people at a fancy restaurant, now the recipients of taxes that give them financial mobility. But by making Marshall the protagonist of the story, instead of someone like Sheniqua, there’s a sense (even if unintentional) that we’re meant to sympathize with his plight and even feel good about his racial awakening. It’s unnerving.

What complicates these grand ambitions is that the Donald Glover project and by extension Atlanta has always seemed at war with and indebted to the white gaze. When it’s not being interrogated, there’s a disdain at the elusiveness of the members-only club. Throughout the minimal press tour for this season, Glover has proclaimed “​​Sopranos only ones who can touch us,” that his 2013 album Because the Internet is “the rap OK Computer,” and that comparing FX’s Dave to Atlanta is like comparing a smash burger to dry-aged wagyu. In a hilarious Interview Magazine troll, Glover told Zendaya “to choose up” and leave her Euphoria and Malcom & Marie collaborator Sam Levinson “to come to Death Row.” A Black showrunner telling a biracial star to leave her closest collaborator, who happens to be very white, is objectively hilarious if also super messy. Perhaps it would sting more if Glover didn’t seem hell-bent on skewering himself throughout this season.

In Thursday’s episode, “Cancer Attack,” a white Paper Boi stan interrogates Earn and his Blackness in one of the season’s most meta-moments. “You don’t have the same accent, the same Southern dialect as Paper Boi,” he begins. “Were you told as a child you talk white? Must have made you feel separate … I think it’s interesting when people aren’t allowed in the group. The universal group to be part of the team.” Glover questioning his Blackness and how it relates to how the Black community perceives him isn’t new. He famously lamented the trials and tribulations of being the “only Black kid at a Sufjan concert” in 2011’s “Fire Fly.” Most recently during an interview he conducted with himself, Glover posed the question, “Are you afraid of Black women?” to which he responded “I feel like you’re using Black women to question my Blackness.” The quote was met with disdain online, but it speaks to the sinister truth of fairy tales. In Jack Zipes’s 1983 book Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale he wrote, “Fairy tales do not become mythic unless they are in perfect accord with the underlying principles of how the male members of society seek to arrange object relations to satisfy their wants and needs.” Atlanta’s version of Blackness is partially siphoned through Glover. While he’s yet to write or direct an episode in the first half of the season, many of the story lines feel indebted to what viewers know of his career outside of the show and his anxieties around acceptance or lack thereof.

Which brings us back to E and Glover’s fictional character Earnest sharing a name with the white redneck from episodes 1 and 4, which is far from an understated choice. Unlike previous seasons, Earn’s no longer struggling financially. Paper Boi’s success and tax bracket make every Black person in his orbit similar to the drowned inhabitants of the self-governed Black town. They’re rich enough to receive the spoils of being white by association, but remain on the periphery when the status quo is threatened too much. But if the underlying tension of Season 2 was Paper Boi resenting Earn for not being good enough at his job, then Season 3 deals with what happens when Earn becomes too adept at this new world. In a rare moment of downtime during the concert featured in “Cancer Attack,” Alfred asks Earn how he’s doing and mentions “You seem busy all the time.” Earn replies, “Yeah, but busy is good,” oblivious to his cousin’s artistic struggles and the distance that’s forming between them.

Five episodes in, new Atlanta doesn’t feel like old Atlanta, for reasons within and outside of the creators’ control. In the four-year wait between seasons, the void left behind by Atlanta was filled with shows either spiritually indebted to it (South Side, Reservation Dogs, Dave) or running in the opposite direction (Abbott Elementary). The principal cast (Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Zazie Beetz, Lakeith Stanfield) has appeared in only three out of the first five episodes. When they’re together, the European setting often means the insular moments that are achieved only when filming in a predominantly Black area are harder to come by. It’s an unwinnable cocktail. For the show to compete with the landscape it created it needed to change, but within that metamorphosis a lot has been lost. It’s as entertaining as it is frustrating, a fairy tale in which the villain is known, but the happy ending is far from promised.