‘Atlanta’ confronts white audiences, cultural appropriation

“Atlanta,” starring Donald Glover as the protagonist Earnest “Earn” Marks, critically engages with white audiences, increasingly addressing race relations in recent episodes. / Courtesy of Wikimedia

“Atlanta,” a show well worth your time, has been a long-time promise for the fans of Donald Glover, who plays protagonist Earnest “Earn” Marks. A TV show/passion project dedicated to the city in which “30 Rock” alum Glover grew up felt like something too good to be true: a work that would remain at the fringes of things to come, but would never get fully realized.

Now that I’m well into the second season, I’m very happy to say that “Atlanta” doesn’t just fulfill this promise, but almost completely realizes this dream. A year from the release of the original season, I wouldn’t hesitate in the slightest to say that “Atlanta” is one of the most refreshing TV shows I’ve seen. I don’t want to spend too much time telling you why this show is so funny because you should really let the show speak for itself instead of getting the watered-down (and ultimately inaccurate) version from yours truly.

So I’ll tell you this: What this show nails is pacing. From the speed of dialogue to the pace of an episode, everything in this show runs seamlessly. The last episode of season one, “The Jacket,” is a testament to this: The episode runs through chicken sandwiches, strip clubs and blunt-eating in a way that mirrors the protagonist’s slow crawl in his search for the missing jacket.

One moment Earn is using Snapchat to follow the events of a drunken night, and the next he’s engaging in one of the funniest stoned conversations ever depicted on screen. But nothing ever feels rushed or too slow. Everything takes place in the manner that it should: There’s a flow to the way events play out that feels both relatable and perfect for the needs of the plot.

Another thing this show nails is its effortless and excellent use of the imagination. From unexpected whiteface to fake Yoo-hoo commercials, “Atlanta” has always been one of those shows where I am completely at the whim of the writers, and I am always surprised and satisfied with the path each episode takes.

However, I don’t think this creativity necessarily justifies the label of surrealism that gets attached to this show—a label I shall elaborate on later in the article. Furthermore, this show is creative, but it isn’t necessarily unique. If you’ve seen “30 Rock,” “Chappelle’s Show,” or even Adult Swim classics such as “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” you’ve seen the type of comedy that “Atlanta” excels at. If this show is surreal, it’s about as surreal as a sketch from Chappelle or an episode of late-night television.

And this is where my biggest issue lies with the show thus far: “Atlanta,” to me, is next-in-line to enter the scene of popular Black television that interacts significantly with a white audience. In order for this show to get the recognition it deserves, this particular audience must seriously consider their white gaze while watching the show.

With its depiction of race relations—particularly of white appropriation of Black culture—this show directly addresses white audiences, and it’s extremely pertinent that these audiences recognize the magnitude of the matters being posed towards them. Currently, there’s a weird silence surrounding the real issues, wherein random labels like “surreal” get slapped on to mask the lack of critical engagement that white audiences have with the show. Coming solely from the first season, this might not seem like a big deal, as appropriation was only the topic of a couple episodes, but the second season has thankfully amplified the social commentary provided by the show.

I’ve never seen any artistic piece trace the appropriation of hip-hop better than the second episode of the second season of “Atlanta.” In the first season, we saw the character Paper Boi rise to some acclaim, and witnessed how this fame impacted him as he tried to place himself in his community.

This season, we are seeing Paper Boi rise in fame, as he begins to receive recognition from Atlanta as a whole. With this rise comes a white audience depicted within the show, from minivan moms to “woke” pot dealers who are comically unaware of how to interact with Paper Boi’s music—i.e. with Black art unintended for a white gaze.

Yet these are not the moments of mirth that are talked about in the context of this show. It’s always the fake commercials from last season’s episode “B.A.N.” I am yet to come across a white fan of the show who has raved about the fantastic discomfort of the “Juneteenth” episode before resorting to praising Darius for being such a funny stoner.

Name-dropping Chapelle earlier was not an ignorant blunder on my part. One of the main reasons Chappelle quit television was that white audiences removed his commentary from his comedy; the popular quote from the man goes along the lines that people weren’t laughing with Chappelle and his show; they were laughing at him.

I can’t help but see this same process happening here with Glover and his artistic creation that is “Atlanta.” I love this show to death, but every time I’ve talked about it with those currently watching it, there’s always something missing. For me, I see this missing piece as a lack of critical engagement from white audience members.

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