As a child I was always hyper-aware of the attempts at social climbing my parents made to move my siblings and me up the ladder rungs of black society. There were the Jack and Jill activities with the children of the Pastor at our local Megachurch, the etiquette classes that taught present-day me to chew my Chipotle with my mouth closed and the vast number of strangers we were expected to greet like we were auditioning for a live stage production of the Sound of Music. All of these things were sacrifices my parents made to ensure that I had access to a network of opportunities that would carry me into adulthood. The only problem was I hated every solitary second of it.
I hated the constant pressure of performance for people that decided my pedigree made me less than them even before I opened my mouth. It was with this spirit of hatred that I went into last night’s episode of Atlanta with lowered expectations. Written by Emerson Alum Stefani Robinson, “Juneteenth” packs the world of Atlanta with several wink and nods to different Spike Lee joints. Many of the elements and themes of Lee’s School Daze can be found front and center in a tight script which finds Donald Glover’s Earn, fresh off a booty call, accompanying Van (Zazie Beetz) to the most problematic Juneteenth party this side of a Paula Deen cotillion.
“Smile, this is a celebration not an orphanage.”
Earn and Van are putting on a debutante performance of their own. They are pretending to be a happily-married couple with Ivy-League educations to try to score Van a networking opportunity with one of the many successful Atlanta power-players in attendance. I appreciated Atlanta’s momentary commitment to continuity as Van should still be actively networking and looking for work since being fired in “Value”. I generally hate episodes like this where the premise is built upon people pretending to be something they are not. Basically any episode of Three’s Company.
I cringe uncomfortably when they are revealed to be an imposter and mortified in front of a large crowd. I assumed Atlanta would take this course so I was pleasantly surprised to find Robinson’s script aided by Janicza Bravo’s ethereal direction take the lesser stakes approach, preferring to simply sit in with these characters and get to know a class of folk we don’t usually see on television outside of the Bravo network. That this episode comes together so pleasingly is due in no small part to a staff of talented actors who are able to convey the absurdity of a plantation-style celebration (with slave ship hors d’oeuvres to boot) with acute comic timing within realistic portrayals.
Cassandra Freeman as Monique is a black woman-white husband archetype that’s equal parts Helen Willis mixed with the worst moments from Real Housewives of Atlanta. Her husband Craig as “The White guy who uses ‘my brotha’ so much he forgot he wasn’t an actual brotha” is very much a caricature of real people I have met before. Both characters are hilarious even while they are saying the worst things on Earth.
Monique is a well-spoken, beautiful black woman who enjoys the finer things in life and is willing to let the occasional (okay, all the time) bout of whitesplaining from her clueless husband go un-checked if it means she can continue to live in her million-dollar home. Honestly, Monique wouldn’t be the black woman to check Craig anyway as she is soon revealed to be an elitist, emotionally bankrupt charlatan who barks orders at her serving staff and delights in the irony of being a dark-skinned black woman pantomiming the acts of her ancestor’s slavers. Craig’s personality can be distilled down to what I assume it feels like to be trapped in a room with Michael Rappaport. His constant one-upmanship of black authenticity understandably rubs Earn the wrong way but everyone else at the party seems to be eating it up like Kentucky-Fried frog legs. Especially his Def Poetry Slam about Jim Crow!
Rick Holmes as Craig strikes just the right balance of “did this dude just say that?” with genuine likability to make the character fit right in to the Atlanta Universe. Condescendingly questioning Earn on why he’s never made it over to Africa, Craig plays the role of every single white ally that ever got too comfortable with black folk and forgot he was still the “man”. Somewhere in the world, Tim Wise’s ears are burning. Earn and Van play audience surrogates to this and react accordingly to what Earn describes as, “Spike Lee directed Eyes Wide Shut”.
“This spooky thing called slavery happened and my entire ethnic identity was erased.”
Monique is too busy living the life of an oppressor to give a damn about Craig’s offensive Malcolm X paintings. She pairs off with Van for some girl talk and I love how the actors show how adept black folk are at slipping in and out of black vernacular. Often code-switching is portrayed in entertainment as this jarring demarcation line where black professionals are forced to take on their Queen’s tongue to effectively communicate with those in the majority class while resorting back to less advanced dialects at home. As if neither of those extremes come natural to the person using them. That Monique is at her most real and pleasant when she is “speaking black” and that her own internalized racism is revealed through “proper” English is a contrast point Atlanta doesn’t stop to dwell on but the point comes across all the same.
This episode requires those of us not already invested in Earn and Van to get on board. Some have commented that the two leads have little chemistry and that it strains believability that they would have ever gotten together to make their daughter Lottie in the first place. Atlanta finally attempts to give the two some depth and an as of yet unspoken backstory. It succeeds at making the destinies of Earn and Vanessa seem intertwined. This is in large part due to Glover’s performance. Often sidelined on his own show, Glover’s Earn has been upstaged all season by the breakout star power of Bryan Tyree Henry’s Paperboi .
Henry has been hitting it out of the ballpark each episode with a performance so unique that one could forget that Earn was supposed to be the relatable guy. It was jarring not to see him in this episode but it was due time that Atlanta showcased just what attracted many viewers to the pilot in the first place: Donald Glover. Glover’s performance as Earn here finally reveals just why the series could not operate on this heightened level without him. Glover commands the screen and his background as not only a writer for hit comedies but as a comic performer equip him with the advanced agility to get laughs by merely whispering “wow” at a display of casual racism or break our hearts during a grand-gesture soliloquy performed in front of a group of Monique’s in the making.
Van is so hurt by this display, Earn’s faux-sincerity, him saying all the things he SHOULD have said- he COULD have said to make it right, that it brings her to tears, persuading her to take one more drink and initiate sex with him at the end of the night even while she’s been humiliated by him. By the time he’s cornered by the black Bill and Ted who request he forward their sister’s dirtyazz panties to Paperboi, Earn has had enough of playing pretend. Even if the reality is far less pretty. This is a sitcom after all, so it is also just around this time that Craig remembers where he recognizes Earn from. He saw his mugshot on the news! Hijinks ensue!
For those at home who already had issues with Earn and his likeability, his decision to stop pretending right at the home stretch will likely be viewed as run of the mill selfishness. Possibly the same form of selfishness that caused him to leave Princeton and for his parents to change the locks on the house. Make no mistake, it was extremely selfish but it also reveals an intimacy between Earn and Van and further validates their love story.
Earn knows the Black bourgeois lifestyle is not for Vanessa because he knows who Van is. He loves her enough to come along for the charade and to keep it up even as it proved to be quite difficult. And although he knows she’ll hate him for it, Earn loves Van enough to try to rescue her when he feels they are both in too deep. They spend the episode splitting up and reconnecting, a meta-nod to the foreseen trajectory of their relationship going forward into the season finale. Earn and Van are both trying to climb the social ladder, albeit in different ways.
Now that they’ve made the ultimate reconnection, what does that mean for their goals? Will the two get back together? More importantly, can a sister get two tickets for A Tale (Tail?) Between Legs before the stage play sells out for months on end like Hamilton?