Featured, Pop Culture, Race & Politics

Donald Glover’s Atlanta Was A Love Letter To Black People, And The Year’s Best And Most Important Show

Three moments from Atlanta keep coming back to me when attempting to gather and articulate my thoughts about this show.

1.  Black Justin Bieber pitted against Paper Boi in the celebrity basketball game, calling for the ball and unsuccessfully trying to get his teammate’s attention with “Nigga! Nigga!” And then, fed up that he’s being ignored, breaking for a split second and just saying “Nigger!

2. The keys left in the front door of Van’s apartment, discovered by Van during her high and hungover morning after hanging out with her homegirl the night before

3. Van’s politely and excitedly dismissive “thank you” to the prosperity pastor complimenting her looks during the Juneteenth celebration

None of these, of course, are important moments in the show. Each of these scenes could have been edited out, and absolutely nothing about Atlanta or my feelings about it would have changed much. I’d even guess that some who’ve seen each episode don’t remember any of these moments. They each took approximately one second of screen time, and I would have missed them too if I happened to use one of those moments to edit a tweet or retwist the cap on my bottled water or even laugh a bit too hard at the scene before.

But the creation, inclusion, and culmination of moments like these is why Atlanta, after just one season, is already my favorite show on TV. It’s a show that rewards the audience — and by “the audience” I mean “the Black people who comprise the target audience” — for paying attention. And not with obnoxious Easter Eggs or wall-breaking asides or even needless and patronizing exposition. But with details. Inspired and ambitious consideration to mundanities that communicate that the people creating this show are also paying attention. And, most importantly, that they respect the audience enough to be honest and to recreate reality as best as they possibly can — with occasional infusions of surreality and absurdity — because they know we’ll appreciate it. I can imagine a different show either not thinking to include the shot of the keys in the door or editing it out; thinking it wouldn’t matter or that we wouldn’t notice something so inconsequential. But Atlanta appreciates us, values us, wants to impress us, and loves us, and I appreciate that appreciation.

This level of care permeates and bleeds into every aspect of the show, including perhaps its most obvious and conspicuous characteristic — its actors. Much has already been said about how each of the four main characters (Donald Glover’s Earnest “Earn” Marks, Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, Keith Stanfield’s Darius, and Zazie Beetz’s Vanessa “Van” Keefer) were perfectly cast, but even that laud still undersells how accurate they were. Because each of them also looked exactly how they’re supposed to look. Those of us who have known Earns in our lives — and those of us who might even have been (or might still be) Earn — know that a person like Earn would look and talk and dress and move and sound and be like Donald Glover’s Earn. The same could be said about Darius and Paper Boi. You did not have to suspend reality; no time spent convincing yourself of their authenticity or reminding yourself to forget that neither of them quite look the part or fit. It’s a show about working class and somewhat crime adjacent niggas in Atlanta, and they managed to cast people who look like they could be working class and somewhat crime adjacent niggas in Atlanta.

Even Zazie Beetz’s Van looks exactly like someone who’d be with Earn and would have had enough in common with someone like Earn to have a child with him. Although she possesses characteristics that would allow her to fit certain Hollywood beauty standards — a fact that’s alluded to several times in the show — her aesthetic is more Busboys and Poets than bourgeois. Or, better yet, more Afropunk than Essence Festival. Which helps make her character and her relationship make sense. (I realize these are imperfect analogies, but I trust you get what I’m attempting to describe.)

Atlanta, of course, isn’t a perfect show. But it desperately wants to be and its making every effort to be. It wants to get us right. And wants us to notice it; for us to love it as much as it loves us. And for us to recognize it for what it is; a perfectly imperfect paean to Black people.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Brooklyn_Bruin

    Am I the only one who thinks Van is entirely out of Earns league, even if he is a perfect fit for her emotionally?

    • Brandon Allen

      I mean she seems pretty regular. She’s pretty but her character doesn’t seem like someone who would think they’re out of someone’s league.

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        That particular brand of Cree Summer is highly sought after. How was Earn able to put in a successful bid?

        Compared to say Issa and Lawrence, which are equally yoked, Van/Earn is a bit lopsided in my view

        • Brandon Allen

          I mean prior to being a baby daddy and working at the airport. Earn was going to Princeton. So he’s smart and funny. Which is enough. Especially, for a Van who just kinda seems like a regular chick that is kinda weedhead cute, not spandex all star weekend cute.

          • Brooklyn_Bruin

            She’s a makeover away from being an NBA player’s baby mama. Jade is her alter ego.

            Although it seems to me that NBA dudes don’t wife up the finest on average.

    • Mr. Mooggyy

      I think it’s fair to say that Van does not know what league she’s in!

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        She could have traded “up” like Jade, but I can’t see a scenario where a light brite curly video vixen type chick ends up with a regular dude.

        Unless mixed attractiveness couples are the norm in Atlanta

        • Brandon Allen

          She has a kid and she doesn’t want to be a gold digger. So she’s with a regular dude…cuz she’s regular.

          • Mr. Mooggyy

            Exactly! But I think Earn was a bit too regular for her, after they got to know each other! But he’s witty and intelligent and she likes that (see Afropunk vs Essence Festival comparison)!

          • Brooklyn_Bruin

            It’s Earn’s kid though.
            How did it get this far?

            It’s a comedy show trope that the male character always has a love interest above his station.
            Was Donald playing with this, or am I just wrong on how attractive Van is in absolute terms.

        • Me

          “but I can’t see a scenario where a light brite curly video vixen type chick ends up with a regular dude.”

          Uh, I encourage you to meet more light skin, curly haired women. WAY MORE of them end up with regular dudes than not… Mainly because there are WAY MORE regular dudes than not, and secondarily because even light skin comes in “Meh”. I think you just personally have a thing for the actress. She’s pretty average looking regardless of colorism — beautiful, but forgettable (though I do acknowledge that a lot of folks like to hand out light skin credit regardless of all the rest of a person’s aesthetics).

    • black-a-rican

      You have to remember that Atlanta is one of those cities where average dudes can win like nobody’s business. I know because I used to be one of em. I never realized how good I had it until I moved.

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        *schedules visit*

      • The Pengest BK

        Lie undetectable.

      • ElephantInTheRoom

        Yeah I heard there’s some insane ratio of men to women in Atlanta. Weed out the ones who are unavailable or uninterested and a lot of women will settle for anything with pants on (no shade to Earn lol).

    • Women and men fight in the weight class that they want to fight in. If she thinks she’s a welterweight then she’s a welterweight.

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        Sold not told, game is to be.

        Which is fine, but in real life, Van would have had plenty of offers. Many of those offers would have been from guys with gainful careers.

        If Van was Darius’s or Albert’s chick – it’d make more sense to me.

        But I need a backstory, like they both eat at the same vegan bean pie spot, or Earn used to tutor kids.

        The character is in love with Earn. There is deep understanding of each other – but how that came to be, to what we know (or you people should know) about how folks actually connect.

        Like neither of them seem like the club type. So was Earn doing his low key Princeton thing at an open mic?

        How do they even meet?

        It may or may not be fleshed out, not that it needs to be.

        I’ve been Earn more times in my life than I’d like to recount

        • The Pengest BK

          “Sold not told, game is to be.”

          Please market this.

          Earn and Van both seem like the pedantic type, and given Van’s (former) occupation and Earn’s interrupted trajectory, you can see how they probably connected on a cerebral level. Their own intellect gets in their way in all things.

          • Brooklyn_Bruin

            They’re two peas in a pod, like Lawrence and Issa.

            I don’t like comparing the two shows for various reasons, but both ended the season on an upswing for three male characters and a downswing for the sisters. Generally speaking

        • ElephantInTheRoom

          I agree their relationship needs more background given. Meanwhile, I disagree that Van would have had plenty of offers because I know PLENTY of Vans who get nan offers whatsoever. Like, for years at a time. Most dudes are enamored with Vans as characters but prefer the Tashas (from Insecure) of the world in real life. Nothing’s wrong with either preference, by the way.

          • Brooklyn_Bruin

            Where you stay? Asking for a friend

            • ElephantInTheRoom

              Charleston SC

            • ElephantInTheRoom

              Your friend can come to Charleston to find a Van but there are really Vans in every town. That’s the beauty of her character: she’s like so many of us! I literally know HUNDREDS of naturally beautiful, quirky, cultured women who are doing what they have to do to handle their business and take care of their families (hopefully with less diaper play lol). However, in real life, they’re often overlooked because they aren’t wearing designer clothes, aren’t made up like Instagram models, aren’t shaped like basketball wives, aren’t updating their social media with pix from international vacations and aren’t working exciting high-profile jobs. They’re usually pretty low-key and fly under the radar. They can generally be found around the perimeter of any homecoming day party lol. Tell your friend to check his contact list as there are probably quite a few Vans in his own network…

    • Me

      I don’t think she’s out of his league… I think she was born into a league she can’t/doesn’t want to master. I’m basing this on how awkward she was at the soiree that she clearly only went to to try and drum up a job. She’s a medium fish in Earn’s murky pond and a guppy in her lake.

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        I’m talking just on looks, and the superficial aspects that spark deeper relationships.

        I lean towards the librarian types, but every librarian I’ve dealt with knew how to bun the hair so I could see the neck..

        *fans self*

        • Me

          Looks-wise, I still don’t think she’s out of his league. She’s still mid-range in his world and low-range in her own.

  • Chuck Moulton

    TRUTH: I been sitting here for months, thinking, “Do I really want to start watching this show? Do I have the time? Do I? I already cram so much into that little space I call ‘my free time’, do I have the space to spare? is it worth it?”. I’ve been holding off, as friends have said, “Watch it.” As podcasters have said, “Watch it”. Now VSB says, “Watch it.” A’ight ya’ll….I’l watch it.

    • ImNotThatGrl

      I was the same way initially because it wasn’t advertised with a lot of bells and whistles. However, when I finally sat down and watched it I felt the need to watch 3 episodes to confirm I liked it.

  • Brooklyn_Bruin

    And this better be Donny Glover’s People’s Instinctive Travels and not his Illmatic

  • Brooklyn_Bruin

    Episode 2, the jail scene, still sticks out in my mind.

    • cyanic

      Your girlfriend is a man. Why do you think they have her in with the men? Nugga you gay.

      • TeeChantel

        Yes! I fell out and died when he said, “Nucca, you gay.”

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        Earn is on some sexuality is a spectrum…

        • cyanic

          He’s evolved.

    • TeeChantel

      My favorite scene ever. The scene with the dude trying to rap to his “man” girlfriend always sticks out to me.
      “I remember Kevin, he was loud.”
      “Your girl?” “My ninja that’s a man!”

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        Earn being physically stuck in between them and unable to get up out of it.

        That’s a theme of his character, he’s often trapped because he fails to act. Fails to act…why?

        • TeeChantel

          He is too passive with it. Too passive and yet too complacent.
          I mean, Van did ASK the guy if he should move so he could rap to his “girl”.

          • Brooklyn_Bruin

            He was the same with Yelawolf dj using the enwurd. He was like that with club owner, with the other publicist.

            His overall character arc is going to be him growing into competence.

            Paperboi is going to crack because he’s playing a role that he no longer wants to play..and people are forcing him into it.

            Van and Darius are still supporting characters at this point, but Van gets an arc before Darius will

        • PriceIsRightHorns

          Poor Earn, lol. My second favorite episode is the invisible car/janky club owner shakedown. Comedy gold.

          • Jay Howard Gatsby

            He slapped the promoter with his own money!

            • PriceIsRightHorns

              Lol. That promoter was a mess.

        • ImNotThatGrl

          Yes! It’s like he knows what he should do but doesn’t want to make waves while doing it

        • CamCamtheGreat

          “…he’s often trapped because he fails to act.”

          Well if that don’t hit close to home…

          • Brooklyn_Bruin

            Autobiographical

    • PriceIsRightHorns

      That’s one of my favorite scenes. The guy who got locked up for drinking “one of the big ones” with his friend Grady had me hollering.

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        Lol. Them old heads was hilarious

  • TeeChantel

    I swear I quote a line from Atlanta at least a couple of times a day.

  • cyanic

    2016 isn’t done Carrie Fisher has left us.

    • Mr. Mooggyy

      Sheesh! This is getting a bit much!

    • TeeChantel

      It is turning into one celebrity death a day now.

      • Furious Styles

        Yeah. 2016 has four days left to atone by taking someone evil.

        • TeeChantel

          I mean, Donald Ttump is still around. Or George Zimmerman.

          • cyanic

            Get Zimmerman. I’ve been waiting to exhale on that one.

            • ImNotThatGrl

              ? I hate that I just upvoted you on that.

              • The Pengest BK

                I, however, am not ashamed.

                • GailyTheyRing,WhilePeopleSing

                  same here.

            • Mary Burrell

              Or Trump, there I said it I don’t feel bad.

              • Nik White

                Wait that would leave Pense of Darkness at the helm!

      • Val

        That’s three. They say they go in threes so maybe that will be it for the year. *fingers crossed*

        • TeeChantel

          2016 has been such an usual year, there may be more than three this week.

    • I feel so sick now. I’m a huge Star Wars fan and this hurts so much.

      • Other_guy13

        I’m hurt

      • Ari

        Did you see Rogue One yet?

        • Yeah and I need to see it again. Loved, loved, loved it.

          • Ari

            I especially loved it for all of the “easter eggs” they dropped throughout the film, which makes Carrie’s death even more difficult.

            • Same here. I would discuss but I don’t want to accidentally post any spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet.

              • Ari

                Yep that’s why I just left it there. If you’ve seen it, you understand. :)

            • miss t-lee

              Feel like I should check out Rogue One now. Just because.

              • Ari

                I think if you’re a Star Wars fan you’ll appreciate it. My husband is a really hard fan to please (he’s read most of the books with back stories on the back stories) and he left happy.

                • miss t-lee

                  I can’t say I’m a huge fan. I’ve seen the movies, but that’s about it…lol

                  • If you love Star Wars you’ll love Rouge One and appreciate all the craft that went into it.

                    If you don’t like Star Wars then you’re in for a good war movie.

                    • miss t-lee

                      Cool! Thanks!

                • Ari

                  I’m a fairly new Star Wars fan myself but I really liked it.

                • I did it all growing up- movies, novels, comics, action figures, clothing, collectibles. Star Wars was the most influential fiction I had in my childhood.

                  • Ari

                    I grew up being a huge Star Trek fan because of my dad. As a child, I was so afraid of C3PO and the Ewoks that I could never get through a movie. Several years back, my husband made me sit down with him and watch all of the Star Wars episodes in order from A New Hope to The Clone Wars and that did it for me. I still hate Jar Jar Binks’ character with a passion but I love the series.

                    • I largely disown the prequels because of the poor directing and writing. The best thing that came from the prequels was the animated series on the Clone Wars from the guy who did Samurai Jack.

                      I used to do homework to the John Williams soundtrack.

                    • Ari

                      It’s funny you mention the prequels because I one of my millenial co-workers (23 y/o) loves the series and prequels but hates the first three episodes because she can’t get through the poor special effects. I just don’t see what she sees and think the first three episodes have more depth. It’s funny to learn how everyone appreciates the series.

                    • I wouldn’t call the special effects poor, but dated- they were cutting edge at the time. My wife has a hard time getting through them as well.

          • The Pengest BK

            This was a Star Wars film for adults. It wasn’t fluffy or unnecessarily kid-friendly.

            • Yeah. Brutal is the best way to describe it. It made me question why I romanticized Star Wars growing up. It was war, and people died horribly in it.

              • Red October

                It was like Saving Private Ryan set in the Star Wars universe. Amazing film.

        • Brooklyn_Bruin

          We need a discussion of this stat

      • Valerie

        I’m the same way. It really hurts being a Star Wars fan.

      • Nik White

        I saw the first couple & tried to watch the Force Awakens because of Finn but fell asleep the other nite. Hang in there MM.

    • blueevey

      :/

      It’s too much…

    • PriceIsRightHorns

      Smh. I hoped she would pull through.

      • miss t-lee

        I was hoping so also, but her case sounded a lot like my unk’s who had a massive heart attack last year. In a coma a week and adios.
        Sad sh*t.

        • PriceIsRightHorns

          Awww, that’s sad Miss T. *e hug*

          • miss t-lee

            Yeah man. Everybody’s 2016 was rough, but 2014/2015 were my years of f*ckery.

            • Mr. Mooggyy

              2015 took me out on a personal level!

            • GailyTheyRing,WhilePeopleSing

              Great to know things have turned a corner.

              • miss t-lee

                You don’t even know the half. At one point I was just praying to make it 6 months without someone dying, because the losses were that frequent.

                • GailyTheyRing,WhilePeopleSing

                  Oh dear. Hugs my dear.

                  • miss t-lee

                    Thanks.

        • Ari

          I’m sorry that happened to your uncle.

          • miss t-lee

            Thank.
            Yeah, it was unfortunate. He’d cheated death before, but unfortunately not that time.

        • I’m sorry boo! ?

          • miss t-lee

            Thank you.

        • GailyTheyRing,WhilePeopleSing

          My gf message me mid last week telling me her sister in law barely 30 years old, just had a baby and just dropped dead. It has hit her family hard. I didn’t know what to say. They are deeply Christian so I know their faith shall pull them through but still it hurts like heII.

          • miss t-lee

            Dang! I’m sorry for your loss.
            So scary to lose someone like that so young, and just after having a baby. So tragic. :(

            • GailyTheyRing,WhilePeopleSing

              I didn’t know the person, but she was my friend’s sister in law. We met since undergrad and have maintained contact, and she has always been there for me at some of my lowest periods. It sucks when something like that happens and you do not know what to do or say.

              • miss t-lee

                Sometimes you just don’t have the words. Just be there for your friend when she needs you.

          • MsSula

            A young friend of ours died that way 2 weeks ago. He was 34. Young, very sportsy and outdoorsy, and overall beautiful human soul. He had a ruptured brain aneurysm.

            This year has been very difficult.

        • TeeChantel

          I’m sorry to hear this, T.

          • miss t-lee

            Yeah, It was eerily similar.

        • GailyTheyRing,WhilePeopleSing

          sorry to hear T.

          • miss t-lee

            Preciate it.

        • Cheech

          I’m sorry, t.

          • miss t-lee

            Thanks, Cheech.

        • Simms~

          Sorry for your loss.

          • miss t-lee

            Thank you.

        • Mary Burrell

          Sorry for your loss.

          • miss t-lee

            Thanks, Mary.

    • Got Ricky Harris too.

      • The Pengest BK

        TaaDow passed???? Aw man!

        • GailyTheyRing,WhilePeopleSing

          Things have really been shiddy.

    • Mary Burrell

      Oh my gosh! I was really pulling for her and hoping she would pull through. It’s true about them going in 3’s. RIP Princess Laia.

    • Janelle Doe

      2016 is mean. I have been playing careless whisper and Prince songs for the past few hours…

      • Mary Burrell

        I listen to George Michael on Pandora all day.

    • Cleojonz

      2016 Is pulling a J.K. Rowling in the last Harry Potter book. Just senselessly killing folks all willy nilly in one fell swoop.

      • GailyTheyRing,WhilePeopleSing

        I am being wicked when I say it is missing some people who really need to be taken out.

        • Cleojonz

          I’ve been saying that since halfway through the year so you are not alone.

          • GailyTheyRing,WhilePeopleSing

            I am hoping that 2017 is much kinder, because Lawdt!! If it is worse, you need to take this cup away.

            • Charlito Brown

              I almost gave 2016 the satisfaction. I’m still here though.

              #blackmentalhealth

              • GailyTheyRing,WhilePeopleSing

                Thank God you didn’t give in

                • Charlito Brown

                  Thank you. That means so much. It’s real. It’s really real.

        • Nik White

          Well at least you didn’t name names…out loud

    • Jay Howard Gatsby

      The B*stards took Leia and I guess now Leia and Han are together in the Star Wars universe again. (Harrison Ford is still living, of course)

    • Nik White

      And Ricky Harris…not an icon but I just watched him in This Christmas this week!

  • Mr. Mooggyy

    I’m just mad that we have to wait until roughly August for season 2. As “Darius” said “…after Gambino gets done playing with light sabers and shyt”

    http://www.idigitaltimes.com/atlanta-season-2-delayed-donald-glover-working-han-solo-movie-early-2017-574856

    • HouseOfBonnets

      Leave Awaken my love alone lol

  • OSHH

    Never watched it.

  • Amaury

    Some of my faves:

    -“What IPAs do you have on tap?”
    -“You look like a fake Ellen Degeneres, a Felon Degeneres”
    -Dude getting away in his invisible car after the shootout at the club
    -“When is the right time to talk about your testicles getting smashed?” “Now, apparently”
    -Van’s mom understanding her husband’s foolary, loving her money more than him, then internalizing all that with the anti-black “thug” comments, then Ern saying “IT’S WEIRD IN THERE” was something really refreshing to me. That whole episode of blacks thinking they are the “good ones” and better than the “bad ones” was especially poignant.
    -The barter economy of the working class black (sword for dog for money in September) and the moves people in that situation have to make was dope.

    I agree, this show is amazing, and the touches, be them big or small, are generally great. Can’t wait for season 2.

    • TeeChantel

      I spent time with the fam over Christmas, and during one of the games, my nephew said he “was a 35 year old white man” obv quoting Atlanta. I was the only one in the room that died laughing because we knew where it came form.

    • black-a-rican

      I don’t think that was Van’s mom. IIRC, they were just a couple she met through networking.

    • TeeChantel

      Also, “you look like a dying palm tree.”

    • Furious Styles

      “this looks like if Spike Lee directed ‘Eyes Wide Shut’…”

  • Mary Burrell

    Atlanta and Queen Sugar and Insecure and Black-ish left me satisfied as far as my blackness in television bing watching was concerned. “Easter eggs” the white commentators on one of my podcasts Pop Culture Happy Hour uses that word a lot when they are really loving something in pop culture. I take it that’s one those words like “meta” that lots of journalist use today in 2016. I learned a lot on social media outlets. Interesting description of Zazzy Beat aesthetic. She is very pretty and I guess you are correct about it being more Bus Boys and Poets or Afro Punk. I just learned what Bus Boys and Poets was, it’s one of those artsy eateries in Washington D.C. I learned about that listening to the Sporkful podcast on NPR. Great post Damon.

    • MsSula

      I absolutely love Pop Culture Happy Hour. And Glen (mr Easter Egg) is my favoritest!! :)

      • Mary Burrell

        Glen Weldon.

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