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.