Opening Defense: I know the pushback I’ll most likely receive is “but wait–black people love ‘Atlanta’ too.” Sure, but this year saw a variety of black-starring and created TV shows from “Loosely Exactly Nicole” to “Insecure” to “Luke Cage” to “Queen Sugar” and none of them received the universal adoration from white critics that “Atlanta” did. Not only did “Atlanta” just receive the Best Comedy award at this year’s Golden Globes (although the Hollywood Foreign Press famously doesn’t watch most of the nominees in the TV categories, especially comedy which is less Euro-centric) but it has that rare and coveted 100% rating on rottentomatoes and has been universally rubber-stamped for every white critic’s “Top 10 Best of 2016 list.” And I think I know why that is…
It’s the most insidiously regressive show of 2016. “Atlanta” doesn’t really refute stereotypes so much as reinforce them with “realism” steel. In the current TV landscape, a lot of black characters are pretty well-off. From “Scandal” to “Black-ish” to “Being Mary Jane” to “Empire” to “Rosewood” to “House of Lies” to “How to Get Away with Murder,” we’re seeing intelligent, wealthy black characters that largely thrive and succeed in an environment that is not exclusively black. You might argue that the 1% is somewhat overly represented in media portrayals of black people, but “Atlanta” shows an image of black people that even white racists could love: lead character Earn is lazy, stoned, perpetually broke, and in a friends-with-benefits-style relationship with his “baby mama” but sleeps with several other women on the way to helping manage a rapper that is often arrested for violence (in episode 1 he literally shoots someone over nothing at a gas station). And the female lead’s most significant episode is her frantically trying to beat a drug test at her job of school teacher.
The characters of “Atlanta” are closer in spirit to the pre-Cosby sitcoms of the 70’s but to hear white critics tell it Donald Glover has reinvented the black sitcom…by taking it to the past. Except the occasional absurdist episode that borrows heavily from “Louie” like the much-heralded BET round-table that is similar to a Louie-season one episode following a mock set-up of a masturbation panel on Fox News.
And the show is weirdly more comfortable for a white audience than any of the other shows listed. Whereas “Black-ish” or “Insecure” or “The Carmichael Show” might more directly tackle culture clashes or white insensitivity, “Atlanta” largely exists in a completely segregated world where almost no speaking parts were given to non-black actors aside from gun-toting rednecks (at a gun range where one lead character wants to shoot a paper-dog target) to the obligatory negative portrayal of a white guy married to a black woman in the 9th episode.
In fact, the two most significant speaking parts for non-black actors in the entire season are a white female reporter who adamantly turns down Paper Boi (in the 5th episode where Justin Bieber is portrayed as black) and a clueless white guy married to the female lead’s “bougie” cousin. In both examples, segregationist-minded viewers can laugh at hilariously botched attempts at interracial couplings, secure in their knowledge of how foolish it is to interact with people of a different race beyond the most basic level. In same episode 9, the black female protagonist even literally says “Don’t you wish you were married to someone you could relate to?” to the “stuck-up,” rap-hating black woman married to a white guy, a question that seems much broader than just this one particular white guy. The woman’s response is to say that she married him for his money. Wow, could this episode traffick in more ugly stereotypes of misunderstood interracial relationships?
In this one portrayal, Donald Glover is telling us what he thinks of white men married to black women even though he himself recently had a kid with a white woman, and does not himself live in the same largely segregated world as his creations.
His real life was/is vastly different than the character of Earn and Paper Boi. Glover was born on a military base in California, attended the posh Tisch School of the Arts in Manhattan, and has split time between NYC and Hollywood for years, when not forced to be in Atlanta filming shows about it. Although it’s worth noting that when he thanks “the city of Atlanta” he was actually raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia which is like someone in Hoboken talking about the impact Brooklyn had on them growing up. Rather than hide his white partner in NYC, while praising the most segregated city in America, it might have made for a better TV show to see the actual Glover (or a character closer to him) living in Atlanta and what that might really look like.
None of this is to say that “Atlanta” is necessarily a bad show. Just a curiously retrograde one that has been somehow elevated into high-art by white critics desperate for “authenticity” and the “realness of black voices.” Yet “Atlanta” seems to use its voice to largely tell them what they want to hear: that black people are happier living entirely separated lives from whites, and to try to change that or a violent, pot-smoking rapper into something else is only messing up the “honesty” of these lives.