Television as Text: Confronting Realities in Donald Glover’s Atlanta

By Jacque Groskaufmanis

I watched the first episode of Atlanta in the Fine Arts library, sitting next to a literal Greek statue and a fancy, old-timey map of 1970’s Manhattan. Donald Glover’s show portrays the city of Atlanta and the vibrancy and violence that exist within it. The scenes are emphasized in an unsettling way, set against the background of the ivory tower that is Cornell. This juxtaposition was, in part, so striking because the main character, Earn, frames his story within the context of a leave-of-absence from Princeton University. The show spends little screen time on Earn’s years at Princeton and does not reveal why he left, but the tension between the collegiate world that Earn abandoned and the vastly different city he currently inhabits is a constant motif throughout the show. Cornell changed the way I watch Atlanta, and Atlanta, to some extent, has changed the way I watch Cornell.

The show features Earn: a young man in his early 20s who is technically homeless, couch surfing and managing his cousin’s emerging rap career in a scheme to make money and get back on his feet. Earn’s situation is anything but straightforward, starting with his reasons for leaving Princeton and returning to Atlanta. “Three years is a long break,” his cousin Alfred says in the pilot episode—but this is largely the extent of the information offered to viewers about Earn’s departure from Princeton. Earn’s own father admits that he doesn’t know why he left, and after the first few lines in the first episode, the story of Earn’s time at school evaporates. It’s easy for viewers to forget about this part of the storyline, however, because the depiction of Earn’s reality in Atlanta is so vivid. Every episode is fast-paced and dramatic: Earn is detained; his girlfriend loses her job as a teacher for smoking weed; his cousin is accused of multiple shootings. The show integrates social commentary into the script so rapidly that it sometimes creates a white noise, and things get lost.

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

As an English major, I’ve made a habit of dissecting texts, and taking note of poignant motifs, arresting moments, and compelling characters. In terms of this kind of substance, Atlanta reads like a book. There are entire episodes in which the plot does not progress at all, existing in narrative autonomy, like a short story. The cultural and political implications of show are impossible for me to overlook; however, trying to insist upon a full understanding of the Atlanta would be a mistake, because it is too complex to understand in isolation.

I’m not from Atlanta. I’m a white woman from the suburbs—and the narrative of this show is not my own. I can’t attest to the accuracy of Glover’s portrayal of the city or relate personally to the issues the show addresses. But I can examine how the show reads and is being read—by myself, friends and peers—in this political climate on a college campus. Before trying to piece apart the show, I spoke to Austin Crute—an actor from Atlanta, and a current student at NYU.

Austin Crute as Justin Bieber in Atlanta

Crute is a student, a singer, and now, an actor. He gravitated towards his role in the show because of his Atlanta roots, but also because he thought that the show highlighted the realities of the Southern city in authentic, comedic and provocative ways. Crute said about his experience on the show: “I was having fun, being the character I was directed to be. It all kind of hit me after watching the episode (and reading some analytical articles) that ‘Oh…[my character] may have been more of a political statement [than I thought].” And I think Crute is right—about the show in general and his character. Crute appears in the fifth episode of the season, which fixates on the idea of “playing your role.” In this episode, Earn’s cousin, Alfred, is advised to exaggerate and perform the stereotypical trope of aggressive, unlikable rapper, even though this is counter to his character’s personality.

This plotline provides a striking commentary about the pressure within pop and political culture, placed particularly on black men and women, to adhere to a particular and narrow range of roles. This isn’t necessarily a new cultural concept, but it’s one that Atlanta dramatizes and critiques successfully. I asked Crute about this pressure, an artist and as a black man in the entertainment industry. “When you are an impressionable black child and everyone around you is basically white…your environment can brainwash you into pretending things aren’t racist. I used to give people the benefit of the doubt for mere social survival. No more. No one can afford to be silent anymore.” And he’s right. Although it cannot carry this conversation alone, Atlanta works to fill in some of those silences.

This kind of substantive commentary is particularly obvious in the second episode, when Earn and his cousin go to jail. While Earn is waiting to be put in “the system,” he sits in a room with other people who have been arrested. Next to him, a trans woman and a cis man are reunited, and reminisce about their romantic past. When the man refers to the woman as his “girl” the other men in the room get aggressive and mock him, calling him gay. This scene centers on gender and sexuality: how the two overlap, and how they don’t. However, the script takes these considerations a step further by framing them at a site of criminal and legal rules, reminding viewers that the state and the criminal justice system still largely view gender as biological sex, failing to allow people to self-identify. The show also presents these situations without attempting to convince viewers that these issues are fair or unfair; it just leaves them on the table and viewers are free to consider them, or pass them by.

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

In the same scene, a man who is mentally ill dances around the waiting room. “He’s in here tearing it up every week,” says one of the officers, amused. The scene is light-hearted and it feels like, in a twisted way, the show finally attempts to punctuate a heavy episode with some comic relief. However, the man then starts drinking toilet water, and spits it on an officer, who retaliates by physically beating him. “Why is he in here every week? He needs help.” Earn says, moments before the incident. On one hand, Earn’s conclusion is obvious: prisons, jails, and the whole criminal justice system fail those who suffer from mental illness. But when the subject of mental health is situated in a waiting room next to issues like gender identity, sexuality and racial profiling, it becomes harder to understand which issues need to be handled first, or how to begin handling them at all. Atlanta, as a show, is like this waiting room: a compressed clump of urgent issues, with faces and stories to flesh them out. Only unlike this scene, Atlanta ultimately is a comedy.

On one hand, you can separate this commotion from Cornell. But on the other hand, issues of social justice are talked about constantly on campus—in Government and English classes, around tables in Temple of Zeus, and during lectures and panels in Bailey Hall. The difference is that, for most at Cornell, these issues are abstract: intellectualized, mourned, and bookended by other realities. The fact that many of the show’s characters are of college age makes their radically different experiences,and early thrust into adulthood all the more jarring. Over the summer I spent time working in parts of Washington D.C. that remind me of the neighborhoods Glover depicts in Atlanta. Whenever I study in a particularly beautiful library at Cornell, I think about the people I worked with there, where they are, what they’re doing—not out of guilt or pity, but just in awe at how dramatically different America can be from town to city, from college to working-life. On a more intimate level, Atlanta offers poignant images to carry around and consider. As Crute put it, “I think this show is doing a great job of forcing us to confront a lot of realities in Atlanta and America. And they manage to make harsh realities very freakin’ funny while they’re at it.”

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