There are so many points in the media that try to dictate what blackness is and there are very few platforms via which black folks can say, ‘This what blackness is.'”
– Cool guy at AfroPunk NY
This quote was running through my mind during a conversation I was having with my friend about my excitement for the Atlanta premiere and she expressed that something about Donald Glover rubbed her the wrong way. “ I don’t know “ she explained “he just doesn’t really seem black to me”. I found her criticism to be especially confounding, not because it’s one I haven’t heard numerous times from those who share her sentiment about him, but because she and I both have that same criticism leveled at us far more than I like to remember.
Growing up ,something as innocuous as wearing Vans in high school (before The Pac forever immortalized the line “got my vans on but they look like sneakers) or blasting the latest Jimmy Eat World album would warrant comments about my perceived whiteness.
I routinely would have challenges with my peers where I would dare them to ask me any question about something rap/black related so I could impress them with my black expertise. Its’ from these interactions that I started formulating a fundamental question that has stayed with me ten years out of high school; What does it mean to be black and more specifically what does it mean to black in America?
In the past two years, I’ve thought more about what it means to be black and not just in cases where my “blackness” is challenged. In a society in which a Rachel Dolezal not only exists, but actually has black people supporting her “cause” I have become more cognizant of what it means to be black in a supposedly post-racial society where black culture has become a commodity that can be re-packaged and sold to anyone as a “lifestyle”.
When fashion magazines rename cornrows “boxer braids” and praise the Karsashian/Jenner clan for being trailblazers of this hairstyle, I wonder if the same praise would be heaped on the MILLIONS of black girls that rock this hairstyle daily. More often than not, representation of blackness in the media can come off as camp (looking at you Empire) or look like it is being seen through the lens of one peering into the culture.
The fact that Atlanta is created by a black man, directed by a black man, and boasts an all black writing staff left me with admittedly high expectations for the show; and judging by the first two episodes Mr.Glover has no plans on disappointing.
Atlanta is a show that mixes deftly mixes deadpan humor, bits of surrealism, and the classic story of a man’s path to success, all told through the eyes of the black experience. Much has been said about how this is a “show about nothing” and comparisons have been made to Seinfeld. But aside from the observational humor and the banter between the main characters there is such a HUGE GLARIING difference between the shows, Atlanta is unaplolegtically black whereas Seinfeld makes an episode of Girls look like Living Single.
I’ve watched both of the first two episodes three times now, for the sake of this recap of course but also because there are so many unapologetically black moments in the show it felt like I was on a #blackpeopleproblems treasure hunt.
The show is filled of so many witty asides and casual observations about human behavior, but what sets it truly apart is that most of them are filtered through the perspective of 30 year old black, for the lack of a better word, millenials. So many times I caught myself thinking to myself “this is sooo real”. In one of the first scenes of the show we meet Earn (Donald Glover), Darius, and Alfred in a parking lot as they face off in a confrontation between Darryl and the owner of a car that presumably side swiped the side view mirror off Darryl’s car.
As Darryl and the couple trade barbs the aggravated car owner accuses Darryl of trying to stunt, to which Earn retorts” we’re all standing outside of the club at 10:45 because no one wants to pay to get into the ckub at 11, believe me no one is trying to stunt.”
This line will resonate with ANYONE who has bemoaned him/herself for not having a plug to get inside a venue and been relegated to the “free before 11” line. Its an incredibly humbling and universal experience, and these type of moments are plenty abound.
In a theme that I’ve noticed continues throughout the show, Glover likes to let the audience piece together the background and the dynamic behind characters. We know Earn has a young daughter with his girlfriend, or rather the woman he made a baby with that now provides free housing for him, Van.
When we are first introduced to Van she’s lying in bed as Earn relates a dream he just had to her. He then rolls on top of her (probably in an attempt to get risky), but things quickly turn awkward when she asks him if he loves her and he laughs at her question and follows it up with “of course”. Van then proceeds to lay into Earn about not being able to drop and pick his daughter off from his own parents’ house and that he may need to start paying rent if he wants to start living there.
This scene is important not only because Van has this conversation as she takes down her twist-out (#blackpeopleprobems), but also it’s the first emergence of Earn’s fuckboy tendencies.
Throughout “The Big Bang” the episode reveals that Earn is a Princeton dropout that is basically banned from entering his parents house because he always needs money and he cant even be bothered to flush a toilet in which he left a large bowel movement. I can see why Van is open to exploring her dating options.
We soon learn that Earn works a dead end commission –based job selling credit card reward packages at an airport. Maybe they can smell the desperation off of him, but this position does not seem to bring him anything remotely resembling a steady revenue stream. When a coworker shows him a video of an upcoming rapper, Paper Boi, Earn realizes the rapper in the video is actually his cousin, Alfred. Broke, and with literally no options to make money, Earn decides to approach Alfred about becoming his manager.
When we meet Alfred(Brian Anthony Tyree) he’s holed up in his house and immediately cautious of the presence of someone at his door. It seems his budding popularity is becoming increasingly hazardous to his career of drug dealing. In this scene we also meet Darius, the perennial stoner character played by Keith Stanfield. I was super excited to see Stanfield in this role as I had seen him in an indie film, Short Term 12, in which he literally stole every single scene he was in.
When Earn pitches his idea of becoming his cousin’s manager, Alfred is quick to remind him, “Nigga, I ain’t seen or heard from you since my mom’s funeral, and the first thing I hear out your mouth is ‘Let’s get rich.” Quick side note, there are going to be those who will take offense of the characters’ insistent use of “nigga” .
I subscribe to the Paul Mooney school of thought in which he says he before he wakes up and brushes his teeth he says nigga 50 times. In praising this show in its authenticity, I must commend Glover for his choice to use the word; or maybe it wasn’t even a choice but just a natural extension of him and his writers writing dialogue that sounds true to them. I know this is how I and ALL of my black educated, college grad friends speak, so this proved to be another way in which this show is very naturalistic.
Glover has explained in interviews that he wants to show “white people you don’t know everything about black culture” and with Atlanta he has created a show where black people get to be as nuanced and complex as those in other “prestige shows”. Whether it be in the scene where Darius welcomes Earn into Paper Boi’s house with a plate of cookies in one hand and a large knife in the other. Or when Paper Boi questions the ability of Earn to manage him when he’s homeless which leads to a rather funny exchange about how he’s not “using a rat as a phone” type homeless , to which Darius remarks it would be an amazing idea,messy—but amazing nonetheless.
Atlanta is a show about black people and culture, yet Glover has repeatedly said that he doesn’t want to make a statement with the show, yet critics have already compared it to The Wire, Seinfeld, and more pointedly Master of None.
The fact that making a point about black people that actually feel true to black people is being hailed as visionary is not one that’s lost on me. Glover has created a show that allows black people to be black without campiness.
It’s created a reality that’s realer than so called “reality shows” that often how show black people as caricatures. He’s created a funny well- written show where black people can just be…black. If that’s the biggest take away one gets from the show, he’s accomplished exactly what he set out to do.
If you’re a black girl with a dry sense of humor you’ve probably been compared to Daria or told that you’d LOVEEEEE Issa Rae’s original web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl”. As someone who falls into both camps I can admit that I’m in the throes of my second binge of all the Daria’s episodes (Hulu is not completely useless), but I couldn’t definitively say that I loved Awkward Black Girl. I personally felt that it relied too heavily on the “token black girl” trope without lending a new perspective to the idea. Not to mention I constantly found myself thinking I’d been in way more awkward situations than the ones presented in the series. That’s not to say that I didn’t go into watching the premiere of Issa Rae’s new series “Insecure” on HBO with a very open mind. I was excited to see the tv directorial debut of Melina Matsoukas (Formation,Losing You, We Found Love) and also the direction the show would take now that it was being expanded to a half hour series on a cable network.
When speaking about the show at HBO’s 2016 Television Critics Association session, Rae commented that the series would explore “the complexities of ‘blackness’ and the reality that you can’t escape being black.” Upon hearing that I thought(rather unjustly) that it could serve as the female counterpart to Atlanta. But to pit the swows against each other or to even simplistically compare the two of them does a disservice to both shows.
Insecure is stylistically and tonally different from Atlanta, and sure they both explore themes relating to “blackness”, but at it’s core they are two very different shows. Rae’s Insecure seems to follow more traditional sitcom beats, the main one being that every character’s actions must be in service to the point the episode is trying to make. If Atlanta wins you over with its wry subtleties, Insecure does the same thing by playing to its audience; neither way is better per se, just different.
Issa Rae plays the titular character, Issa, a five-year removed college grad working as a youth liaison for a non-profit group “We got Yall” in South Central. During her first introduction to the group of students she’ll be working with, she gets bombarded with questions such as “Why do you talk like a white girl” and whether she wants her hair to be put in a weave or if she intentionally wears her hair like that. Sheesh. What happened to the days when kids would avert their eyes when the teacher asked if anyone had questions?
The Q&A ends rather pointedly when a student asks why Issa isn’t married, and goes even further to tell Issa that her father said, “Ain’t no body checking for bitter ass black women anymore. Who is this girl’s father? Steve Harvey?” Issa matter of factly responds to the girl that black women aren’t bitter, “They’re just tired of being told to settle for less.” The scene is a bit heavy-handed but I nodded in agreement while watching it so I can’t say it didn’t work.
Through some narration (ugh) and flashback scenes we meet Issa’s best friend, Molly, a corporate lawyer that we’re told is loved equally by black and white people because she can make an insensitive joke about the environment with white clients in a board meeting AND dap it up with some black dudes over a game of dominoes. This stands in direct contrast to Issa who serves as the black person in her work staff and is relegated to answering questions like “what is on fleek” by her white coworkers. I’ve always loved the adage of showing and not telling when it comes to character and plot development , and at times I wish Insecure bought into this a little more too.
The characters presented to us can come across as one-dimensional whether it be Issa’s long term boyfriend who would rather sit on the couch watching weird bodybulding videos rather than going out for her birthday, or he college ex-boyfriend that is supposed to be a…player? I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the ex-boyfriend character so it will be interesting to see how he is presented on shows to come.
Insecure is at it’s best when it focuses on the friendship between Molly and Issa and in its portrayal of navigating the dating world as a black woman in 2016. In an exchange between Molly and a coworker, we see as Molly excitedly texts an Arab guy she’s seeing. Molly makes the observation that even though it’s only been three dates this guy is sooo different from the guys she’s been with, this asssement is only made sweeter by the fact that she “never thought shed end up with someone who isn’t black.” Her Asian coworker shares the same sentiment since she and her black boyfriend always laugh about the fact that neither of them are each other type yet it works.
Molly scoffs at this notion and tells the coworker that her boyfriend is fronting since niggas love “Asians, and Latinas, and Indians, and white chicks and mixed chicks, but hey, if they’re not checking for me I aint checking for them” This convo takes place as “The Arab Guy” ignores a phone call from Molly and responds to her text of wanting to see him with the battle cry of single men “Sorry. i’m not really looking for a relationship right now ☹” Non-commitment it seems is truly color blind.
Another stand out moment from the show comes when Issa and Molly continue to talk about dating over dinner. Molly complains how it seems no matter how she tries to maneuver through the dating world she continues to get the same result:loneliness. If you show interest too early, you’re smothering. Don’t show enough interest and you weren’t sending enough signs. Have sex too soon they lose interest, have it too late, they lose interest. Not have it all, well she’s a grown woman with needs and no one has time for that. If I had a dollar for each time I had these two exact conversations with my friends , I’d be a thousandaire. These convos not only serve to give the show big laughs but it’s also social commentary that is relatable to many women, regardless of your race.
Though Atlanta and Insecure might be presented in completely different ways, the overall themes of what it means to deal with issues that arise within black culture and outside of it will likely resonate with viewers who have ever felt simultaneously marginalized and embraced by a larger dominant culture. As the shows progress, it will be interesting to see how each tackles the complexities of what it means to be black in both, and even more interesting will be how they portray these experiences without falling prey to stereotypes and caricatures. What I hope they’re able to get across is that although the black experience is certainly shared by many, there’s not just one way to be “black”.