After its first, breakout season, the television watching world widely and rightly placed Donald Glover’s Atlanta amongst the best shows on television currently. Just over halfway through the second season, I can definitively say that it is one of the best shows ever to be on television. What we are watching is not just a television show—it’s not even just an event; we are watching the manifestation of genius. We are watching The Miseducation of Lauren Hill in television form; it needs no follow-up to solidify it’s greatness. It’s a monologue of weird Black kid faculty, the type of genius that ran home from school to catch Dragonball Z on Toonami before writing prescient stories in a composition notebook; that traded Pokemon cards in the library during study hall between making mostly As (with a couple of Bs in the boring stuff); that got teased at the family cookout for not knowing the latest snapping song, but also got cousins to start kind of liking that new Evanescence; that lives in and is of a culture but as an outsider, with distance enough to look both in and out. Atlanta makes the audience feel as an insider who has stepped out long enough to look in through its ability to relate and its ability to transcend. The situations and characters are familiar to those of us who are Black and especially those of us who have spent time in Atlanta, but the settings and lens through which we view these are surreal enough to make the social commentary simultaneous hilarious and unnerving.
I was going to write this blog post on the premise that the last two episodes of this show have been unusually and remarkably genius. But, as I thought about it, truly the whole season has been a notch past remarkable. Yes, “Barbershop,” and “Teddy Perkins” are both startlingly authentic and outlandish, but they are not unusually genius for this show. They simply are.
“Barbershop” reminds us of every time that a nigga had our very lives and heads in their hands and then started playing what I affectionately refer to as “ghetto games.” “Ghetto Games” could have very well been the name of this episode, because hunty, Alfred’s barber was well versed in them. It was so familiar…being promised an “in and out” situation even though your stylist has booked 3 people at the same time and called you to ask you to pick her up some Chick-Fil-A on your way over (but your new growth is out of control and if you didn’t get right, how could you possibly show your face at that event tonight that would require you take off your ball cap and durag? She better know this Chick-Fil-A is coming out of her tip.).
“Teddy Perkins….” Well, the most eloquent way I can put this is that…that shit was crazy. It was all so jolting. The description of the episode itself admits that Darius should have been had left…and most Black folks would like to believe we would have. I was unsure about where this episode was going until Teddy told Darius that he did not have a butler, but rather used the apparent speaker as a recording device to remember things…at that point I knew we were going on a ride. The episode was scary as hell, but Glover somehow managed not to punctuate the scary with the funny, but rather lace the horror itself with comedy. As unnerving as the clearly unraveled musings of Teddy were, as morbid as it was to hear him list off the notoriously horrendous fathers of famous people with admiration, l lost it all as he listed “the dad who dropped Emilio Estevez off in The Breakfast Club” amongst them. That’s just how smart Glover is, to wind that comedic nugget in with a list of abusers within the words of the abused in a way that doesn’t detract from their weight but rather adds ironic undercurrents to their heft.
Somewhere in the middle of the episode, after Darius calls Alfred to give him the update on the kaleidoscope piano adventure, Alfred texts Darius, “u dead yet?” Any one of us who has a best friend (a real nigga best friend that is) can relate. Alfred is the best friend who says, “text me to let me know you made it home alright” when y’all leave the club at 3 AM and you’re a little tipsy…but he doesn’t take your car keys from you and force you to catch an Uber, though. And he falls asleep as soon as he gets home, before checking to see if you actually made it. Then he blows up your phone at 7:42 AM, and instead of saying hello when you answer groggily (but safe in bed) he says, “why the hell you ain’t text me when you got home like I told yo ass to? Did you die?” This text, and the brief interlude during which Darius calls Alfred and the car erupts in laughter at photos of Sammy Sosa, those moments remind us that as surreal and fantastically frightening as the haunted house sequence of Teddy’s House of Homemade Daddy-Issue Wonders is, this is real and unreal because this is Atlanta, where anything can (and often does) happen. This episode, and the one preceding it, and really the one preceding that and that and that, are stepping stones on the way to understanding some few stitches in the fabric that is Atlanta, a city driven by both Black achievement and poverty. And Donald Glover is showing to be a master weaver.
I grew up in Georgia but didn’t come to Atlanta until college. My time there was such a magical mix of hob-nobbing at JR Crickets and Compound, of Young Jeezy driving to the AUC in his lambo to celebrate our first Black President, of crawling on my hands and knees to escape unharmed when someone started shooting in the club, of somehow winding up in a Sean Paul listening party (his accent will get you, I swear), of campaigning for the next Black mayor, of listening to Andrew Jackson and T.I. talk about their documentary on gun violence, of police helicopters showing up to Pretty Nasty, of the floor caving in at a house party, of knowing a dude at the door who lets you and the squad in for free, of strip clubs and after hours spots and tacos on Buford and panel discussions and Bronner Brothers and occasional MARTA rides with stories to tell afterwards. My life in Atlanta was one long series of “u dead yet?” texts, and if some of these events had occurred outside of the mystical realm that is the ATL, I might have been.