Created by multi-talented Donald Glover and his Royalty crew, FX’s Atlanta was a hit. According to the Hollywood Reporter, FX says it is the highest rated “basic-cable primetime scripted debut in more than three years among the all-important adults 18–49 demo.” This is a big win for diverse representation, as Atlanta’s cast and production team is mostly African-American, and it has already landed a second season.
The show’s success comes from its comedic plot: Princeton drop Earn (Glover), as he tries to balance managing his volatile, drug-dealing, insta-hit rapper and cousin, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), or “Paper Boi”, and providing for his daughter and the mother of his child (Zazie Beets).
Glover, known as Childish Gambino by music fans, said “I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture”. But in Atlanta, Glover references black pop cultural iconography, themes, and tropes that can be subtle or overlooked by non-black viewers. A level of Black cultural literacy is needed to fully digest all the allusions and jokes within the show. The lack thereof becomes evident when reading recaps and examinations of the show from non-black writers.
In an article “Donald Glover’s Artistic Journey Has Been Building to Atlanta’s ‘Black Justin Bieber’ Episode”, Vulture writer Jesse David Fox says “Though there are straight-up jokes in Atlanta, the overall comedic tone comes from the lack of clarity.” While Fox’s analysis is genuine, it is a bit ironic. Jokes that may be unclear for him are clear (or at least, less ambiguous) for black millennial audiences.
After discussing Glover’s use of cameo and the “theatrics of the absurd”, Fox talks about the black Justin Bieber:
Because when we initially see him, so many things are unclear. At first, you can’t tell if Earn is joking. Or if Bieber might actually be behind the black guy walking in…In terms of the thinking behind making Justin Bieber black in the Atlanta universe, it’s unclear if the character is meant to be a satire of how Bieber “acts black” (…) Or maybe, it’s not satire, but the hope is it makes the viewer think about how we’d respond to a black performer who acted like Justin Bieber. (…) There are ways the script could’ve made it clear, but it didn’t. Because ultimately, having Justin Bieber be black was meant to create a feeling of ambiguity in the viewer that is reflected in Alfred’s uneasiness with being seen as an old and so-called “gangster” rapper.
The “ambiguity” non-black viewers and critics ascribe to Atlanta is more reflective of their unawareness to the black linguistic and comedic traditions it taps into, specifically the use of “double talk” — saying one thing and meaning another. Though his analysis was genuine, Fox presented the idea that Atlanta’s parody could be a commentary on one thing or another, instead of one thing and others — a distinction that isn’t merely semantic. Many of Atlanta’s jokes have multiple, simultaneous meanings, tapping into the “double talk” of black diasporic expression — a history that many non-black viewers may not be privy to.
History and linguistics scholars date double talk back to Africa, but at least within the context of America, it is deeply rooted in the black slave experience. Viewing human interaction as “theatrical”, black slaves had to become adept at “acting” –or code-switching– to navigate their captivity. They had to appease slaveowners’ temperament; smiling when they were demoralized, remaining calm when they were furious. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar articulates this in his poem “We Wear The Mask”, with the iconic line “We wear the mask that grins and lies.”
Though it was survival instinct, masking their emotions could not be anything more than quick medicine to ease the pain. Having few constructive outlets to release emotions like joy, anger, and sorrow, the enslaved found catharsis through language — by using “double talk”. It was a way to express emotions and send messages without the slave owners knowing what they meant — “bad meaning good” or singing about the Israelites escaping from Pharaoh to symbolize them running away from the plantation.
Much of this linguistic tradition was forged in the black church, since many slaveowners forbid social congregation amongst slaves with exception of church and certain holidays. The church provided a space where black people forged a deeper communal identity and a catharsis for the physical and emotional toll of slavery. It was a place where they could be critical of the master, even when he was in the room. Seminal writer James Baldwin talks this it in many of his works, and candidly in public lectures like the 1969 conversation with comedian Dick Gregory in London, where he said:
“And if I discover that those songs the darkies sang, and sing, were not the innocent expressions of a primitive people, but extremely subtle and difficult, dangerous and tragic expressions of what it felt like to be in chains.”
In a sense, Baldwin himself is a physical embodiment of double talk. Critics of Baldwin reduced him to either a race-baiter on one hand or an assimilationist (assuming that he tailored his critique of America in order to make anti-racism more palatable for white liberals) on the other. The irony is that many of Baldwin’s most incriminating critiques were not of racist Klan members, but white liberals and everyday Americans who see themselves moral, but rather not swim in the troubled waters of U.S. “race relations.”
Like Baldwin, Donald Glover often gets reduced to “acting white” or only “appealing to white kids”, even as he has the “blackest” show on television (in plot, cast, and crew), has sparked controversy with things like a Twitter poem on how it felt to be black in America, and has spoken candidly on topics like white privilege.
But long before Glover or Atlanta, “double talk” has journeyed through the black comedic tradition. The first African-American “public” comedians or entertainers performed dances like the cakewalk or sung happy songs at slaveowners’ behest. This evolved (or devolved) in later decades as minstrelsy, where blacks performed intense caricatures of themselves — “shucking and jiving” and performing jovial, primitive acts while wearing blackface that accentuated their “big” lips and bug-eyes. It was popular form of entertainment of theatregoers, advertised like any other form of entertainment is (for example, The New York Times ran a story titled “New Features in Negro Minstrelsy” in a February of 1886).
Many social historians see minstrelsy as white audiences’ schadenfraude and black minstrels’ self-oppression, but others locate the “double talk” within it. In Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power, writer and University of Southern California professor Christine Acham talks about how white plantation owners “failed to realize that the mode of dress and exaggerated displays…were a critique of white society.” She also cites Mel Watkins, author of The Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock, who argues that a black minstrel could have been amused, and, in a sense, empowered by the “ridiculous and exaggerated” nature of his performance, because it was a reflection of white (lack of) morality and social infantilism. If that was the black person white Americans imagined and paid to see, then the minstrel would give them a show– because unlike their amusement, his performance was fake.
This idea of a black comedy as self-deprecating, but also (and in some cases, more so) a critique of the audience and broader society finds it way through many prominent black comedians — from Red Foxx to Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock to Dave Chappelle. Chappelle’s Show is full of comedic social and political commentary, from his “blind black white supremacist” sketch to the “Racial Draft” to pleading the “Fif” Amendment. While Atlanta isn’t a sketch comedy show, and may not be as coded as a negro spirituals, nor offer depictions as caricatured as minstrelsy, it does use “double talk.”
A good example is in the “black Justin Bieber” episode, where Afro-Biebs is calling for a pass in a celebrity basketball game. He claps his hands and says “Nigger” at his teammate, demanding the ball. This use of the “nigger” with instead of “nigga” has a multi-layered subtext. It alludes to Bieber being caught on camera singing “nigger”, shows the ironic paradox of who gets a “pass” to say the word, and critiques the “pass” (in this instance, meaning forgiveness) Justin Bieber gets as a lovable, white male icon that he would not get if he were black. By making the music icon black and having him literally asking for a “pass”, this parody critiques black popular culture’s ideas about who gets to be an “honorary black person”, when, if, and why that symbolic membership is granted or revoked, and critiques the larger non-black society and pop culture’s co-option of “blackness” while also benefitting from anti-blackness.
In order to catch all of commentary Atlanta makes, a viewer needs more than a basic understanding of how parody works– they need a certain cultural reference. Atlanta is created within the “black gaze” (as opposed to “the white gaze”) — framing its text and subtext through the wider black, and specifically, the “black millennial experience”.
Historically, black artists have had to reconcile their work within the mainstream or white gaze. In an interview with Charlie Rose, writer Toni Morrison spoke about a time she was pressed by Bill Moyers on when she would stop “writing about race” (which she took as a veiled suggestion that she should centralize the white experience).
In the TV realm, we see it in the political commentary of “The Cosby Show” versus its black cult classic spin-off “A Different World”. Obviously the two shows differ in tone, culture, setting, plot, and ethos — the middle class respectability politics of Bill Cosby versus the historical black college and university experience (from joining a fraternity to dressing up for a party to their roles in political movements such as protesting for divesting from apartheid South Africa). Mainstream audiences are more likely to understand the references in “The Cosby Show” than in “A Different World.”
But gaze is not just a term used only in relation to race, it is interchangeable with any dominant social strata viewed to be the norm. There are many gazes — male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, even an “American gaze” (for example, most Americans would say that people from London have a “British accent”, even though England, not America, is where English was created. This is because we are using our perspective as the “norm”).
Underneath its plot elements, Atlanta has deeper social commentary that varies in accessibility. For example, Earn’s prolonged detention in an Atlanta jail made several commentaries about the black experience: the clerk’s code switch and demeanor change when Alfred asked when Earn would be released, or the homoeroticism and homophobia in hyper-masculine black male criminal (one guy in the jail “didn’t know” he was having a romantic relationship with a transgender woman). But the fact that the entire episode took place in jail is a critique of the detached nature of criminal justice system, bail as a form of classism, and the long waiting times experienced by poor people and black and brown people— many who wait hours, even days before they know what they are charged with, and extreme cases like Kalief Browder, who was in jail for three years in Rikers without a trial before his case was thrown out.
In Van’s (Zazie Beets) episode, the chubby black kid in whiteface was an absurd comedic proxy for the idea that “weird” black kids “act white”. Viewers who aren’t privy to the discourse about authentic blackness happening within black communities may have missed that commentary. The use of “whiteface” was a more explicit symbol, but Atlanta elevates discussions within black culture in smaller, less overt details. Paper Boi’s real name (Alfred) pokes fun at “white” (or “not black” in the American cultural imagination), or at least, ironic names some of the “hardest” black male rap stars have (for example, Master’s name is Percy, Plies’ name is Algernod, and Gucci Mane’s name is Radric). And with other instances such as the use of Cree Summer’s voice in the “Coconut Crunch-O’s” cereal commercial or the appearance of a trans-racial Retro Spectro in the “B.A.N” episode, black cultural literacy is needed in order to recognize the multiple layers of the jokes and references within the show.
But the show doesn’t only highlight the larger black culture, it also shows geographical differences with it. Atlanta’s setting symbolizes both the popular and the in-group, regional aspects of black culture.
While there are references that black millennials will catch that mainstream audiences may not, there are also references that black millennials, who don’t live in the inner-city, and who are specifically not from Atlanta, would not perceive either. For instance, the musical backdrop of the series features many local Atlanta artists. Though many black millennials might, not all would recognize an OJ Da Juiceman track or a Zaytoven beat. But, most millennials, regardless of race, could probably spot a Future song.
Framing a series within a specific cultural experience is not a new phenomenon in any form of art. Most Americans do not live in the southwest, but country music has a national audience. Seinfeld is an iconic series that viewers from many backgrounds enjoy, even though it is filled with cultural references that need Jewish cultural knowledge to catch. Characters in The Big Bang use sci-fi fantasy jargon regularly, but viewers don’t have to be a white, male nerd to enjoy the show anymore than you need to be black to watch Black-ish. But with all these examples, there is a certain lingua franca those outside of the immediate target audience may not be accustomed to. It doesn’t mean that non-black viewers can’t enjoy Atlanta, more so that there are things about the show that they won’t perceive.
Glover and crew have spawned a brilliant show that undercuts the idea of a black monoculture. It shows an array of black people’s dreams, contradictions, philosophies, neuroses, common sense, and sense of humor on mainstream display. But it would be unwise to assume that every joke is made for mainstream consumption. Some of Atlanta’s comedic genius is more readily understood to members of not only millennial pop culture, but also black millennial culture. And even Glover saying “I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture” is actually a form of double talk.
So think of Atlanta as a gumbo of black experiences. If you do not know what “gumbo” is, what it’s made of, or why gumbo exists in the first place, that’s okay. That knowledge isn’t necessary to gauge if it tastes good to you — or not.