The Sur-Reality of Black Experience in “Atlanta”

By Savannah Peykani

At the end of summer, FX introduced a bizarre series premiere that started with a parking lot shooting and ended with a stranger on a bus offering a Nutella sandwich and juice. This series could only be “Atlanta,” the product of Donald Glover (AKA Childish Gambino) and music video director Hiro Murai’s collaboration, set in the surreal, alternate reality of Atlanta, Georgia.

After watching the pilot, many viewers quizzically wondered if they somehow stumbled into a “Twin Peaks” spin-off, mainly due to that strange bus encounter that concludes the episode. Besides that, the show’s rich color scheme — fluorescent lighting in the parking lot and on the bus — adds to the episode’s initial eeriness. Was this association just a coincidence? Not at all; Glover himself equated the show to David Lynch’s avant-television masterpiece, saying that this is what the hit ‘90s show would be like if it had an all-black cast. This initial taste of the surreal only continued to overwhelm as the season progressed, with Earn (Donald Glover) meeting stranger and stranger characters across the city. After the season finale aired last week, reviewers started calling the connection between this black narrative and surrealism a surprising or refreshing one. However, surrealism has a deep tradition in black storytelling, which leads to the question of white privilege not only in artistic creation but within genre as well.

Quickly, reviewers compared “Atlanta” to prominent, ground-breaking series entrenched in whiteness. “Twin Peaks” is the primary parallel, but “Seinfeld” is another — “Atlanta” is also “a show about nothing.” So on the one hand, we have one show overwrought with surrealism and fantasy and another completely devoid of these elements. How can “Atlanta” be both at once?

Yes, like “Seinfeld” there is little interconnectedness from episode to episode. The basic plot remains that Earn wants to help Paper Boi, his cousin, succeed as a rapper, and provide for his sometimes-girlfriend, Van, and their daughter Lottie. Beyond that, there is little continuity, only an ever-growing dosage of absurdity.
In one episode, Justin Bieber is inexplicably black. He comes to Atlanta for a charity basketball game, in which Paper Boi also plays, culminating in a fight on the court because Bieber is still a hot-head who loves media attention. At the end of the episode, a white reporter, who Paper Boi tried to flirt with earlier, tells him, “They want you to be the asshole. You’re a rapper — that’s your job.” So, the surrealism isn’t without purpose. Paper Boi realizes that white people divide blacks into two categories: you can be black and lovable like Bieber, or black and demonized like Paper Boi.

The penultimate episode of the season, “Juneteenth,” capitalizes on this consideration of “good black” even more. Earn and Van go to a bougie party celebrating the end of slavery, hosted by a rich woman Van somehow knows. They want to make a good impression on this woman so they can get in her circle of Atlanta socialites and prestige. However, her white husband is a world-class clown. He leaps at the chance to serve Earn Hennessey, show off his violent paintings inspired by Malcolm X quotes, and lecture Earn about going to Africa, “the motherland.” He thinks of blackness as a hobby, a cool thing to study to absolve his own white guilt. There is nothing tangibly surreal in this episode but, as Earn puts it before storming out, “This is a weird place.”
And here rolls the natural relationship between blackness and surrealism: everyday, blacks face a surreal version of reality. From the moment the first European ship docked in West Africa, blacks have been served nothing but surrealism and been forced to swallow it as reality.

Originally coined in 1988 by Amiri Baraka, Afro-surrealism created an alternative, liberating mode of expression for black experience. This movement strayed from the European surrealism of Andre Breton and Salvador Dalí, allowing for a more specifically black voice. However, even before Baraka’s distinct demarcation, Martinique writer/activist Aimé Césaire and his contemporaries drew their own inspiration from surrealism in the mid-1900s as part of decolonization discourse. Describing his attraction to the style, Césaire explained in an interview, “Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor. A process of disalienation; that’s how I interpreted surrealism.”

For Césaire, surrealism provided an opportunity to freely communicate the realities of black experience. What white people are privileged enough to deem as weird and wild expression, black artists turn to as one of the only styles that can accurately convey their experiences in a white-supremacist world.

So when “Atlanta” draws parallels with “Twin Peaks” and “Seinfeld,” and this surprises viewers, what’s really surprising is the idea of a black narrative drawing from typically white aesthetics. Sure, we can accept a black show about the hood. But a black surrealist show about the hood? Now that’s innovative television.

This isn’t to take away from “Atlanta’s” mastery. It is one of the best new shows on television, and rightfully so. It’s just as important, however, to recognize the tradition of storytelling from which it draws as being a distinctly black one. In the last scene of the finale (spoiler alert) we learn that Earn lives in a storage unit. This is his reality. One that hits home stronger than satirical portrayal of celebrities or microaggressions. Glover doesn’t arbitrarily incorporate the surreal: he gives a purposeful homage to the black surrealists before him, understanding the genre as the most effective communication across racial divides.