Television Workshop: Donald Glover's Atlanta

By Caleb Michael Sarvis




For those who are unaware, Juneteenth is a holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery in the state of Texas, but is also recognized as the date slavery was abolished in the Confederate South. In the world of Atlanta, it’s an excuse for a wealthy black woman named Monique and her African-culture obsessed white husband to throw an upscale party. At this party, Van and Earn pretend to be married so that Van can network herself into a new job, and black employees serve everyone drinks, food, and park their cars.

On Playing a Role

We get glimpses of this when Alfred has to be “thug” Paper Boi, or in episode 5 when Earn leans into another identity when he’s mistaken for someone else. Stefani Robison, writer of this episode, chooses to put Earn and Van in a situation in which being themselves won’t get them what they want, but as the episode progresses, Robinson also makes it really difficult for them to stay in character. During a hushed disagreement midway through the episode, Van says “Can you for once just pretend we aren’t who we are.” When they arrive at the house, Monique says to Earn, “You must be Mr. Hubby,” which appears to be news to him, and the first thing Craig, Monique’s husband, says to Earn is, “You look familiar.” We’re immediately shown how difficult this will be for them.

Putting the characters in a situation where they pretend to be someone else is a promise to the audience that the act will fall apart and there will be a return to normal at some point. In this return, we hope to learn something new about these characters.

As the evening progresses, Craig proves to be THE Mr. Cultural Appropriation (at one point he addresses Earn as “a brother,” chastises him for never visiting his Motherland Africa, and later performs a slam poetry piece about how he’s haunted by Jim Crow) and the young men working valet recognize Earn as Paper Boi’s manager. As the mask is pulled away from Earn, he shakes the façade himself before telling both Monique and Craig “this is not real life,” and that “this is all dumb.”

On Escalation of Tension Between Two People

“Juneteenth” has been the most tension filled episode this season, and it’s because Robinson has put the two characters that have to have some semblance of a relationship with each other in a position in which they are stuck together. Their relationship is held together by the daughter they share. It’s the reason they seem to interact at all, and the reason they’re stuck at this party.  To start, we open with Van picking Earn up from another woman’s house. As they sit in the car together, Earn’s fiddling with the window finishes with Van telling him to quit it. She’s visibly annoyed by him the moment they’re together.

At the party, Monique tells Van she can be whatever she wants to be. Craig, however, annoys Earn with his zeal and when Earn asks Van if she really wants to be there, she asks Earn whether he thinks she really wants to do this. “Maybe,” he says. In their shared role play, the audience sees that maybe the two don’t know each other as well as they thought, or perhaps more likely, they know each other too well. Well enough to push each other’s buttons just right. This subtle poking and prodding by each of them is a strong move by Robinson and works to elevate a scene without steeping into melodrama. At one point, Earn lauds the hard work of Van to a group of women and tells them he could never have eyes for another woman. The bullshit is too much for Van. She steps into a bathroom to cry and when she comes out she says to Earn, “You’re mean.” And the audience knows, in that moment, he is.

When she tells him she’s going to get drunk and he follows her, there’s a window in which we feel like Earn might reach out to reconcile with Van, but again, they are pulled about by Monique and Craig, whose likeability proves to be just as infuriating. Brilliant move by Robinson.

Two Things Working For Me: The episode ends with what appears to be a reconciliation between Earn and Vanessa. She asks Earn to pull over. He wonders aloud if she is going to be sick, and instead, the two kiss before she climbs into his seat and into his lap. Tension between two people can resolve itself in different ways, and truthfully, the worst thing these characters can do to one another is continually sleep together. It’s messy, ill-defined, and fuels the dumpster fire that is their relationship. I also love Monique’s character. She’s full of shit and self-aware. “I like Craig, but I love my money,” she says. She seems less genuine than Van, but she’s at least got it figured out, if anything.

Two Things I’m Not Sold On: This boiling tolerance of each other’s infidelity is difficult to understand. Van dates other men and Earn acknowledges that it’s not the best situation for his daughter. Earn walks out of another woman’s house and Vanessa is visibly upset. Both characters seem smart, strong, and fairly self-aware… so what gives? What’s keeping them in this limbo besides their individual short comings? Secondly, I understand that Earn would be annoyed by the end of the episode, but I’m not sure why he wouldn’t find Craig funny, if anything. He even says to Craig, “Stop being so likeable.” This could also be a consequence of my being a white man and unable to properly empathize, but perhaps we don’t know enough about Earn just yet to understand the full range of his thoughts and feelings.

 Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer in Jacksonville, where he lives with his wife and works as the Fiction Editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine. He'd love to hear from you: @calebmsarvis