Television Workshop: Donald Glover's Atlanta

By Caleb Michael Sarvis


"Nobody Beats the Biebs"


Last week I wrote that I was ready for Atlanta to take a step forward, and this week Stephen Glover (brother of creator and co-writer Donald) gives us a black Justin Bieber.

            We open with Alfred and Earn present at a charity basketball game. A rising local celebrity, Alfred has been given a spot on one of the rosters and plans to be the MVP of the game. He spots a local newscaster, offers himself as an interview subject, but the reporter doesn’t recognize him. When he explains that he’s local rapper Paper Boi, the reporter says, “You’re the guy who shot someone,” and “My audience isn’t into the gangster thing.” Alfred’s face drops from confident smile to shamed offense quick and when Earn mentions that the reporter was cute, Alfred dismisses the claim. Again, Glover continues this rounding out and softening of Alfred / Paper Boi’s character. He’s a product of his environment, but from his actions, his words, and his faces, we can see that he desperately wants to be something more. Here at a charity basketball game, he’s given the opportunity to be a source of good for his community, but he’s also exposed to Glover’s African-American interpretation of Justin Bieber.

            It seems the show is doing its best to integrate surrealism where it can. Last week, we had the image of an older Asian man crying into his phone, a herd of goats on the other side of a fence. This week we have a black Justin Bieber that says the n-word and claims he’s going to “dunk on a bitch.” (Which, I’m sure purposely, isn’t much different than the real Justin Bieber). There’s a moment in the locker room where he pees in a corner while the cameras roll, an allusion to the real Justin Bieber’s “Fuck Bill Clinton” moment. This fictional Bieber becomes the subject of Alfred’s rage and contempt for the real world. The reporter didn’t recognize Paper Boi, nor was she interested in what he had to say, but she knows exactly who Justin Bieber is, and is even ecstatic that he’s present. The more exposed we get to Justin Bieber as an audience, the more we realize that his behavior is far worse than Alfred’s (at one point he yells the n-word with emphasis on the hard R), but he gets away with it because of how he’s perceived.  The frustration within Alfred boils to the point that he tackles Bieber on the court, the two get into a scuffle, and make a mockery of the event. “I’m drunk, but this is ridiculous,” one of the players says. Bieber gives a public apology, turning his hat forward (to the gasps of the crowd) and saying, “This is me. I’m not a bad guy. I actually love Christ.” He reinvents himself in one move. Alfred tries to follow suit, making his own apology to the reporter to which she offers a piece of advice. “Play your part. They don’t want Justin to be the asshole. They want you to be the asshole.”

            Glover’s playing with perception here. His own character, Earn, is confused for an agent named Alonzo by an older white woman named Janice. Earn leans into the confusion and it takes him to a private room where he meets and mingles with other agents. He is happy to be Alonzo for the moment, drinking free Hennessey and Grand Marnier, until it turns out that the real Alonzo screwed Janice over, stealing her clients behind her back. “I’m not Alonzo,” Earn tries, but Janice only says “I’m going to make sure you die homeless.” Like Paper Boi, Earn’s desire to be someone else doesn’t give him the results he’s looking for.

            When we get to Darius, he carries a poster tube into a gun range. From it he pulls a target sheet, but instead of the silhouette of another person, the target sheet is of a dog. Darius hangs the sheet and fires. Perception works two-fold here. For whatever reason, shooting the dog is worse than shooting another person, and the other men chastise Darius for it. “The dogs from my neighborhood are crazy,” he says. “Why would I shoot at a human target? I mean, that’s weird, right?” If guns are about self-defense, then why wouldn’t Darius practice on what he perceives to be the biggest threat of his everyday life? The owner of the range doesn’t take kindly to Darius’ trouble (though it was the two white men that antagonized him), and with a shotgun pointed at him, Darius calmly (and far too comfortably) agrees to leave the range. Perception, again, working against the character.

            By the end of the episode, Earn, Alfred, and Darius have spent time outside of the reality of their lives. Glover’s decision to place each of them in these juxtaposing instances did not only further characterize each of them, but it allowed him to play with this idea of perception. Who could these characters be? Or, on the other hand, what if people chose to view them from a different vantage point? Alfred is disgruntled, but he is not an asshole. Upstairs in a room full of agents, nobody doubted Earn’s belonging there. Darius was not being cruel to dogs, but rather preparing his own self-defense like the men around him. No matter, though, as each of them pays for the sins of someone else, a result I imagine Stephen Glover intended.

Two Things Working for Me: Last week Alfred split from Darius and Earn, and this week each character has their own plot line. By separating the three of them and placing them with strangers, Glover has given us an opportunity to work with our own perceptions as an audience. I really dig the move. There’s only so much these characters can do together. Black Justin Bieber is incredible. Not only does he touch on aspects of cultural appropriation, but anytime the Glover brothers reimagine the world around us, I’m on board. It’s nice to be reminded that this is a piece of fiction while at the same time recognizing the fabric of real life woven into its construction. Again, this show refuses us the opportunity to categorize it.

Two Things I’m Not Sold On: The end of the episode didn’t feel as complete as I would’ve liked. As a writer and consumer of short fiction, I’m no fan of tying a bow at the end of the story. Ambiguity is a wonderful tool, however, there still didn’t seem like there was much progress from start to end. Sure, these journeys were insightful to us as an audience, but how insightful were they to the characters themselves? I can’t say I felt that. Secondly, as much as I enjoyed Zan last week and Justin Bieber this week, I’m concerned that the wacky guest character is going to become a thing. Isolated from each other, they work, but over the course of a series it can become a trope and seem kind of lazy.

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