Atlanta takes viewers down the rabbit hole of the Black American News Network -- complete with commercials -- in the best episode so far.
AtlantaAirtime: Tuesdays, 10pm
Cast: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Keith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 7 - "B.A.N."
Air date: 2016-10-11
Most quality shows have at least one plotline or set of characters materialize during their tenure that could warrant their own spinoff series. Atlanta, just seven episodes into what will hopefully be a decade-long run, has created an entire network (with commercials) that's funnier and more fascinating than 90 percent of television today.
Calling "B.A.N." the best episode in the show thus far feels dubious purely because it’s such a radical departure even from Atlanta's usual structural risk taking. The episode’s sole plotline concerns Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry, whose usually side-splitting reaction shots stand out even more against the jet black background) appearing on Montague, a 60 Minutes-style intellectual talk show focused on topics in the black community. Alfred finds himself being attacked by both the show's inscrutable host, Franklin Montague (Alano Miller), and Dr. Deborah Holt (Mary Kraft), head of the fictional Center of Trans-American Issues. Predictably, Alfred's lyrics are dissected and disparaged by the two intellectuals, while he tries in vain to get them to see things from his perspective.
Henry and Kraft have instantaneous chemistry, which begins gleefully antithetical before they finally end up on equal footing in a conclusion that feels natural and earned, not shoehorned in to provide narrative closure. Watching Holt read Paper Boi's lyrics with the arrhythmic formality of a high school English teacher reciting The Scarlet Letter to a bunch of disinterested students is gold in and of itself, but Alfred’s insistence that there's no Kinsey scale-approved double meaning to his bars ("If I F with you, you my N-word, you my N-word for life," as Holt says).
The episode also continues the trend of shrinking the roles of the show's two other ostensible main characters, Earn (Donald Glover) and Darius (Keith Stanfield). Neither appears on screen, although Earn is referenced as being just off camera during the Montague taping. With the incorporation of Van (Zazie Beetz) as a star in "Value", Atlanta does seem four deep in protagonists, but the show's decision to marginalize two of its headliners implies that it's trying to do far more than just tell a straightforward personal development narrative. Still, let's hope that the show can find some heavy lifting for Darius to do going forward, since he hasn't been utilized much following his breakout performance in "The Streisand Effect".
"B.A.N." (short for Black American Network, the name of the fictional channel) goes for the broadest pure satire of the show's run thus far, and succeeds with dizzyingly funny results. The Montague commercials, which include a phenomenal Arizona Ice Tea bit ("The price is on the can though") and a surreal Mickey"s spot that re-imagines the brand of 40s in the debonair style of those bizarre Heineken ads. Even the Montague theme music is absurd; it’s strikingly similar to the "We'll Be Right Back" jingle used during The Eric Andre Show. After the follow-up interview with the show’s primary subject -- a trans-racial black man who identifies as a middle-class, white, 40-year-old named Harrison (Retro Spectro) -- Earn rips on him for his blond bangs, comparing him to a Dragon Ball Z character, and Montague calls him "Mr. Boi" while trying to redirect the conversation, proving just how out of touch he truly is.
Things finally do boil over for Alfred during a discussion of Caitlyn Jenner, where he says that while he has no problem with gay or transgender people, he wishes that the rights of black people were championed in a similar way. Dr. Holt ultimately agrees, and the two share a priceless look of unexpected alliance before Montague tries to bait them back into competition.
The Montague character himself falls into the same category as the show’s Justin Bieber (Austin Crute), where a black actor is cast to play a role typically occupied by a white man (a snobby would-be intellectual willing to say almost anything bait his guests). He lobs absurd statements at Paper Boi, like "Isn't a lack of a father the reason you hate trans-people?" and "You hate women!" but reacts with genuine shock when Alfred calls him the N-word, recalling a similar exchange between Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and Toofer (Keith Powell) on 30 Rock. It's an absurd double standard that Alfred manages to completely lambast with little more than a few well-timed sighs and eye rolls.
"B.A.N." succeeds at further developing the character of Alfred, who at this point seems like the show’s true star, while also presenting his stance on key contemporary social issues, which is one that we rarely hear in regular discourse, let alone on television. While it seems that at some point Atlanta will have to revisit the Earn-and-Alfred-trying-to-make-it-big storyline, the show has done a fantastic job of making these surreal trips down the rabbit hole feel consistent with the rest of the program. Regardless, we should all hope for another visit to Black American News, albeit perhaps to a different show than Montague.