Black and Nerdy? Shattering the Monolith With 'Atlanta'
Atlanta goes a long way toward shattering the myth that there's a single black experience.
AtlantaAirtime: Tuesdays, 10pm
Cast: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Keith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz
For as long as I can remember, I've been black and nerdy. Some people have had qualms with these basic facts of my existence. Taken one at a time both states of being can be problematic. James Baldwin, Syl Johnson, Ralph Ellison, and Kermit the Frog have all elucidated far better than I can the difficulties in having a skin color other than white. In a much less intense way, being a nerd is also difficult. Nerd-dom has only become a desirable characteristic in my lifetime, when the proliferation of nerd types (book nerd, music nerd, etc.) around the turn of the millennium made people want to self-identify as that lowliest of John Hughes archetypes. When you're nerdy, life can feel inaccessible; when you're black, life can feel inaccessible (and dangerous); when you're a black nerd, the feeling of otherness is exponentially greater: it can feel like you belong to nothing.
It was about eight years ago that my best friend called me and jokingly said, There's a guy on Comedy Central stealing your whole black nerd thing." I guessed correctly that he was talking about Donald Glover, whose career I'd been following since Derrick Comedy. I've watched Glover go from internet sketch comedy, to staff writer on the best comedy show of the aughts, to performer on a mainstream/cult TV show, to rapper and stand-up comedian. I'll admit, at times, such as when my friend called me almost a decade ago, I've felt jealous of Glover. If only I were a bit better looking, a little cooler, and a lot more talented, I'd be Glover (I'm so close!). I've learned, however, to curtail these feelings and appreciate his work. None of the work on Glover's impressive resume has been constrained by perceptions of how he should act. Atlanta, the show he created, writes, and stars in, has gone the farthest in disregarding preconceptions of how black people should act merely by showing the wide range of the black experience.
The first scene I saw from Atlanta was viewed without context, as a two-minute snippet on Twitter. From that one clip I knew the show was going to be great. Glover's character, Earn, is sitting in the prison waiting room waiting to be processed with several other arrestees. A few seats away from Earn is a black guy who's clearly unhinged. His hair is aggressively parted on the side of his head, and half of it is tied into one misshapen afro puff. He wears a cheap black hoodie and blue pants. He looks tragic and funny. This is important, because much of Atlanta is tragic and funny, and this character's look embodies that truth. If you saw him on the street, you might laugh at him for looking strange or feel sad because he's fallen on hard times.
So Johnny (Luke Forbes) -- aka Half-ro Puff -- is chatting up his ex-girl, Lisa (Jason Ligon), who's very obviously a man. It's not a second glance kind of thing; you can see that she's anatomically a man as soon as you look at her. Johnny brags to one of the arrestees about his ex-girl, and they immediately point out that she's a man. Johnny denies it, then accepts it but denies he's gay because everyone does it in prison. He's shouted down by a different arrestee who explains that prison is prison, but he's doing it with Lisa on the outside. That's gay.
This scenario is only mildly funny -- not because of non-heterosexuality or homophobia or transphobia -- but because of Johnny's cluelessness. There's nothing special about the scene, not yet. What makes the scene uniquely hilarious is the fact that Earn is sandwiched between Johnny and Lisa the entire time. Earn squirms in his chair, offers to change seats, and makes an awkward situation even more awkward; for this, he draws repeated rebukes from Johnny. At the end of the scene, when Earn is trying his best to not do anything and avoid further confrontation, even then his mere presence makes Johnny uncomfortable as he yells at Earn, "Nigga, stop being weird!"
When I watched that snippet, I didn’t know that Earn's character had dropped out of an Ivy League school, or whether he read comic books or played Magic the Gathering. Without any backstory, however, the viewer is still able to glean that Earn is somewhere on the nerd spectrum, because of his awkwardness, lack of aggression, and ineffectualness. Johnny recognizes this straight off. Had Earn, at the beginning of the scene, just stood up and moved instead of asking to move, or had he told Johnny point blank that he should move, he would've gotten the necessary respect. He did neither of those things, and thus was instantly branded a nerd, which is to say an individual that doesn't jibe with some people's perceptions of blackness.
Dave Chappelle once said, "Every Black American is bilingual. All of us. We speak street vernacular, and we speak 'job interview'." In that prison scene, Earn should've spoken in street vernacular. The trouble was that Earn is like a second-generation American that listens to Spanish at home from his grandmother but answers in the English that he learns from his parents and teachers; he understands a second language, but it's difficult for him to speak it. Conversing with native-tongued Spanish speakers, his accent might be a source of derision. In that respect, it would be far worse for Earn to try to speak in street vernacular and fail than to just be himself. Earn avoids a direct conflict with Johnny, but by the simple act of being himself, he challenges the monolith.
Chappelle goes on to say that speaking properly (i.e., Standard American English) is all about gaining access, and speaking in street vernacular is all about being comfortable within one’s community. Before Dave, Franz Fanon and Richard Wright explored these concepts, but it was W.E.B. Du Bois who defined them. From The Souls of Black Folk:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (Du Bois 3).
So you’re black, and presumably inside of you are these warring ideas of self. One side is the American side, the homogenized, acclimatized you; the you that has trimmed off the pesky idiosyncrasies of your culture. It can be difficult or uncomfortable to be this version of you; you might even feel unsure of what's expected of yourself. That can be disconcerting, but at least you can always be sure of what it means to be black, because that's clear cut and easy, right?
What if, however, you're not the type of black that some people expect you to be? Your feelings of otherness are doubled. Earn doesn't connect with Johnny because Earn's not "hood" enough, but he also doesn't connect with Vanessa's (Zazie Beetz) bourgeois black friend for the exact opposite reason. He also doesn't get on with the white radio employee or the white husband of Van's friend, both of whom want to be "down" with black folk.
Earn's problem is that he doesn't fit into any of the categories of black that those people have created. People, black and white, attempt to project onto Earn the way he ought to act, but Earn doesn't listen. Earn does something that's very difficult: he doesn't conform.
There are two big moments that stand out to me from my high school career as it relates to my blackness. The first was John, a diminutive Jewish kid, telling me that I was the whitest black person he knew. In high school, I played basketball, listened to hip-hop, and wore Air Force 1s; if we were going to stupidly define being black by what someone plays, listens to, or wears, I passed the test. Somehow, John's parameters were even more narrow and ignorant than those. John saw that I was on the debate team and that I was well-spoken, and he thought those were white things. For John, blackness meant cultivated ignorance or anti-intellectualism; therefore, my intelligence had disqualified me from the race into which I was born.
The other moment was when they called every black kid in the school into the assembly hall and gave us a survey. It was for a local graduate student's thesis. They asked us to rank each black athlete on a "blackness" scale, from one to five. In my youthful ignorance, I rated the blackness of David Robinson and Tiger Woods below the blackness of Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett. Tiger Woods played golf, and David Robinson was soft-spoken and majored in math while in the Navy. How could they be "blacker" than Iverson and his cornrows, or Garnett, who mean-mugged the camera every time he dunked or swatted the ball? In my glib interpretation of blackness, I was no better than John. In some ways I was worse; I was a hypocrite (I ended up majoring in math at my university). Therein lays the danger of stereotypes and groupthink. That's the danger of believing that you have to behave in a certain way, or even that there's only that one way for you to behave. That's the power of the monolith.
The seventh episode of Atlanta ("B.A.N.") is my favorite of the series. More than any of the others, it's the episode that shatters the monolith. It's the episode that takes all of Glover's disparate influences and fuses them into hilarity. The fake commercials, the roundtable debate, the trans-racial former black guy; "B.A.N." has satire, it has irony; the structure of the episode itself is metafiction. In essence, the episode is a microcosm for the show. Glover doesn’t have just one comedic influence. Atlanta is funny like 30 Rock and Community, like a skit on Stankonia, and like DJ Pooh.
Perhaps more importantly, just as there isn't one type of funny in the show, there isn't one type of black either. Earn isn't the only weird black character on the show; they're all weird in their own way. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), the aspiring rapper Earn manages, is a tangle of street and business, who can act like a thug or a role model from moment to moment. His right hand man Darius (Keith Stanfield) is some kind of idiot savant. Zan (Freddie Kuguru), a blogger appearing in one episode, is mixed race -- no one on the show is sure of his ethnicity -- and makes people uncomfortable with his extremely off-putting, clingy personality. There are rappers (like Black Justin Beiber [Austin Crute]), HBCU graduates (many of whom live in their own strange realities), homeowners, working class and middle class, celebrity chasers, and artists, and they're all black. Without ceremony, Atlanta simply presents every type of blackness that exists, and subtly nudges the audience to accept it.
One of the great subtle aspects of Atlanta is that Earn never says "nigga" unless he's quoting or referencing. Not only does he not say it, in the first episode a white character says the word to him in an act of cultural appropriation rather than overt racism. There have been essays, dissertations, and books written on the n-word, and tt doesn’t appear to be going away. Every black person has to decide whether or not to use it. Some, like Pryor and Chappelle, tried to give it up but couldn't. Others, like Earn, don't use it at all. Does he feel uncomfortable? Does he feel like he's not "black" or "hood" enough to use the term? Or does he feel like the term is wrong, that he's not the kind of black person who uses it and that nobody should?
It doesn't matter what his reasons are; it only matters that he exists. It only matters that he's one, one, type of black person, the type that doesn’t say the n-word. It only matters that Glover shows everyone that there are all different types of black people. Glover said that he didn't set out to make the show important; he set out to make it funny. In that regard, he might have failed. The show is hilarious, but it's also effortlessly impactful. Atlanta reminds us that Bad Brains is a punk band and Chester Himes wrote pulp detective novels and Charles Burnett made art house films and that many of the cowboys were black. It reminds us that there's no singular black experience. We're all black. We're all beautiful.
Bobby Wilson lives in China, where he teaches English and writes. His writing has appeared in the Longridge Review, Feminine Collective, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and Unlikely Stories. He spends most of his time reading, writing, studying languages, and cooking. He's married and owns a cat. You can reach him on Twitter at @chewingbones.