A club promoter disappears behind a revolving wall. A black teenager identifies as a white 35 year old man. Marcus Miles has an invisible car. It’s Justin Bieber, but he’s black.
Atlanta was many things during it’s first season: funny, smart, insightful, edgy, beautiful, daring, but from start to finish it was also wildly absurd. Atlanta’s best moments might have been it’s most absurd, with the absurdity coming at times when the show was also sometimes at it’s most heaviest. The absurdity was like a slap to the face, an audible gasp or definitive head-scratcher. It highlighted the fact that Atlanta felt both intimately grounded in reality, but also seemed to exist in an alternate universe. It also made the show funnier than it initially seemed.
Let’s start with the invisible car.
The car is brought up in passing, Darius casually mentions it as a way to prove Marcus Miles, a local celebrity, a bigger celebrity than Paper Boi, is legit. It’s fun because it’s Darius and of course Darius would believe a dude had an invisible car and then use Instagram as proof of this invisible car’s existence. Darius is the show’s wildcard. Eight episodes in, we’ve come to expect him to say these things and more importantly, for him to believe these things.
We, like Paper Boi, don’t think too much about the invisible car. We all move on.
Later in the episode, as our heroes loiter outside the club around closing time, shots ring out and everyone scatters. It’s one of the real moments of Atlanta, when you’re reminded of the danger surrounding these dudes. Guns were brandished in the first episode. Guns are a fact of life on the show, one of the things that aren’t funny at all.
Yet amidst the chaos, we hear a car start to peel out and then, just like that, none other than Marcus Miles and his invisible car drive by, taking out a couple people in the process.
The best part of the invisible car joke payoff is how it takes a minute for you to realize what’s going on. Atlanta’s absurdity is sneaky that way. When it happens, when the invisible car drives through the parking lot, hitting three people in the process, you had most likely forgotten about Darius talking about because almost a whole episode’s worth of action had happened. But the payoff also happens as a very real scene unfolds, people fleeing from gun fire. Atlanta isn’t afraid to get real, but the show also isn’t going to shy away from having some fun in the process. They’re also confident and patient in their story-telling, willing to let a seemingly fleeting joke happen and then fade away, only for the payoff to happen in the final moments of the episode.
Yet sometimes Atlanta adds exhibits acts of absurdity just for the hell of it, which is what happened earlier in the episode with Marcus Miles’ invisible car, “The Club.”
Shady club promoters are nothing new. Nor is someone trying to track down a shady club promoter for money that they are owed, which is what Earn is doing throughout most of the episode. Yet what again makes Atlanta so unique is the way they provide escape routes for the club promoter. He dips out on Earn at one point in the same way someone disappears in an episode of Scooby Doo, via a revolving wall.
I don’t go to clubs. Is this a thing? I know clubs and bars have back doors and weird rooms behind the bar, but the idea of a revolving door? I’m sure some out there view it as inspirational. But again, this is just Atlanta having fun. This is Atlanta coming up with the most absurd way the promoter can continue to dodge Earn and then acting on it. They probably thought about having him disappear in a cloud of smoke, but then decided a revolving wall would be better, which is why they make television and I make this blog.
Earn eventually tracks down the promoter, but doesn’t get far when it comes to getting the money he and Paper Boi are owed. Eventually Paper Boi shakes the dude down, things get weird and hectic, the dudes leave triumphantly, gun shots ring out and then you know, look out invisible car.
The moments of absurdity on Atlanta aren’t limited to just set pieces though. The show also features a handful of incredibly enjoyable absurdist characters, most notably a version of Justin Bieber that is Justin Bieber, but not the Justin Bieber we all know and occasionally love.
Throughout the entire episode, it’s Justin Bieber. The dude acts like Bieber, is referred to as Bieber, is treated like he’s Bieber.
There’s just one small difference between Real Life Justin Bieber…
And Atlanta Justin Bieber…
Again, if you were just listening to the episode, “Nobody Beats The Biebs,” you wouldn’t be crazy to think that the real Bieber appears in the episode. It’s as if Donald Glover and his brother, Stephen, who co-wrote the episode, employed every story from Bieber’s worst moments, pulled together all the stories and tales about his behavior, including peeing backstage in a mop bucket, and then created a character based on it all and then named him Bieber.
It’s another example of the show existing in two worlds: the real world and the bizarre world running parallel to the real one. The move also calls attention to the difference between the reactions to what a white celebrity does and what a black celebrity does. The fact that Atlanta’s Bieber is a young black dude is possibly even more jarring because we’ve grown accustomed to not seeing a black celebrity act in such a way so freely and without repercussions. You know, act like someone like Bieber does. Atlanta basically took the question of but, what if he was black and answered it by showing you how it could be the same if we just let it.
But wait. What if someone was black, but identified as white? We are living in a world in which self-identification is a very real thing. It’s a very valid thing, although one most typically associated with gender, just unfortunately not always. Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, identified as black and so does Harrison, a character at the center of “B.A.N.”
“B.A.N.” was the top of the mountain for the first season of Atlanta, an episode in which the only character we’ve come to know that appears is Paper Boi, as he is a guest on a show to defend a tweet he had sent out, saying he wouldn’t fuck Caitlyn Jenner. The discussion starts with transgender identity, before taking a sharp left towards the trans-racial segment, in which a black teenager identifies as a white 35 year old man. The whole bit plays like a cousin of something from Chappelle’s Show, taking a well-known issue of the day and blowing it up.
Later in the episode, we check in on Harrison to see how his progress is going, the progress of becoming this 35 year old white dude from Colorado.
The bonus of “B.A.N.” is the “commercials” that air throughout the episode, all of which seem to play towards black stereotypes and interests, whether it’s that sick Dodge Charger, Arizona Iced Tea, pre-dumped Swisher Sweets or a commercial for the kid’s cereal Coconut Crunch-o’s that evolves into a take on police brutality.
Atlanta isn’t a show of half-measures. If they’re going to do an episode on racial identity, then it’s going to be an episode about racial identity from start to finish. If it’s going to be an episode about the difference between how black and white celebrities’ behavior is treated, that the episode is going to demonstrate the hypocrisy that exists within that difference. But at the same time, if they are going to drive a point home, they are going to sprinkle in things like invisible cars and rotating walls just to make sure you’re paying attention.
The show is well-suited to tackle such issues, possibly better-suited that most, due in no small part to it’s ability to balance the tackling of serious, substantive issues with clever, absurd humor. But it’s also in a good spot to do so because of how throughout the first season the show’s unpredictably ended working so well to it’s advantage. With Atlanta, you never know what you’re getting as an episode starts. It’s a lot like that The Good Place way. Intentions are buried, kept hided until a revelation is needed. A show like Black-ish lays out their cards right away and while that’s good for them and has certainly worked, there’s something to be said for not showing your cards until you absolutely have to, which is what Atlanta does.
And then that invisible car drives by and you’re back questioning what the hell you just watched.
You’re not questioning whether you’re going to watch it again, though.
And that’s all that matters.