And NOW we’re finally cooking. Thank goodness. ATLANTA is hitting its stride, and it’s something to see. The show is at its best when it delves into esoteric dark comedy, and it’s exciting to see it take all these fresh left turns in unleashing its narrative from episode to episode. Last week, we got an entirely Van (Zazie Beetz)-centric episode, as creator/star/co-writer Donald Glover made his debut as director. Though that episode, “Value,” it was only nominally comic, it was a tense and emotionally rewarding experience as a dramatic half-hour slice-of-life. This week, we’re treated to another Glover-fronted episode — he is credited as the director and sole writer here — wholly contained to a faux Charlie Rose/Tavis Smiley-esque roundtable chat show, Montague, broadcast on the fictitious B.A.N. network (obviously a faux B.E.T.), and the fake, Atlanta-fied commercials surrounding it. Two of my favorites: a high-end commercial that treat 40’s of Mickey’s like a very expensive champagne, and an ad campaign that illuminates exactly what Swisher Sweets are actually used for. It’s kind of great that both products were so amenable to Donald Glover and Co. so nakedly subverting the traditional flavor of their actual brands into weird re-appropriations. I totally thought the Arizona Iced Tea spot was real (“The price is on the can, though” is a heck of a slogan).
The best spot, though, the one that crystallized the Atlanta M.O. was for a fake product: Coconut Crunch-O’s, a kiddie cereal marketed in the vein of Trix Cereal ads on Nickelodeon. Coconut Crunch-O’s you see, are just for kids, not for wacky cartoon wolves. At the climax of the spot, as the wolf tries to swipe the Crunch-O’s from the all-black kid cast eating them (which is an awesome cast demographic and something that no cartoon cereal commercials ever depict), a white cop arrests him for his transgression. The cop roughs him up, dresses him down with embarrassing thoroughness in front of a captive child audience, then cuffs him and shoves him to the ground, stuffing a knee into the back of his chest to evoke disturbing echoes of the Eric Garner-NYPD incident, as the wolf cries out, “I– I can’t breathe.” Does the wolf die? No. But he doesn’t need to for Atlanta to make its point. If the Trix rabbit trying to steal Trix cereal were black, I’m not sure I’d trust cartoon cops in those commercials to stay dormant, either, in this heated post-Trump climate. It’s a great moment, and a great way to make a statement. And it’s funny, too, in an incisive, envelope-pushing way. I’ve never seen anything like it before, it’s very much in the Chappelle’s show mode of talking about race through a new lens, packing some of American culture’s biggest contemporary social dialogues into rambunctious TV parodies.
“B.A.N.,” “Go For Broke” and “Nobody Beats The Biebs” are the current triplet high water marks for Atlanta, and those are pretty lofty levels to reach. “Go For Broke” dealt with a serious, real-life problem in a relative straightforward way, and it was absolutely hilarious. “B.A.N.” is so wild that you’re just excited about the ride, and though it’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as “Broke,” it’s so creative and touches on so many fascinating things in so many new ways that it packs a heck of a punch too. Any time we can get away from the weird pseudo-murder that kicked off Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry)’s ascent to prominence, and his dark drug-dealing moments, the show is given full license to thrive. On Montague, Paper Boi sits in with an outspoken feminist professor, Dr. Deborah Holt (Mary Kraft), and our titular button-pushing host (Alano Miller). The latter two characters relentlessly grill Paper Boi for what they see as his conservative and archaic social stances. The biggest stick in their craw: how can Paper Boi not find Caitlyn Jenner sexually attractive? HOW I SAY??? The three other series regulars — Glover’s Earn Marks, Darius (Keith Stanfield), and Van — don’t actually appear, but we find out that Earn is actually on the set of this fictitious show
The Paper Boi stuff is funny in its own right, but as we’ve come to expect, his humor is significantly more dour and low-key. It’s not chuckle-inducing, generally, but it does ring true and come from a place of righteous honesty. Montague’s most bizarre and timely segment is a remote pre-taped bit, where a Montague correspondent (Nathan Wielder) interviews a “trans-racial” kid, a black 16 year-old named Antoine Smalls, who has decided he’s a 35 year-old white man named Harrison and an engineer for Coca-Cola. He’s practicing for a “racial” surgery, and cultivating his whiteness by donning a terrifying blonde bowl-cut wig, golfing, and requesting local IPA’s in front of his mirror with an anal-retentive white-guy inflection. Both Paper Boi and Dr. Holt hate his wig. I do too. Atlanta is finally exploring bold new horizons, an uncharted terrain now. I can’t wait to see what it’s got in store for us in the weeks to come as it wraps up its first season. Though it took a little while for Atlanta find out exactly what it is, it’s flying now. I’m pretty damn happy to be along for the ride.
Season 1, Episode 7 (S01E07)
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10PM on FX
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor