After watching the episode “The Woods” on the critically acclaimed FX network show Atlanta, I figured it was worth exploring some of the science fiction aspects that the show has consistently presented. This is the first of a three part series about the show and Afro-futurism.
From what I can tell, the series Atlanta belongs within the compendium of Afro-futurism. Not so much for its incorporation of technology, but rather how it plays with time and spacial reality in what’s known as magic realism. Whatever seeds of time and space bending the FX series Atlanta dropped like comedic nuggets in the first season, the creative mind of Donald Glover decided to fully embrace its tenets it in the second season of the show.
In light of the direction the series opted for this second season, I look back on scenes from the first season in a new light. In the scene where Darius opens the chicken box of lemon pepper wet from Atlanta’s famous J.R. Crickets, a light emanates from the box like a treasure chest in a cartoon. It’s just that type of aesthetic that initially played on black cultural themes portrayed as comedic hyperbole, but given a larger story arc, perhaps may have more attributes of magic realism to it.
The second season has dedicated entire episodes toward the character development of Al (Alfred), Darius and Van (Vanessa), all ensemble characters in the orbit of Earnest Marks, affectionately known as Earn. Some of these episodes are presented almost as vignettes loosely maintaining the through-line of the main story arcs of the season.
In the next installment, I plan to dig deeper and explore these themes around characters, episodes and plot motivations as they relate to Afro-futurism with the intent of correlating how such a show relates to black life in America. Specifically, the motif that often times main characters interact with “ghost” characters that only have contact with that main character and no one else. For example, the bowtied Nation of Islam-looking brother on the bus talking to Earn in the series premier, Brandon and the Abeulo in the episode “Champagne Papi,” or the homeless junkie in “The Woods.” I also propose that the philosophical musings of Darius are the conduit through which the supernatural is allowed to take place in this version of Atlanta, Georgia where black children show up in white face for school and Swisher Sweet commercials are the norm. Perhaps all of these characters aren’t orbiting around Earn inasmuch as they are connected to the gravity of Darius’ magic Negro mind.
What Atlanta does that not many other TV shows do, is offer science fiction as a lens by which to see and understand black life. The vast majority of movies and television shows that depict black life do so in stark dramatic ways focusing on utter tragedy in an attempt to make real black life. From urban stories with themes of poverty, racism and violence to even biopics that choose to show triumph over tragedy, there’s rarely any playfulness in the cultural production. (The cultural productions that do focus on playfulness are sheer comedies with no deeper redeeming cultural value such as a movie like “Norbit” or “Big Mommas House” or sitcoms such as “House of Payne” or “Love Thy Neighbor.”)
More explicitly, Atlanta chooses to use Afro-futurism to explore the minds of black men. Far too long, black men are portrayed as two-dimensional characters lacking the depth and emotion white men on-screen are usually afforded. Aside from critically-acclaimed dramas like HBO’s The Wire have television shows endeavored to interpret the lives of urban black men outside of ghettoized stereotypes and racial clichés.
The ultimate brilliance of Atlanta is not in the ability to stay away from wholly black caricatures, but to do so in a type of subversive genius that is Afro-futurism.