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 second of a three-part series about the show and Afro-futurism.
As a combined series, Atlanta has acted as a larger metacritique of culture. It has explored race in a refreshing new way given the rise of millennials, as well as attempting to unpack some of the gorier details of the black consciousness. It has done so namely through satire. The use of humor and irony provide a surreal ethos to Atlanta. But the show mostly feels real, exaggerated slightly, to tell a larger story. If the first season was about the surrealism of lemon pepper wet chicken glowing, or random dog apparitions, the second season marched right into magic realism. A world where the supernatural was natural.
In the first episode of season two, there was an alligator walking out of Earn’s uncle’s house establishing just how off-center the second season was intending to be. The episode teetered beautifully between what we all know to be real and what we suspect is just a tinge of fantasy. Enough to be believable, but also enough to make you question reality.
But it was the episode “Helen” where the show took a decidedly spookier tone. Van, who is of Afro-German descent, took Earn on a trip to celebrate Fastnacht. Part of the festivities is that an object is to be stolen from someone and the crowd goes to look for it. Specifically stolen by the Schnappviecher. This is of course a costume. But in the penultimate scene of the episode, the phantasmagoric Schnappviecher appears from the shadows of an isolated alley unbeknownst to Vann. The audience doesn’t know if terror is about be unleashed or is it simply a white guy in a costume. It was a scene that would make any horror film director proud.
Another Van-centric episode, “Champagne Papi,” she and her friends go to a mansion house party with the intentions of meeting Drake. Aside from the cultural commentary about self-worth and value related to likes on Instagram, the episode employed the mind-bending character tropes with two mysterious strangers.
After she and her girlfriends pop some pills and get ready to enjoy the party, Van meets the first mysterious stranger, Brandon, whose charm pulls Van away into more secluded parts of the house. The audience, along with Van, feel the creeping sense of dread with every line of dialogue between the two. It feels like a brutal attack is imminent. She ducks off into a bathroom to escape, makes an excuse to shoo him away through a closed and locked door, and suddenly Brandon is never seen again. As she wends her way through the house, alone, she comes across an older Spanish-speaking gentleman who she determines to be Drake’s grandfather hidden in a basement; some kind of Mexican Boo Radley. By the end of the episode, the audience doesn’t really know if Van ever met the two characters—Brandon and Drake’s abuelo—was this the typical magical realism of Atlanta or was she just that high on the pills? The character trope of mysterious stranger even plays itself out to Van’s equally high friend, Nadine, who stumbles into a conversation with the show’s resident hood philosopher Darius.
Part fan theory, part descriptive, Darius’ penchant for being the resident philosopher often acts as the conduit for the supernatural being an integral part of the “Atlanta” scenery. Perhaps even the absurd. Darius appears to Nadine discussing the sky, stars and planets. To anyone watching this show with any level of depth, one could have immediately assumed that Darius was just a figment of her imagination. Later Van and another friend walk up on the two, poolside, and it is made clear that Darius is tangibly present occupying the same temporal space as the rest of the show, but no doubt the writers played on the predilection for the story to delve in an out time and space as it saw fit.
Again the “Teddy Perkins” episode, focusing on the character development of Darius, precariously sits on the needle-point edge of reality and hyperreality, seesawing back and forth as it wants. Darius goes to buy a piano with colored keys from a recluse, it’s an episode that takes place mostly in a private mansion in an undisclosed part of Atlanta, Georgia that doesn’t quite exist in the normal world the main characters generally occupy. In case anyone questions the reality of this episode, Darius, scared, calls Al who’s in the drive-through line at a local Krystals with Earn in the backseat and newcomer Tracy in the front. Yet again, because the show has toyed with material reality so much, as a viewer, you’re expected to question reality throughout every episode. It wasn’t until the end of the episode, with bodies being brought out following the dramatic conclusion, that I was sure it wasn’t some astral projection issued from Darius’ head.
If magic realism had a climax in this season, it was the episode when Al goes on an urban vision quest in “The Woods” where he enters a densely forested tract of Atlanta. He was chased into the woods by some stick-up boys (because it’s robbin’ season remember?) and ultimately becomes lost. An aerial camera shot of just how impenetrable the woods appear, makes the audience wonder just how lost Al truly is; who knows if Al is in another “Atlanta” far away from the asphalted subdivision he had been previously walking through or guilelessly lost in the deep recesses of his mind.
The scenes in the woods ooze with magic realism chiefly aided by an enigmatic minion in the form of a junky who lives in the woods. Part mysterious character and part magical Negro, this junky is the catalyst that helps Al come to grips with his destiny of fame.
“You better stand up and make a decision about how you gettin’ outta here,”
the junkie says sinisterly after Al is dismissive of the junkie in his own house. Al rebuffs. The junkie utters even more creepily
“Make the decision.”
By this point, the seemingly disparate story lines of this episode are connected. Al is Paperboi: the rapper, the entertainer, the celebrity. But Al just wants to be Al. The junkie swiftly pulls out a knife and holds it to Al’s throat.
“Keep standing still: you’re gone boy. You’re wasting time. And the only people who got time are dead.”
Tired and psychologically spent, a single tear falls from the eyes of a terrified Al. He pushes away from the junkie holding the knife and stumbles to the bed of leaves covering the ground scurrying away from the junkie like a scared cat.
“I’m going to count to 30, and if you haven’t walked out by then, I’m going to hurt you,”
the junkie says menacing the knife ready to cut Al. This scene shows its more than just about the reluctance of being a celebrity, but it’s about the inner workings of who he chooses to be. To stand still, to be lost in the woods of your mind will do more damage than walking out and figuring out what life has to offer.
Al’s character is not exempt from the magic realism rules of this Atlanta. He has confrontations with corporeal entities that may or may not have been there. The opening scene of the episode has Al’s mother humming church hymns in the background while he was in and out of sleep on the couch bending time and reality. It’s made clear by the end that his mother is not living. The passage of time from the dream state with his mother to when he actually wakes up feels off-center and wonky as well. And of course, the stick-up boys seemed real enough, but the man in the woods may or may not have been there.
The play on reality that Atlanta exercises to tell the story of Earn and his cousin Al mirrors black life. From the expectation that black life is magical and worthy of entertaining white masses, to the intra-racial reality that the world is slightly off its axis, black Americans have always had to perceive the world as a magical reality. For many blacks, living in this world is like living inside a fun house. We live in rooms with mirrors reflecting infinitely on mirrors that constantly make us question who we are; rooms with floors that are level to the naked eye, but undeniably sloped when having to walk it; rooms where all the windows, furniture and pictures on the wall aren’t plumb, but you can’t quite tell unless you set something round on it and it rolls to the floor. This is what Atlanta attempts to portray, the world as a fun house where everything else is normal except for those who are black.
However, the normalcy of the supernatural in Atlanta is more than just science fiction ruminations in the mind of Donald Glover. Van needed the Schnapveicher in order to make real sense of her biracial identity and her black baby daddy; Darius needed the absurdity of Teddy Perkins show his most real and vulnerable side, down from the lofty hills of weed-induced stupor to what do you do when mortality is staring you in your face; Al needed his haunting romp through the woods to make sense of his new reality as a celebrity. All of these hyper-realities juxtapose each other to the mundane yet snafued life of Earn.
Earn, for the most part, doesn’t have any of these magical realities show up at his doorstep. His character is a contrast to everyone else. The other characters—Van, Darius and Al—find a way to let the supernatural occurrences lead them to a greater understanding of themselves, and the audience can view it as a larger tableau of black American life. So rather than just science fiction ponderings, I see the use of the hyperreal to be representative of coping mechanisms black folks need to have in order to navigate the rooms of the fun house. Instead of being devastated by the world being askew, blacks employ the hyperreal and the supernatural as tools to survive and possibly even thrive.
The supernatural factors into the African American experience historically given the syncretic religious and spiritual practices that were reshaped and formed after the Middle Passage. Those in the African diaspora have always relied on “not things present” as a paraclete in a world that wasn’t designed for them. This has always been a hallmark for black life in the Americas.
And what better way to tell the story of black life in the 21st century than through a form of Afrofuturism.