Prolific American Black queer poet, Audre Lorde, once said in her collection Sister Outsider: Speeches and Essays, “For there are no new ideas. There only new ways of making them felt.” Her words repeat in my mind after watching Donald Glover’s series Atlanta (2016-2022); the four-season series is a genre vortex of slice-of-life, comedy and satire, magical realism and, at some points, horror, through a lens of the contemporary Black experience living in the United States.
(The Old Man and the Tree, Season 3 Episode 3, 00:00:00 – 00:01:42)
Earnest, a recent Princeton University drop-out (for reasons unknown), returns home, where he habitually bounces in between his parent’s house and his best friend Vanessa, the mother of his young daughter, Lottie, in Atlanta, Georgia. While wandering aimlessly through the city, Earn sees an opportunity that could benefit him financially and give his life purpose and direction. His cousin Alfred has gained significant popularity in the hip-hop scene under the alias “Paper Boi”, and Earn sees potential in being his manager. With family, entourage, and mooches in tow and along for the ride, Earn, Vanessa, Al, and his weird and (probably high) friend Darius, navigate adulthood together, hustling their way through the corporate, celebrity, exclusive, and underground cultures that their newfound success within the music industry brings. But some things are easier said than done–particularly when you happen to be Black.
Atlanta creates atmospheric, felt realities of the everyday violence of anti-Blackness and demonstrates how existence is affected through the bizarre, disorienting, and seemingly impossible within the city. The series primarily makes use of magical realism combined with pockets of hyper-realism to convey the unreality of how these encounters are felt and not just shown or described, transforming the contemporary Black experience ranging from stereotypes, to historical and cultural erasures, and cycles of trauma and violence from this perspective. Historically, magical realism first emerged as an anticolonial literary genre in Latin America that disenchants colonial imaginaries and representations of otherness by reclaiming self-representation of trauma through a revival of cultural legends, mythology, and folklore. Magical realism conjures subjectivity and agency in the media spectacle by decolonizing historical imaginaries, cultural memory and identity, and self-narration.
(Teddy Perkins, Season 2 Episode 6, 00:26:48-00:29:26)
(Work Ethic!, Season 4 Episode 5, 00:20:32-00:25:18)
By re-creating a familiarity within specific languages, spaces, communities, and memory through the Black experience (imbued within the writing, style, and cultural codes), the series imprints a heightened experience of the inane absurdity of living within the hellscape that is patriarchal-plantation-capitalism. Rather than simply presenting discrimination as it materializes–the violence that has been mined for and appropriated narratives of Black trauma and death ranging from broadcast news networks, mainstream entertainment, and social media–Atlanta presents the felt reality of these experiences through an othered perspective, altered by the uncanniness and strangeness of racism and, specifically anti-Blackness. Making a distinction between felt reality within, “the uncanniness of the magical realist image is due to an aesthetic experience that privileges experience over knowledge. Consequently, its elusiveness notwithstanding, reality can be perceived, lived, and relived over and over again, in all its freshness, each time as if it were occurring for the first time.” (Arva 80) But this isn’t limited to unreal and oftentimes unseen violence it also includes the seemingly nonsensical in the small victories and joy in experiencing the fantastic.
(The Goof Who Sat By The Door, Season 4 Episode 8, 00:07:31-00:28:06)
In this way, the series subversively plays with the everyday violence and trauma that accompanies stereotypes like the broke-ass scrub/absent black father, the angry black woman/baby mama, the thug, and the magical negro (respectively) and where references of unseen violence are unfathomably conjured in reality. In Seasons 1 & 2, whether it’s entitled people flagrantly trying to touch your hair or skin, being face to face with the class clown who shows up in white face, fleeing a spontaneous shooting at the strip club and seeing a rumoured invisible convertible peel out, narrowly escaping death in a gated community, or evading the notice of the TSA at the airport for carrying your uncle’s gold-plated gun. That said, the series deviates from its magical realist roots in Season 3 and extends into a hyper-simulated horror, as the crew leaves Atlanta to go on tour in Amsterdam. Season 3, in particular, hones in on the global scale of the felt reality of anti-Blackness and the theory of Afro-pessimism.
Lately, I’ve resonated with what Professor Frank B. Wilderson III summarizes Afro-pessimism as:
Structural analysis of a) people(s) who are positioned as Black and how Black suffering is essential to the psychic orientation of the world, where violence against Black people is a necessary ensemble of rituals that helps the world function and be sane and b) what it means to suffer as a host to the parasite that is called the capitalist and how that manifests in different ways culturally and geographically around the world. (“Afropessimism,” Dartmouth Political Union)
Only in hindsight have I realized how many instances there had been when I had experienced extreme danger, not fully aware of the situation and been miraculously intervened upon where the potential or possibility of something happening, manifesting or vanishing within a moment. We live in and around that space of possibility, where those moments hang ever so slightly in time and test the validity or legitimacy of our apprehension, paranoia, or suspicions. Every look of disgust, confusion, lecherous stare, comment, or situation is challenged, questioned, and interrogated upon later recounting from childhood to adulthood. It feels like being in a constant state of defeat—being let down before having even tried to begin, knowing the outcome, and with the expectation to maintain the status quo, often upheld by role models and those closest to us. How is our being moulded by our reality inhabiting these racialized bodies in the environments we take up residence, growing up in and around atmospheres of anti-Blackness? And what a/effects are cast over from one body to the next over cycles of time?
(Tararre, Season 3 Episode 10, 00:11:12 – 00:26:09)
In phenomenology’s experiential-based foundation in film, where the blurring between the senses of the body and the mind, or subject and object converges on-screen, magical realism privileges the affective or felt resistance from the institutional level to the micro in our social relations with one another. (Marks) This feeling is particularly exasperated when your experience is minimized or invalidated by others who cannot reflect on the limitations their perspective is afforded from their own experiences. It is also prevalent in the resistance in understanding the perspective towards the reality of your experience—not how it looks to others who cannot conceive of that particular outlook—because, more often than not, your experience sounds so unreal that it could even take place. From these affective accumulations, Wilderson emphasizes that Afro-pessimism, “should not be thought of as an emotional dispensation; it is a pessimism of the intellectual production of suffering that does not get to its essence because it excludes the paradigm of violence Black people live under.” (“Afropessimism”, Dartmouth Political Union) However, this does not diminish the recurring intensity and intervals with which these encounters occur and compound over time, it becomes a practice to dodge, defend, and resist these normalized and internalized social behaviours and performances that denies the possibility of existing outside of particular expectation or fantasy. But what if we moved toward a different vision of the future…?
In “The Payback” (S3, E3), white privilege is flipped on its head through its depiction of a reality in which descendants of American slave owners can be sued, using the legal system that enforces these reparations. The episode follows an average cis-heterosexual white American male who is forced to confront the dark history of his family’s past and acknowledge his own privilege, but does everything in his power to avoid the facts to the point of losing his job, his family, and his home, paying with the remains of his social capital—squeezing the white privilege out of them. And when this man, who has been chased out of his office, forced out of his home, and abandoned by his family, encounters a man in a similar position as he is at a hotel bar. This man shares his journey of confronting the privilege and violence his whiteness is built upon and the gravity with which this is felt and now being enacted upon them. So much so that he kills himself, and what’s more is that he’s not the first, nor is he expected to be the last.
(The Payback, Season 3 Episode 3, 00:15:11- 00:15:40)
While reflecting on the structure and set-up of the narrative where the tense (racial) relations between white and black are reversed, from who gets to own land, a home or homes, who gets employed where, and who is given opportunities for leisure, to belong, and build a future, I realized that this was not the first time a similar thought had struck me. Walking home one day, I thought back on some of these unsettling instances, and from what I’d concluded at the time, informed by this feeling, was that some people would honestly rather kill themselves than take responsibility for the damages done unto themselves. And what’s more, they think they know what they deserve punishment for, but they cannot conceive of a reality that doesn’t serve them wholly and that they are not in control of—as reflected in “The Payback”. The moves to innocence, build-up of (white) guilt, and performative oppression olympics gradually intensify the real horrors and impact of what patriarchal-plantation-capitalism has the potential to become; at its’ most harmless, comical, and at its most harmful, skewed towards senseless brutality. However, the episode mostly revolves around the fear of how reparations could be potentially fulfilled. It also replicates the feeling of having no control over how past events can inform current societal perception, or the construction of identity and relationships, simulating the ever-present unseen, but felt disruptions of anti-Blackness.
(Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga, Season 3 Episode 9, 00:12:23- 00:25:30)
The move towards diversity and inclusion has been enforced by quotas which account for the bodies on the screen but not the roles they occupy or how they are represented. In an attempt to diversify the screen (in front and behind), the film industry has been operating on a performative level that reduces people to tokens. They are (at times) burdened with representing their culture or identity in spaces that privilege whiteness. Atlanta re-presents the ways in which Blackness perceives the frenetic dystopian distortions that open up, bloom, and reproduce in our reality, drawing on the very real and present impacts of anti-Blackness, from internalized racism to microaggressions, gentrification/red lining, racialized surveillance, profiling, and police brutality, to historicized erasures and community displacement. By denaturalizing the ways in which whiteness has been systematized as the universal or defaulted experience of being, Atlanta displaces whiteness through a process of othering which mirrors back the uncanny. At the same time, it synthesizes the extremes surrounding Black culture that continue to be white-washed, appropriated, fetishized, and policed. But more importantly, it allows space for Blackness just to be.
“For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt – of examining what those ideas feel like being lived on Sunday morning at 7 a.m., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth, mourning our dead – while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while we taste new possibilities and strengths.” Like Earn, Vanessa, Al, and Darius, it’s important to recognize that we need to create space and opportunities for joy and healing that open up capacities for understanding and empathy in times of discovery and struggle. It’s necessary to see ourselves represented in ways that we appreciate and honour the ways in which our experiences and realities are felt collectively and individually.
(Snipe Hunt, Season 4 Episode 7, 00:20:00-00:28:58)
“Afropessimism: A Conversation with Frank B. Wilderson III.” YouTube, uploaded by Dartmouth Political Union, 14 Jan 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc3xvQn0qUs
*Note: I chose this video in particular because of the historical context of Wilderson’s own history at Dartmouth at the time and how it defined his relationship to the discourse of Afro-pessimist thought through this experience which I think ties in really well with Earn’s own journey when it’s finally revealed what happened that made him want to leave Princeton and make them all pay and see what he’s made of and coming to terms with the trauma of the past throughout Season 4.
Arva, Eugene L. “Writing the Vanishing Real: Hyperreality and Magical Realism.” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 38, no. 1, 2008, pp. 60–85. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41304877. Accessed February 28, 2023.
“E.53 On Afropessimism Part 1of 2 | Frank B. Wilderson III.” YouTube, uploaded by The Institute of Black Imagination., 23 Oct 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQB9qlGAwEo.
Glover, Donald, creator. Atlanta. RBA, 343 Incorporated, MGMT. Entertainment, and FXP, 2016-2022.
Laura U. Marks, “The Memory of Touch,” in The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses, Durham, NC, London: Duke University Press, 2000: 159-193.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. E-book, Crossing Press Berkeley.
Travers, Ben. “Emmys Snubs and Surprises: ‘Pachinko,’ ‘Reservation Dogs,’ and More.” IndieWiire, 12 July 2022, https://www.indiewire.com/gallery/emmys-snubs-pachinko-atlanta-surprise-inventing-anna/pachinko-6/. Accessed February 28, 2023.
Wilderson III. Frank B, Afropessimsim. E-book, Livingstone Publishing Company, 2020.