“Atlanta’s” Elevator to the Sanctum

The first ten episodes of Donald Glover’s marvelous FX series Atlanta aired weekly from early September through November 1, 2016.  Its first season, in other words, unfolded throughout the weeks leading up to the presidential election. In retrospect the power of its first season may live on in as a powerful snapshot of what we were, or thought we were, in the last months of Obama’s America.  It wasn’t a particularly pretty picture, but the very different feel of national events since November make me wonder if Atlanta‘s spectrum of tones can be repeated in the next season. Season One is almost always comic, but its humor ranges from darkly satiric to tender and romantic as the show conjures up rootsy yet media-savvy depictions of life in Atlanta.

Because Atlanta, like Baltimore, is a southern city whose population is largely African-American, Atlanta contains more than one direct reference to an obvious influence, The Wire.  As other critics have observed, the funniest such allusion occurs in the pilot when Paper Boi (an aspiring rapper and part-time drug dealer) and his sidekick Darius realize it’s getting close to the time for an important appointment.  The show cuts to a scene of them doing nothing but talking and sitting on an old couch in the middle of an empty field, a visual reference to The Wire’s orange sofa, its most iconic recurring prop. Baltimore has been switched out for Atlanta, and the jokey nod to The Wire signals what’s to come on Atlanta.  If The Wire was tragedy, Atlanta will be if not constant farce, then satire, romance, parody and Seinfeldian observational humor.

Atlanta’s pastichey comedy stems from Glover’s famous love of The Simpsons and the apparent randomness of stand-up routines.  If The Wire was begotten in David Simon’s pressroom days, Atlanta has its roots in the comedy club and sitcom studio. Glover originally said he wanted to make the Twin Peaks of sitcoms. But due to his own divided sensibility or—perhaps—his existential situation as an African-American man who created this show in the Black Lives Matter era and within the confines of a hip hop aesthetic, urban realism and the documentary imperative was probably inescapable. The show’s fervent fans cherish its surreal, magical-realist moments (mysterious visitors, canine apparitions, invisible cars) but, as the final moments of Season One reveal, we have been taken not toward a reveal of a massive oppressive system but toward an image of profound, politically fueled interiority that is more reminiscent–almost literally so–of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. While Atlanta moves constantly between the highly particular and the broadly sociological, between what we say we know and what we secretly believe, in the end its eye seems to fall on the inner, not the outer, kind of truth.

Most of the show’s plots revolve around the efforts of a single character, Earnest “Earn” Marks, played by Glover himself, to find his footing in life.  Earn, we quickly learn in the pilot, has returned to his home neighborhood after having dropped out of Princeton, though we never find out why he left or how he got there in the first place. The show repeatedly calls attention to his learning–he seems to have a handle on Latin and classical literary references. (He calls a know-it-all bartender “Tiresias,” for example.) And beyond his allusions, Earn displays a certain reflectiveness or intellectual aloofness that his friends and family read as emotional or practical cluelessness.  Earn is just street-smart enough to keep his intellectualism to himself (although he shares some of his wisdom in remarks that play more like asides to an in-the-know audience). Yet he’s surrounded by people who see and sense everything that’s going on with him. His family and friends seem intent on forcing him into self-consciousness, even as, it’s clear, his essence is recessive, which, in turn, comes across as an otherwise inexpressible longing for some kind of world elsewhere. His “out and gone” reserve fits the nerd persona Glover developed over years of stand-up and his role on Community, which he further exploited in his small but crucial turn as the sleepy genius who solves the physics problem that rescues Matt Damon in The Martian. Like other American comedians—current examples include Louis C. K. and Aziz Ansari–he has been given a chance to build a serial comedy around the public persona and worldview he’d developed in previous work.

Although charismatically handsome, Glover’s Earn is too inner-directed a character not to be overshadowed at times by the brilliant actors in the cast, although everyone is more compelling for what they don’t say than for what they do. Earn’s cousin Paper Boi is the stand-out actor on the show, but while Paper Boi talks constantly, the actor playing him, Bryan Tyree Henry, is a master of silent reaction and conveying unspoken thought. A knack for ironic line readings, for conveying a sense that a character is thinking something other than what he is saying, marks the acting of the three central performers in Atlanta. These are extremely articulate people capable of stating exactly how they feel, but Atlanta again and again brings home the sense that all of them are searching for some proof of a life that precedes or transcends the limited array of signifiers offered by their local culture.  Only Darius, Paper Boi’s weed-infused, shamanistic, master-of-social-media sidekick, seems comfortable with the idea of multiple realities.  Everyone else wants the post-modern, essentially comic complexities of modern life to line up in some logically satisfying way.  And above all, it’s the somewhat inchoate desires of Earn himself that drive the show forward to its conclusion.

Throughout Season One, Earn floats between the home of his parents, his girlfriend Van, his cousin Alfred, and his apparent homelessness. His state of precarious being becomes, in the language of some of his friends, “a Homeless.” (When, by the way, did the adjective “homeless” become a countable noun? When did a descriptive condition become the name of the person living in that condition?)   It is not, however, until the 10th and final episode of Season 1 that Earn pays Vanessa some rent and Paper Boi finally acknowledges Earn’s role as manager by giving him a percentage of his earnings.  Those two actions complete a kind of deal initiated 9 episodes back.  The viewer is not exactly waiting for these particular actions to occur; a certain number of days or weeks have passed since the first episode, and we cannot safely conclude that Earn never got money from Paper Boi and never shared any with Vanessa.  But when they do happen in Episode 10 they seem to fulfill the minor aspirations established long ago, and almost miraculously lift the show’s tone to a level of happiness that had never seemed imaginable before. These moments of interpersonal satisfaction are not, however, where the season ends.

Throughout the earlier parts of this final episode we watch Earn do some extraordinary things to find a lost jacket, but we don’t know why he’s driven to do them, and it’s his failure to do so that encourages Paper Boi to hand over some money—out of pity.   Now, back with Vanessa and looking very much at home for the first time in the season, Earn answers the ring of the doorbell.  It’s Swiff, come to return Earn’s key, the object in the pocket of the lost jacket.  “Your drunk ass told me to keep it for you last night.  Outsmarted yourself again.” The return of the key missing object, which we now know is a key, not the jacket itself, is a moment of discovery for the audience as well as for Earn.

When Earn takes the key from Swiff, something is revealed—we finally know why Earn cared so much to find his jacket. That key is crucial, not just to the events of the season’s final two minutes but also to glimpsing how Atlanta reaches a kind of narrative coherence that establishes Earn as our main protagonist (not just our point of view) even as it solidifies the season’s final conclusion about social life and identity. That ender is truly conclusive. It’s one that pulls Atlanta into a position that recalls monumental American texts about “self and other” from Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn to, for me most importantly, Invisible Man.

The key, as it happens, gives Earn access to a storage unit.  After saying good-bye to Vanessa and rejecting her offer to let him stay the night, OutKast’s “Elevator” takes over the sound (probably what Earn is listening to on his headphones) and we watch him walk down deserted Atlanta streets until he reaches a storage facility.  He goes inside and his key unlocks a door to a unit where he enters, lies down, removes his shoes and takes from them two hundred dollar bills—his share of what’s left after giving Van the rent money. The music grows louder (after a brief period of silence while he uses the key and opens the door) and Earn lies back, counting and recounting these 100-notes—the image of Ben Franklin, an icon in both a certain American literary tradition and in the icon-altering culture of the Benjamins, as in “It’s all about the Benjamins,” per Puff Daddy and crew’s massive hit from 90s. The internet asked, would Earn have left his comfortable offer from Van to run off to sleep alone in what we grimly call a “Self Storage Unit”?

Two images before attempting an answer. The first one from Atlanta’s finale. Here we see Earn at the end of episode 10 at ease in what has turned out to be his “home.”
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Compare that image to this, the photographer Jeff Wall’s rendition of the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man:

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“Come out of your cave, boy,” Earn’s friend Swiff says to him in a very early scene of Atlanta’s pilot. It’s a line that, if remembered nine episodes later, takes on a more literal meaning than we can have foreseen when we first heard it, but it’s also picked up a referential power. Earn’s return to “the cave” to which Swiff referred calls to mind the cave of Jack the Bear, the basement apartment hiding place of Invisible Man. No-one would’ve predicted the first season of Atlanta would ultimately gather together its preceding episodes into a novelistic unity. And the unobvious quality of the allusion informing the summative scene amps up its resonance. It’s one of many reasons why the season’s final image, so clearly drawn from one of the mighty works of American literature whose plot and themes parallel Atlanta, is so satisfying.

The art of the “new” television means juggling the imperatives of bringing each episode and then each season and then an entire series to a conclusion that instantiates all the implications of incident and idea that organize the show as a whole. Glover has promised (in a recent interview) the next season of Atlanta would be more “coherent”, but I worry this might come at some sacrifice of what I took to be its very satisfying conclusion. The final scene of season one’s final episode isn’t too far gone. (Apparently it’s not altogether unheard of for people to reside in storage units; the metaphorical implications of this seem considerable, and so far as I know Glover is the first to take advantage of them.)  Without cutting himself off from the struggle within the outside world (to which, like Jack the Bear, Earn will doubtlessly return), his home in the storage unit reflects his fundamentally human need for sanctuary.  The blessings of the final episode–a bit of cash, an expression of love from Vanessa which includes an offer of a real residence in which to sleep–are there in part to show that Earn wants more.  He chooses self-storage for the reason Woolf thought every writer needs “a room of one’s own”–a place where one can simply exist without being anything. Though in this African American context it also means creating and dreaming and living free of the resentments and contradictions of life within a materialistic, racist state.  Earn is exhausted by the struggle to live up to (and/or resist) the ideals and stereotypes encountered endlessly within social life.  Rather than cultivating new, “positive images” to replace the old, confining ones, Glover seems to be using Earn to assert the right to dream of imagelessness, meaninglessness, invisibility.

To follow a line of argument taken by Michael Fried in his Heideggerian interpretation of Jeff Wall’s “After Invisible Man.” Fried links Ellison and his heirs to the recurring effort in Western art since the 18th century to depict moments of escape into a world of pure being, unmediated by words, images, meanings.  But perhaps it is more true to the spirit of Atlanta to suggest that the storage unit of Earn Marks allows him to revel in a fulfillment of one of the most crucial but often overlooked human needs–the one always denied when we look upon the homeless man in the street and try to steer him to a group shelter.  What people need, after shelter from the elements and perhaps some love, is privacy, solitude, the freedom to be alone.

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