Donald Glover's American Horror Stories

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Donald Glover's American Horror Stories

A gator’s slow saunter, an appreciative mugger, a man’s concealed pistol, a laughing wolf. A hit-and-run, two haunted mansions, a pitch-dark forest, a Confederate flag. Before the essential inanities of its quiet finale, which throw what comes before into even sharper relief, Atlanta Robbin’ Season resembles the classic folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, or studied by Bruno Bettelheim: 30-or-so-minute expressions of “formless, nameless anxieties,” of “chaotic, angry, even violent fantasies,” reconstituted for the particular intersection of time and place at which the series is set. The difference here—against hundreds of years of pop cultural tradition, in which blackness has so often been something to fear—the anxieties in Atlanta are felt by black people, and the violent fantasies harbored by whites. The dream logic Wesley Morris calls “the Atlanta touch” is, after a fashion, the logic of fairy tales, folklore, fables, myths; even in its “realistic” vein, as the only black employee at a lily-white company dances on a table for his colleagues, or as our hero, Earn (series creator Donald Glover), tries and fails to break a Benjamin at the movie theatre, Atlanta remarks on the uncanniness of the situations in which its characters find themselves. “This place has a vibe,” Earn says of the former. “This place feels weird to me,” he notes of the latter. “This is America,” Glover’s musical alter ego, Childish Gambino, repeats in his new single. After all, the original versions of our most beloved fairy tales are ultimately horror stories, and with Atlanta’s startlingly ambitious second season, Glover has finally told his.

In fact, this interest in horror is telegraphed from the beginning, long before the mini-Get Out of “Teddy Perkins,” or the overnight walkabout of “Woods.” The season premiere pauses for a spell on the figure of Florida Man, described by the series’ resident mystic, Darius (the note-perfect Lakeith Stanfield), not as the Internet’s favorite gag on white-trash criminals, but as an actual “alt-right Johnny Appleseed” forcing his chaotic, angry, even violent fantasies on an innocent populace. That Darius draws no distinction between individual and stereotype is, of course, both the central trope of fairy-tale logic and the perfect inversion of racist convention: For a series as serious—if also wildly, outrageously, unconscionably funny—as Atlanta, it’s notable that the white characters—pubescent CEOs, YouTube moms, gun-toting filmgoers, German-descended blackface wearers, “Stepford Wife lookin’ bitches,” frat boys, and others—are as broadly written, in the main, as Dre’s ignorant co-workers on black-ish, which is to say that all of us white folks are the Florida Men of Glover’s imagination.

And shouldn’t we be? For systemic reasons? That line, from the season finale—spoken by a young Hasidic Jew at an Atlanta passport office, referring to the professional networks that give white attorneys an advantage over black ones—is, I suspect, the reason Robbin’ Season leans on the outsized emotions, the uncanniness, of fairy tales and horror stories; without the intense, discomfiting strangeness of its plotting, one might miss its point. Because whiteness chases Atlanta’s characters as surely as the blurred bodies trailing Glover at the end of the music video for “This Is America”: in a dreadful acoustic cover of Paper Boi’s breakout single, to which actor Bryan Tyree Henry reacts with sublime resignation; in a friend’s suggestion to Earn’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz), that she “chose black” by having a child with him; in the two lines of kneeling, naked, hooded pledges stretched before the crew after a performance at a college campus. Teddy Perkins (also Glover), the masked, robed, ostrich egg-eating monster of the season’s 41-minute linchpin, so leached of color that he spurs the most recklessly funny interlude of the entire 11-episode arc — “Google ‘Sammy Sosa hat,’” “This nigga look like a white man’s penis,” “Why this nigga look like what’s under a scab, though?” — is the logical, fantastical extreme of this line of thought, a man pursued to the end of his rope by our culture’s coercive preference for whiteness. “This is my father,” Teddy says of a faceless white mannequin in a drab gray suit. “He’s the reason for all of this.”

If that’s not a blistering emblem of white supremacy; if the big bad wolf Van punches in “Helen” isn’t a sardonic nod at predatory men; if the unraveling FUBU jerseys and cardboard Drakes aren’t witty signifiers of the abrasions of America’s obsession with class and status, then I’m not sure it’s possible to devise a set of accidental metaphors that better capture the horror of our national fairy tale. Nor has a “comedy” series managed to transform the half-hour format’s usual eccentricities into eeriness with more aplomb than Atlanta, from the sweatiness of the Florida Man sequence to the cartoonish gore of Teddy Perkins’ exploding cranium to the unnerving absurdism of limp dicks swaying along to “Laffy Taffy.” For Glover and fellow directors Hiro Murai and Amy Seimetz, Robbin’ Season is, fundamentally, a tapestry of images that can only be defined as uncanny: an admixture of the familiar and strange, in this case of genres, subjects, pop cultural allusions, and political points of reference, an admixture, as Freud had it, that dredges up the repressed, the subconscious, the hidden, the ignored. If that’s not a description of the uses of (white, male, affluent) power—to obscure that which is plain, to render normal that which is monstrous—then I’m Florida Man myself.

And I suppose that’s the point here: not to deny, as Morris argues, that “Atlanta specializes in the properties of blackness, the adjustment of heft and levity for bizarrely emotional effect,” but to suggest that Robbin’ Season’s specific interest in horror stories, in fairy tales, folklore, fables, myths, is simultaneously, necessarily, an attempt to reckon with the properties of “whiteness,” the ever-evolving definition of which so profoundly shapes the nation, even as its very existence goes more or less unmentioned. It’s in this context that I read the similarly horrifying, often uncanny “This Is America”—starring Glover, directed by Murai, and dropped in between Robbin’ Season’s final two episodes—in which our expectations—as consumers of art, as citizens of Glover’s America—are stretched, à la Teddy Perkins, to the logical, fantastical extreme. Though there’s more hope, and satisfaction, in the cue that closes Robbin’ Season, Nina Simone’s glorious “I Shall Be Released,” Childish Gambino’s latest is a provocative counterpoint. For if Atlanta turns the tables by treating whiteness as a malevolent force, “This Is America” turns them back: Its pistol reports and strafing machine guns, its burned-out cars and background riots, its joint-smoking, money-getting, bare-chested swagger, is the nightmare white people have been having about black people since the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, exactly as long as the nightmare to which white people have actually subjected black people. It’s this gnawing chasm between the imagined and real that creates the feeling of uncanniness, and in both Atlanta Robbin’ Season and “This Is America,” Glover dives in head first. This place has a vibe, all right, he seems to say, and if it doesn’t scare the fuck out of you, you might be the monster.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.