Atlanta is back with Season 2, and it’s just as strong as it was in its critically acclaimed, Emmy-winning premiere season. With about 15 episodes under its belt, the show also has given us a good idea of what it is. From pretty much the beginning, critics have been consistent in describing the show. Most reviews of Atlanta use words like surrealist, absurdist, random, or just plain weird to describe its particular style. Donald Glover himself has said, “I just wanted to make Twin Peaks with rappers.” But, after nearly a season and a half of the show, this isn’t quite right. The artistic tradition that the show fits most neatly into isn’t the surrealism of Twin Peaks, but instead the confines of magical realism.
“Absurd” and “surreal” are used often used to mean anything outside the lines of strict, kitchen sink realism. But, in art, these words have specific meanings. Surrealism is a dreamlike mode in which the unconscious is supposed to present itself in unexpected ways that can’t be readily interpreted. Surrealism doesn’t make sense, or rather, it has its own internal logic separate from our own. Psychoanalysis, as popularized by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, is key to the imagery in surreal art. Think of Dali’s melting clocks in “The Persistence of Memory” or the work of David Lynch.
Absurdism is nihilistic and ridiculous, poking fun at the futile banality of life. It is the art that comes out of the philosophical perspective that believes attempts at meaning and explanation are doomed to failure. Absurdist art lacks coherence of plot, time, and language. The character often speak in meaningless cliches and nonsequiturs, and they don’t make progress, thematically or literally. Think of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Atlanta is neither of these things as the reviews suggest because the show has a clear narrative in which characters have a obvious drive and purpose. The show exists mostly in our world, and when the action departs from our reality, it is usually meant as a cultural or symbolic comment on the action. While it can be dreamlike, it never (with the possible outlier of season 1, episode 7, the BET parody “B.A.N.”) indulges in dream worlds, psychoanalysis, or archetypes. Rather, Atlanta works in the tradition of “magical realism.” Popular in Latin-American art, magical realism is about the “inclusion of fantastic and mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction.”
The term was first used by Cuban novelist, Alejo Carpentier, to describe characteristics he found in Latin-American literature (though magical realism has appeared in various era in work from various continents). The best known practitioner of magical realism is Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Marquez’s best known works in English translation are the novels One Hundred Years of Solitude, which tells the story of the magical, utopian town of Macondo, and Love in the Time of Cholera, a tale about two lovers who finally reunite in their twilight years after a lifetime apart. Both books, like Atlanta, engage with the cultural and political forces of their moment, telling stories of war, banana plantations, colonialism, and mass migration, but through an exaggerated, fantastic lens.
Magical realism is a natural fit for a series like Atlanta for the same reason that it appealed to Latin-American writers of a previous era. Scholars have posited that magical realism is “a natural outcome of postcolonial writing, which must make sense of two separate realities -- the reality of the conquerors as well as that of the conquered.” It isn’t hard to extend this idea to Atlanta, which is telling the story of the oppression of black people in America. Prominent African-American writers like Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, frame American life, and particularly, life in the American South, as a struggle of the oppressed black class against the white oppressor class. With its focus on racism, the prison industrial complex, and financial precarity, it is safe to say Atlanta is sympathetic to this view. If you look at the moments in the show that critics have called “weird” or “surreal,” you see the kind of symbolic comment being made that situates the storytelling firmly in the magical realist tradition. Very little in this show is “random.”
Many of the moments of magical realism in Atlanta offer the same kind of socio-political relevance, a truth beyond the truth, that you find in Marquez. In Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch, when a parodic strongman sires 5,000 children and always wins the lottery or the titular “man with enormous wings” in the short story “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” a similar artistic method is being applied to the one that yields characters like The Alligator Man, Florida Man, or Black Justin Bieber.
A close look at the spectacular moments in Atlanta reveals that these moments aren’t random, weird, surrealist, or absurd, but extensions of a heightened reality and cultural commentary, just like that we see in the work of Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and other magical realist writers.
Nutella Sandwich (S1, E1)
One of the strangest moments of the series premiere comes when Earn (Donald Glover) meets an odd man in a dapper suit and bowtie while riding a city bus. The man offers Earn philosophical platitudes like “Actual victory belongs to things that simply do not see failure,” and a Nutella sandwich.
Vanity Fair identified this moment as one of the 9 moments that made season one of Atlanta “surreal,” but in describing this moment, the author offered an analysis as a moment of magical realism. The author muses that this is “perhaps a commentary on the magical negro stereotype.”
Considering the man gives Earn advice and a gift, it’s hard not to read this as a send-up of that stereotype. Furthermore, the actor (Ahmad White) is dressed in a very similar outfit to the one Lakeith Stanfield wears in Get Out when Jordan Peele is sending up the magical negro stereotype himself. Both outfits are clearly a reference to the dapper outfits of character like Bagger Vance, an earnest depiction of the stereotype both works are mocking.
White appears again in episode 7 of season one in a similar situation, again offering to solve people’s problems in an infomercial.
Black Justin Bieber (S1, E5)
Viewers still trying to get a grasp of the tone of Atlanta may have been befuddled when they depicted white pop star, Justin Bieber, as being black. This was not simply a cheap gag and again another prominent example of magical realism in Atlanta.
“It makes you ask yourself questions about the way you perceive Justin Bieber.” Stephen Glover, Donald’s brother and member of the Atlanta writing staff, told Vulture.
Glover’s point is that we accept Justin Bieber’s enfant terrible behavior largely because of his white privilege. When writing “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” the writers room asked themselves how Justin Bieber might be interpreted if he were black, and then put that concept to the test. Young black acto,r Austin Crute, plays “Black Justin Bieber” in the episode largely centered around a celebrity basketball game.
Again, this is a clear racial and political commentary that shifts reality in a very purposeful way to highlight societal inequality. To go back to Marquez for a moment, his various depictions of generals and soldiers are often exaggerated to highlight militarism and instability of his particular historical moment. In his book, The General in His Labyrinth, he relies on a fictionalized version of South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar to make a comment a particular cultural moment. In this episode of Atlanta. the writers room is fictionalizing Bieber to make a comment on a particular moment in race relations in American life.
Not only were the Glover brothers highlighting Bieber’s white privilege in this episode, they were also mocking absurdity of Hollywood’s tradition of “white washing” by reversing it. Again, from Vulture’s interview with Stephen:
“There’s a lot of reasons why it’s a good idea because it makes you ask yourself questions about the way you perceive Justin Bieber. Also, no black kid’s ever gonna get the job to portray Justin Bieber. This was a chance for this to happen. You know, no one’s ever gonna be like, ‘We need to do a movie about Howard Hughes. Time to cast Idris Elba!’ [Laughs.] This is something we’re never gonna get to see unless we do it ourselves.”
White Face (S1, E6)
One of the most moving and hilarious episodes of the first season features Van (Zazie Beetz) in a series of uncomfortable situations. First she catches up with her friend Jayde (Aubin Wise) who is living the WAG (wife or girlfriend to athletes) lifestyle, and clashes with her over their very different life choices. The next day Van has to take a drug test to keep her job as a teacher. A comedy of errors ensues and she ends up with a pink slip.
Both plots delve into roles that Van is forced to play in her life and come together to create a broader commentary on black female identity.
Not every comment on Reddit is salient television criticism. However, the top comment on a discussion about the episode - and specifically when one of Van’s students, Tobias, shows up with his face painted white - points to the usage as being a microcosmic symbol of the episode as a whole.
Reddit’s Robicbees writes:
“My take [on Tobias’ whiteface moment]: It's sort of a reflection of how Van feels about herself. She's kind of been putting on a sort of 'cultural whiteface' with regards to common stereotypes. Vanessa seems like she has desperately tried to avoid seeming anything like any stereotype of black women (not wanting to be seen as an 'angry black woman' for example). Her friend said that line about 'you used to make fun of girls like you' (or something like that anyway); Van has become one of the stereotypes she always tried to avoid, a single mother trying to make ends meet.”
If that’s a bridge too far for you, it’s still hard not to read the moment as a comment on minstrelsy (a.k.a. blackface) tradition in American art, and as a bit that reinforces our view of Van’s struggles with identity. Even if you aren’t willing to commit to a concrete symbolic meaning, the use of whiteface here is not “random” or beyond interpretation.
Invisible Car / Secret Door (S1, E8)
Not every moment of magical realism needs to be mined for cultural commentary. Remember, definitionally, we’re just talking about “inclusion of fantastic and mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction.” We simply need to see the circumstances elevated beyond our expectation of reality, but still tethered to the clear thematic substance of the scene. Likewise, there are magical moments in the work of Marquez and Borges that simply serve to heighten the mood.
Two moments in Season 1, episode 8, “I Hate the Club,” demonstrate this use of fantasy for the sake of tone. Throughout the episode, Earn is trying to track down a shady promoter who owes Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Hill) $5,000 USD. The promoter tries a number of tricks to elude Earn before finally slipping through a false wall in the style of a fake bookcase in a 1930s murder mystery.
The episode also focuses on how Earn and Paper Boi feel inferior in the club. The performative social environment makes them feel like they don’t belong. This feeling is heightened by the presence of Marcus Miles, a pro basketball player, and a much bigger deal than Paper Boi. His untouchable superiority is emphasized by his “invisible car,” a “prototype” that is unavailable in the wider market, and certainly unavailable to Paper Boi and Earn.
These are both good moments as throwaway jokes, but they are also solid examples of magical realism, as they heighten the existing themes and tones that exist in the “real” world of the episode.
Pet Alligator (S2, E1)
Season two kicks off with a similar tonal moment of magical realism that you don’t need a cultural studies degree to interpret. Earn is dispatched to the house of Uncle Willy a.k.a. Alligator Man (Kat Williams) to assist with a domestic dispute because Paper Boi is under house arrest.
Earn is expecting a chaotic situation, but he is not expecting to meet a live alligator. But, that’s exactly what he gets. Uncle Willy was once in the music business like Earn, and his life was and is one of chaos. He even has the golden pistol to prove it. The alligator simply heightens this feeling of chaos and fear that are already present in the domestic dispute and resulting police encounter.
Florida Man (S2, E1)
There is also a moment of fantastic cultural commentary in the season two premiere. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) talks about “Florida Man,” but instead of referring to it as the meme shorthand for Floridian crime hijinx, in Atlanta, "Florida Man" is the embodiment of redneck white supremacy.
Darius refers to him as an “alt-right Johnny Appleseed” and we aren’t sure if this person is real or constructed in Darius’ imagination. But, regardless of whether Florida Man is real or not, he is another fantastic cultural amalgamation influenced by the realities that black people face in America.
The Racist Movie Theater (S2, E3)
Later in season two, the moments of fantasy get back to reflecting the cultural realities of our characters. The premise of the third episode is that Earn wants to spend his newfound wealth, but racist establishments prevent him from doing that. That is, until he goes to a strip club that is happy to take his money: a lot of his money.
Early on in the episode, Van and Earn go to a movie theater. At the theater, not only will they not take his $100 bill, but the older white man behind him pays with one successfully. On top of that, the cashier claims she needs to make a copy of his card if he wants to use debit. And the customer who paid with the $100, oh yeah, he has a gun.
Again, the writers are elevating a commonplace occurrence for our characters and black people across the United States: racism, and elevating it to a fantastic level.
What Dreams May Come(S2, E3)
Critics often refer to Atlanta as surreal because it feels dreamlike. Many reviews of the show use the two words interchangeably to describe both the content and the visual palette of the series producing director Hiro Murai. Murai matches the easygoing yet sharp comedy in the writing with a relaxed pace and a calming gold and green-tinged color scheme. In that regard, the show often feels like a dream.
But just because there is a lightness to the show that makes the viewer feel like they are floating through life with Earn and Paper Boi doesn’t make the show surrealist. If you watch a Buneal or David Lynch film, you are often confronted with imagery you can’t explain, dialogue that is nonsensical, imagery that feels primal and archetypal. It’s not a detachment from reality that surrealism offers, but a new reality.
Atlanta is mostly realistic. The characters have more or less realistic motivations that are more or less thematically grounded. Every so often, those goals and those themes are highlighted so firmly that they transcend reality and we are offered images that are more true than truth. The fantasy trumps reality, offering a “more real” reality.
This is the essence of magical realism, and while it may feel surreal, it is actually the most real thing an artist can imagine.