HBO’s “Girls,” for example, provided an unsparing look at Brooklyn’s hipsters, portraying many of them as selfish, entitled, or near-psycho: a sub-subset of America that’s alien to many, if not most, viewers.
The comedian/rapper/writer Donald Glover has taken a page from the “Girls” playbook with “Atlanta,” another series that shines an unsentimental spotlight on a population that’s usually in the background on mainstream TV. But instead of the privileged, overeducated white women in “Girls,” the main characters in “Atlanta” are un-privileged black men in the urban South.
Privileged or not, what the “Girls” and “Atlanta” characters have in common is a struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world that apparently exists solely to thwart their dreams – dreams that do not include taking or keeping jobs that require discipline, patience or other bourgeois values.
“Girls” creator Len Dunham and Glover, two of the most talented and hard-working artists of their generation, both created shows focused on lost and aimless versions of themselves. Dunham’s Hannah Horvath aspires to be a famous writer but keeps making bad choices that screw up her prospects. Glover’s Earnest "Earn" Marks has so mismanaged his life that he’s perpetually homeless and broke, spending half his time trying to scrounge free food and a place to sleep.
A middle-aged, middle-class suburban white guy like me doesn’t know much about either hipster Brooklyn or black Atlanta, so these shows broaden my experience a bit – or at least I think so. Frankly, I’m in no position to know if “Atlanta” is a fair representation of that community. When I’m watching it, I’m always asking, “Is this what life in poor black America is like?” This is an important question because there aren’t a lot of TV shows that realistically depict the African-American experience in America.
There have been African American-themed TV shows since “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” in the 1970s, but most were produced by white people for white-dominated audiences. “Atlanta,” however, makes few concessions to white sensibilities and does little to assuage white guilt through the feel-good endings you’d get in a traditional sitcom.
But if the show does little to let whites off the hook, black viewers can’t take much heart from it, either. Earn comes from an intact family and once won a golden ticket to the upper echelons of American society: a scholarship to Princeton. However, instead of graduating and following his classmates to Wall Street careers, he dropped out and is now a couch-surfing deadbeat dad who’s not-very-successfully managing his cousin’s nascent rap career. In other words, he’s had plenty of chances but sabotaged himself.
But he’s a role model compared to his drug-dealing, thieving associates, who, while not stereotypes themselves, engage in behavior that would make a rightwing think tank tsk tsk.
Earn is a fish out of water in his old Atlanta neighborhood. He never falls into the local dialect and can still pass as an Ivy Leaguer among the city’s upper-class blacks. He’s middle-class enough to be his cousin’s interlocutor with white music executives. Yet he’s so out of favor with his respectable parents that they won’t let him sleep over at their house.
Because he’s articulate and smart, Earn acts as the audience’s emissary as we travel through this strange land. And because this is ostensibly a comedy, it’s really is a very strange land. One character keeps a live alligator in his bathtub; in another episode, an invisible car knocks down people outside a club; in a third, quarterback Michael Vick footraces stripclub patrons for money in the parking lot.
And then there are the everyday experiences that are actually pretty strange when you come to think of it: Earn’s rapper cousin inexplicably becomes more popular each time he gets nabbed for a crime; a rich white dude marries into the black intelligentsia and tries to be blacker-than-thou.
Perhaps strangest of all, people judge each other solely on the basis of skin color. Although there are few whites on the show, the effects of racism permeate the world they created. Poor blacks are hassled by black government workers and preyed upon by black thugs. The characters repeatedly refer to each other with the N-word. This is a show with African-American characters so dysfunctional and unsympathetic that no white person would dare write or produce it.
But is it “true"? Back to my original question: Is this what poor black life is really like? It’s been universally praised by black critics and intellectuals, and it has high ratings among black viewers, which certainly gives it credibility (although I have to suspect that the show’s African-American audience is significantly more upscale than the world “Atlanta” depicts).
Or maybe asking whether “Atlanta” is “real” is the wrong question. No one should mistake a sitcom for a documentary or research paper. We want a work of art to convey a universal truth about human nature and help us sympathize and understand the characters a little better.
Here’s where Glover succeeds. He is so honest about his characters’ failings that you actually do understand and feel a little closer to them. And that’s the best you can hope for.