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Grappling with ‘Atlanta’s’ new villain: white people

The first two episodes of Season Three of the hit FX series have centered around white people in an uncomfortable way. And that’s the point.

Season Two of Atlanta — the critically acclaimed FX show starring Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, LaKeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz, about rapper Paper Boi trying to make it in the city largely regarded as the Black mecca of the South — ended with the show’s main trio heading out for a European tour. Not only were Earn, Paper Boi and Darius on their way out of Atlanta, but the audience would be joining them. It’s a risky proposition to essentially eliminate the city that had become one of the show’s most enduring and defining characters, but the series has earned our trust over the past 15 episodes.

The combination of the show now being set in Europe and the racial uprising in 2020 after the police murdered George Floyd (while Atlanta was on hiatus) seems to have led the series to highlight a new character that had been on the periphery for the first two seasons: white people.

Season Three starts with two men — one white, one Black — on a boat on the show’s version of Lake Lanier. For the uninitiated, the popular Georgia vacation destination was built over a Black town whose residents were run off by racist violence. Lake Lanier is also known for the deaths that occur there each year, which many claim are linked to its dubious history. In the episode, much of the scene features the white man talking about the terror of whiteness before transforming into a fully formed demon. The message is clear: White people will terrorize us throughout the season.

The first episode makes good on that promise by dramatizing the Hart family murder-suicide — the 2018 tragedy that befell six Black children when their adoptive white mothers drove them off a cliff, killing everyone in the SUV. The show also refers to some of the most prominent internet memes of all time — the kid dancing on his desk in excitement, the mom making her son dance until he cried, and the dad slapping his son. But it slowly reveals to the audience where it’s heading. The episode’s progression from those memes — which are hyperfamiliar to Black audiences — to a national story about two white women’s abusive and deadly parenting is the show’s writers taking our hand and guiding us to this new world of Atlanta, where the horrors of white supremacy will be at the forefront.

I realized where the show was headed about halfway through the first episode and my stomach started to hurt. I wanted to turn my head. I wanted to change the channel. Yes, my reaction was, in part, because the real-life Hart family story is so heartbreaking. But I also felt discomfort because I’ve spent the last years watching Atlanta to get away from white folks.

Atlanta has been at its best when it’s focused solely on Black folks, Black culture and Black Atlanta. Take, for instance, Barbershop, an episode about the mess we go through just to get fades; or FUBU, about trying to stay fresh in high school; or Streets on Lock, about being Black and detained. For the most part, whiteness and its oppressive tentacles have always been acknowledged and present on the show, but white people were never a focus. When they have appeared on Atlanta — like Earn’s radio buddy who uses the N-word or the overeager Juneteenth host — they’re mostly dismissible caricatures. And I liked it that way. Atlanta has always felt like ours. But now, it seems like we have to get used to white folks and it feels like they’re infringing on our thing — our Thursday night escape to a Black half-hour of TV now has to contend with terroristic white folks. Can’t we have anything?

One of the beauties of Atlanta is its metacommentary and its anticipation of how audiences will react to certain moments. So the season’s second episode addresses this invasion head-on, introducing the white gaze. There’s even a scene where white folks gather and stare at a Black man as if he’s dying before actually killing him themselves. In the first two episodes, there’s no such thing as white folks being passive in the demise of Black folks.

Paper Boi & Co. taking over Europe acts as a stark juxtaposition to the way white folks are invading the show. That tension comes to a head at the end of the second episode when Paper Boi looks out to a crowd of white fans and they’re all wearing blackface.

It’s a not-so-subtle metaphor for the way Black folks, especially popular Black folks, address their white audiences and fans. What does it mean when a Black-as-hell show like Atlanta is loved by so many white people? It can make you feel like you’re doing something wrong. Like your commentary isn’t biting down nearly hard enough if you’re still universally beloved by the same white folks you’re admonishing or purposely trying to leave out. The way Paper Boi felt about those white folks in blackface staring at him — like he’s being intruded upon and he wants them to just be gone — is how this Atlanta viewer feels about the show’s new wrinkle.

Atlanta has spent the last few years giving us a wholly Black space that couldn’t care less about where white folks fit into it. Now it’s creating a wholly Black space that looks at what happens when villainous white folks try to invade it. I don’t like it, and I want those villains to go away so I can enjoy my Blackness in peace.

And I think that’s the point.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.