By DeVaughn Harris
Donald Glover’s career after Because the Internet (BTI) takes a turn that, at first glance, seems utterly unorthodox, however, it is exactly in line with his nature as a griot. After BTI’s release, it was revealed that Glover would turn back to television, this time creating, producing, writing, and even at times directing his own series. It was later revealed that the series’ would be titled Atlanta. Reviewers said that the show introduces a “fresh and excited approach to storytelling.” The show’s story follows a presumed college dropout, Earnest “Earn” Marks’ (Donald Glover) return home to Atlanta from Princeton University, in search of a new purpose outside of higher education. Upon his return home, he rekindles with an old flame, Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Zazie Beetz), with whom he has a child. Having returned home from school without a degree, Earn struggles to financially stabilize himself and his family, thus prompting him to propose a music management position to his rapper cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), along with navigating a peculiar relationship with Alfred’s right hand man, Darius X (Lakeith Stanfield) in hopes of finding stability and purpose in his otherwise monotonous life.
The first season of Atlanta follows a rather conventional arc: Earn comes home, “earns” his respect and position as manager of his rapper cousin, Paper Boi, and through proving himself to both Vanessa and his family, finds a place for himself as his own person (even if not fully financially stable). This coming of age narrative, composed of ten episodes, uses Earn’s story to showcase an existential tragicomedy of the Black experience in America. Early on in the show, for example, Earn is arrested in a would-be robbery (for defending his cousin from a thief) and, while waiting to be “processed” at the police station, laughs grotesquely with the officers who are watching a Black inmate, obviously mentally ill, drink from the toilet. The scene, while disgusting on a few levels, remains relatively benign until the mentally ill man, laughing along with the cops, spits toilet water playfully at them. What begins as a harmless gesture toward the officers becomes a reason for them to mercilessly beat him within an inch of his life. These sort of quick turns, from comic to tragic, in Atlanta, places the philosophical absurdity of Black experience in America at the forefront of the show. Glover, as writer and director – and griot – uses this tragicomic lens as a way of demonstrating the ambivalence of Black experience in America.
The most interesting course of action Glover takes in creating the world of Atlanta is that he formulates an anthropological atmosphere in which he grants each character a level of autonomy that very little shows on the air today do. Season two of Atlanta has no single story line – each character has their own, except for Earn. This cultivates an environment for storytelling wherein a griot like Glover allows others to step into griotic roles themselves. In this way, Glover can be seen as a master griot insofar that he is inviting the narratives of Van, Alfred, and Darius into the rhetorical space of Atlanta; With Atlanta, Glover is able to use the skill of remixing the storylines of his supporting cast in order to produce a richness that is the single cohesive message of the show: the ambivalent tragicomic nature of navigating Black life in the United States. In Vanessa’s episodes she confronts the limits that young motherhood has placed on her social life – and how the country’s stereotypes about young Black mothers are impossible to escape; in Darius’s episodes, he is nearly killed in a murder-suicide between two brothers, one of whom, in a Michael Jackson like state of reclusiveness, mirrors Darius’ own eccentricity and possible future. Glover is remixing his characters’ storylines by creating tangents through which they are free to create roles for themselves yet still adhere to Glover’s world and social sphere. What DJ Spooky calls “the mix” – that nonlinear, technologically enabled environment in which artists make their art – becomes, for Glover, something like a methodology for season two of Atlanta: there is no one singular story line, Earn takes a back seat and is no longer the show’s protagonist, and instead peripheral characters become the main characters of their own episodes – while Glover, or Earn, doesn’t appear at all (okay, he appears once literally in the backseat of a car). Even this griot’s disappearance is a new shape through which he (as writer and director) can still tell the story of who we are and what we value.
While each individual episode – from either season – is rich with the contradictory and absurdist ways in which Black experience faces white supremacy in America today, Earn (and Glover’s use of him as a form he takes as a griot) will be the focal point of this analysis of Atlanta. Glover continues a nuanced story in Atlanta (about race) that began in Childish Gambino’s album Camp, and later in “Awaken, My Love!”, refining, through a transmedia world-building, his continued exploration of and argument about being Black in America. In the show’s first season, the ninth episode, titled “Juneteeth,” explores that nuanced conversation in a way that calls on more than one of Glover’s griotic transformations. In the episode, titled as a nod to the day on which a federal order to free slaves in Texas was put in place, Glover is essentially having a conversation with his audience. This starts towards the beginning of the episode where Earnest finds himself in dialogue with the antagonist of the episode, a white man named Craig who is hosting a Juneteenth party at his mansion in the Southern US region (they are in a rich area somewhere outside Atlanta – not a plantation, but close). While exploring the mansion and bearing witness to this white man’s wealth, Earn stumbles upon Craig’s private study and finds himself entranced by one of Craig’s paintings, inspired by a Malcolm X quote telling black people that, “Nobody will give you freedom. If you’re a man, you take it.” After seeing this, Earn tells Craig his painting is an “interesting interpretation” of the quote, to which Craig responds, “It’s the only interpretation.” Glover, as Earn, illustrates the sinister self-congratulatory nature of white supremacy and its tendency to overshadow Black history with its own twisted, half-truth recount.
By planting hidden artifacts throughout the scene, Glover is also implicitly breaking the fourth wall – and generating a discourse with his audience – through his work as Childish Gambino. For example, in the background of this scene in Craig’s study, the cover for Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!”, the album in which the single “Redbone” appears, is sitting on one of Craig’s shelves. Having a conversation about race with Craig, while having one of his albums in the back which includes lyrics like, “Stay woke!” provides a message to both Glover and Gambino fans insofar that they understand the explicit and implicit narrative implied in the scene. Staying woke is a term, emerging from African-American vernacular English (AAVE), that refers to a continual state of being aware of social and racial injustice being performed against people of color, especially Black people. This term has become popular throughout the past decade in an attempt to make Black people more aware of where they came from, and why they are where they are in present time. By creating a context that unites Childish Gambino and the show Atlanta, Glover is able to create a “mix” – a world – in which that highly nuanced context can tell a story about what it means to be an African-American and have to defend your identity to the dominant power structure. And he does so while simultaneously calling on three identities – Glover (the actor, writer, and director), Earn (the character), and Childish Gambino (the black artist “owned” by Craig and on display on his shelf). By inviting his audience into these several forms simultaneously, Glover establishes an immersive narrative that at once makes the argument that white ownership of Black cultural production continues to oppress Black people (Craig claims to know more about black culture than Earn, a Black man literally contributing to the Black cultural production that Craig appropriates) while also implicating his own work (Childish Gambino is on display on Craig’s shelf) within that narrative. Glover’s nuanced storytelling occurs on almost every episode of Atlanta. His ability to break the fourth wall in order to tell a story within the scene in Craig’s study allows his viewers to try and dissect his work even more, whether that be his music, his acting, or his writing, as he continues to cement his role as a modern griot. By including easter eggs such as the album cover, Glover is implicitly telling his audiences, both televisual and musical, “I see you.” Although Earn explicitly expresses the lack of identity that Black people in America have to Craig (he informs Craig that his own ethnicity was erased by slavery – he doesn’t know “what” he is), the album cover, cleverly named “Awaken, My Love!”, is telling his audience to wake up and notice the message he is conveying by the on-screen setting and exchange between both characters.
Meanwhile, in “Awaken, My Love!”, Glover’s musical alter ego explores a more explicit form of storytelling. For context, the album was released December 2, 2016, and around this time, Glover’s first son was born. In this album, Gambino is having multiple conversations with his son – several of the songs on the album are addressed specifically to Glover’s newborn. The most clear example can be heard in the last minute of the song where Glover tells his son, “There was a time before you, and there will be a time after you.” We hear Glover as Childish Gambino quote Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book Between the World and Me saying, “Though these bodies are not our own, walk tall, little one, walk tall.” The quote from Coates’ book alludes to the existence of Black people in America and the fact that Black people, for the past 401 years, have been subjugated to a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society – so much so that they have been made to feel as though their bodies no longer belong to them, only to the system they’ve been made subservient to. In “Awaken, My Love!” Gambino is telling his son stories of the past in order to prepare him for his future. Glover’s invention of several selves, his griotic nature, can, in this way, be seen as a way out of that system, a form of self-fashioning, a way into owning one’s identity while also inviting an audience into understanding why this is historically necessary for Black people and Black artists.
The album coincides with how Glover breaks the fourth wall in Atlanta because in both mediums, music and television, the stories are presented within easily consumed forms of entertainment, allowing Glover to further present and cement himself as a griot. In Rhythm Science, Paul Miller a.k.a DJ Spooky, introduces the idea of multiplex consciousness. Rhythm Science itself, as a concept, is the multimodal and multidisplinary way art is produced in an age when digital technologies allow artists to combine media and material in ways previously impossible. Digital technologies, according to Spooky, provide new ways of making art: “rhythm science creates parallel soundscapes because it is music that says “there could be another way.”” Glover has found multiple ways – multiple shapes – through which to convey his stories about how and who we are. Multiplex consciousness, a concept that Spooky builds out of WEB DuBois’ “Double Consciousness,” is the consciousness employed by artists who use multiple modes and technologies to make their art. Spooky says: “All the issues involved with aliases, multiple narrative threading, social engineering environments, and identity as a social cipher….” these all contribute to who the artist is: s/he who actively constructs multiple selves and, therefore, creates a multiplex for those selves’ consciousness – just as Glover creates, through music and television, a multimodal theater through which to explore Black identity in contemporary America. When we watch Atlanta we are watching Glover, Earn, and Childish Gambino – all simultaneously. We are participating in Glover’s multiplex consciousness. The ability to compile all of these social phenomena – music and television in this case – into the art of storytelling is exemplary of a griot, and, by incorporating those phenomena into Atlanta by creating tangential paths for his supporting cast, planting easter eggs of his musical alias, and engineering a deliberately uncomfortable environment in Craig’s office, Glover is embracing his multiplex consciousness throughout the entirety of Atlanta‘s two seasons. This is the integral method of a griot’s work, and being that Glover is able to cross media – to cross forms – while still delivering the same message, exemplifies his role as a modern day, or what Adam Banks would call, digital griot.