Atlanta, Donald Glover and the Invisibility of Black Genius

Illustration for article titled Atlanta, Donald Glover and the Invisibility of Black Genius
Photo: FX Studios

A few weeks ago, a video surfaced of a white kid named Cooper participating in a step show. Cooper’s enthusiasm immediately made him a YouTube sensation.

Although the clip was cute, as I watched the video I realized that the black kids in the video were just as enthusiastic and worked just as hard as Cooper. It is not Cooper’s fault, but—even though he worked hard and was as talented as anyone else—Cooper was internet-famous because he is white.


“A black man has to work twice as hard to get half as far.”

To be black in America is to live that proverb. While it may seem bleak or discouraging, it is nonetheless true. It is also hopeful. For most black men and women, achieving half as much as their equally talented white counterparts is a laudable accomplishment.

This reality isn’t always embedded in blatant racism and white supremacy. Sometimes talent and hard work are dismissed by whites as a byproduct of blackness. Like Cooper’s step-team teammates, black talent is often discounted because it comes from a black body.

NFL experts said that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s physical gifts would revolutionize the position by allowing him to do the same things black athletes had been doing for years. Cam Newton is just another black quarterback.

Even if you think Adele’s 21 was superior to Lemonade, there can be no argument about which was more culturally relevant. Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking album To Pimp a Butterfly lost the album of the year Grammy to Taylor Swift’s forgettable collection of white-angst ditties two years after Lamar lost best new artist to Macklemore.


Jason Mitchell’s spot-on performance reflected every nuance of EricEazy-E” Wright’s essence in Straight Outta Compton but went unnoticed. Denzel Washington was Malcolm Little reincarnated in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and lost the Academy Award for best actor to Al Pacino’s portrayal of a blind Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. Get Out lost the best picture Oscar to a movie about fucking a fish man.


I often contend that the entertainment industry dismisses black actors and musicians because even when they display flashes of brilliance, Hollywood reduces their roles and music to “black-people things.” For them, Mitchell and Washington were just black actors portraying black characters. Lamar was just another rapper from the hood rapping about the hood. Unlike Cooper the stepper, their art was not considered extraordinary because they were black people doing black things.


Which brings us to Donald Glover’s Atlanta.

The second season of FX’s show is one of the best things on TV. Each week is an exercise in storytelling brilliance from Glover and his cast of characters. It is superior in style, writing, cinematography and every other television metric.


However, like the previously mentioned pieces of art, it will likely never be hailed for its genius because it is too black. But Atlanta’s blackness alone doesn’t preclude its value being perceived by the masses. There is another noticeable element that Glover subtly infuses into the show that might make it immune to white applause:

Atlanta doesn’t give a fuck.

The show’s subversive personality doesn’t even try to accommodate white sensibilities. It is not unapologetically black, because it seems to be unaware that an apology is even necessary. It is “I don’t give a damn if they’re watching” black. It is dripping with wet-lemon-pepper-wings seasoning, the hilarity of Caucasian puppy love and indifference to white eyes. Even the title of the “Sportin’ Waves” episode seems unaware that there exists a whole world outside of blackness.


There are countless, microscopic incidents of this. Lakeith Stanfield’s portrayal of Darius’ just off-center weirdness. The familiarity of the impeccably written and acted character Bibby in the “Barbershop” episode. The inside joke that no one on the show likes Hennessy but everyone on the show drinks Hennessy.

Most incredibly, the fact that everyone knows Paper Boi’s music despite the fact that Glover has chosen to never play a full Paper Boi song on the show.


Every character is unmistakably black in ways that are understood by every black person. They are all recognizable without a speck of stereotype. We know Earn because so many of us are Earn—aloof, uncharismatic and smart, but still black.


It is all nuance and no exposition. The beauty of Atlanta is that it proves that there are shades of black by rejecting every stereotypical portrayal of blackness and embracing the nooks and crannies. That is the unheralded genius of the show. It does not portray us at our best or our worst. It is black Seinfeld. It is a show about nothing while being a show about everything. It does not try to be black. It just is.

The greatest thing about Glover and Atlanta is that they don’t seem to care if anyone else recognizes their genius. Perhaps that is a lesson for us all. Maybe we should stop giving a fuck.


Maybe the Oscars are so white because black genius is invisible to white eyes. Maybe that’s what they mean when they say they “don’t see color.” Spending our time waiting for flowers from people who can’t tell a rose from a dandelion is an exercise in futility.

Atlanta is not beautiful and black. It is beautiful because it is black.

And for all of us, that should be enough.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.



Everytime I see a video like the one featuring Chicken Coop Cooper (I’m thinking that would be his line name) I am reminded of a couple of paragraphs from Chester Himes If He Hollers Let Him Go (1947)

I’m thinking that Chester wouldn’t invite Chicken Coop to the cookout and he wouldn’t care how many step shows he did.