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Atlanta's 'Champagne Papi': Perception Simulation Inception

Atlanta might be my favourite show of all time. Following in the footsteps of Louis CKs surreal masterpiece ‘Louie’, Donald Glover created his surreally realistic magnum opus on FX. With complete creative control Donald Glover went on to create the best show on television. It’s uncanny how relatable this show feels, and past that, it's unbelievable how smart, well written and well made this show is. Director Hiro Murai brings his technical cinematography skills into the fold and makes the city of Atlanta a character in the story to completely wrap you into the world of the show. As a 20 year old black guy I can’t say I’ve had many shows that honestly represent me. It’s cliche to say at this point but people that look like me are always depicted as token best friends, thugs or sassy and gay. I never really related to many black characters. I never thought much about it until Atlanta came out. The first season of Atlanta was my first glimpse of what a show like this could be.

At first glance, Atlanta is about Earn, a princeton dropout who was broke and living with his baby mother and wanted to make some quick money in the booming Atlanta music scene so he decides to manage his rapper cousin Al and with the help of his quirky best friend Darius, the trio make their way through the music industry. But it turned out to be so much more than that. I related to small moments that meant a lot to me like when Earn was trying to buy a kids meal but the fast food cashier wouldn’t sell him a kids meal because he wasn’t a kid, or when he took a water cup and filled it with soda. It was small but it was real and I’ve actually been through that. I also have brothers, cousins, friends and acquaintances who rap. I’ve been around trap music and weed smoke more times than I can count. It felt like an honest representation of my life and not in a corny way. Not in a way where it’s trying to push an agenda and show black people getting shot or black people being enslaved. Not in a BET low production value way. And not in an after school special type of way. It maintained its artistic integrity, the production value was great, the writing was great, the cinematography was some of the best I’ve ever seen and it still felt relatable.

Atlanta went past the point of black relatability and into social commentary with dynamic black characters. It showcases a surreal and dark yet humorous show unlike any I’ve seen before. It had well rounded characters that you were starting to get to know and understand. The cool thing about the show is that it shows you the different types of people that exist in our communities as opposed to the monotony that’s often depicted in mainstream media. I’ve met Darius, I’ve met Al and Earn, and I’ve also been each of them at different points in time even though they’re all wildly different from each other. After a successful first season Atlanta came back with an even darker, more surreal second season. This season had genuinely absurd moments and hilarious moments but it was also obviously more grounded and darker in tone to the previous season. From the first episode being Alligator Man which featured surreal moments like an alligator living in a house in the hood of Florida to episodes like the award winning Teddy Perkins episode that featured Donald Glover in ghoulish white face speaking in a high pitched tone. All of these episodes go so much deeper than anything I would have imagined the show would touch on, but that’s the beauty in it. The show keeps you guessing. Donald Glover said he didn’t even tell Fx what he was making because he didn’t think they would have let him make it.

The second season had episodes like ‘Champagne Papi’. This episode is so layered, watching it is honestly a trip. I’ve seen this episode about 7 times and every time I find something new. At first glance, the episode is about a group of girls night out. Van, Earns baby mama, wants a day off from being a working mom and her friend has tickets to a party at Drake's house. One of the girls gets on Instagram and tells everyone that she’s going to be attending a lit party and tells her followers to stay tuned. Van is upset that Earn is out having fun on Instagram with other girls and says that she needs a picture with Drake because her Instagram is weak as fuck. The girls start bickering but they laugh it off and decide to head out. When they get to the location where they’re supposed to be picked up for the party they’re all cold and looking at an iPhone for google maps directions. They’re then approached by a pizza man asking if they could give a pizza to Drake, and it turns out he’s a rapper and the pizza box contains his mixtape. They get into a stranger's car that is filled with other well dressed women, as the driver says something that visibly makes them uncomfortable and drives off, at this point they’re willing to take the risk of being kidnapped to meet Drake. They’re seated next to a girl that’s crying because she can’t believe she’s about to meet Drake. They get to the party and she’s kicked out because it turns out her ticket was fake. The girls go into the house and decide to take edibles which gives them each separate narrative threads. All of the girls experience varying degrees of intoxication and different storylines. One friend is in pursuit of an actor named Devyonne Johnson so she can yell at his white girlfriend; another friend, deemed a “nun” during their pregame got too high and is just trying to deal with it; the third friend is looking to solidify her relationship with DJ the Barber who is a DJ that claims Drake is somewhere floating around; and then there’s Van, who says she’s looking for Drake. One of the girls immediately splits off to hang out with DJ who she admits she only likes because he can do her favours, she later texts Van that she has left the party to attend a party at T-Pain's house. Van is stuck taking care of the girl that got too high. And the other girl is sitting in the living room and yells at the white girlfriend of Devyonne Johnson and gives her all the stereotypical reasons as to why black women don’t want black men dating white women, and the woman asks the question “what if we’re just 2 good people that found each other?”. Van and the girl that got too high are sitting in a room and the girl starts getting paranoid so Van tells her that she’ll get her some water. Because she was scared of being left alone Van tells her to look at the portrait of Drake on the wall so that she can feel better. Van meets a guy named Brandon who we quickly realize, right along with Van, that he is not a good guy. He arrived a little too early. He knows the entirety of the mansion’s layout. He’s standing very, very, very close to Van, and he immediately describes her as his “friend,” and so Van decides to make her escape into the bathroom, and then another floor of the house entirely. She finds a closet that contains Drake's clothes. She wears his jacket and takes pictures in them smiling for her Instagram. She walks through the hall and sees a Drake photo booth line where women are lined up to pay $20 for pictures next to a Drake cut out to get more followers on their Instagram. Van goes to the basement of this house and finds out from an elderly Mexican man that Drake was on tour in Europe and he was nowhere near the party, instead he was literally “floating around somewhere” like DJ foreshadowed earlier in the story. Meanwhile outside the girl that got too high ran into Darius. She’s still high and sees a girl dancing in the middle of the pool. She asks Darius if any of this was real. Darius responds in true Darius fashion and tells her it depends on what she means by real. He asks her if she’s heard of Bostrom's Simulation argument and goes on to explain simulation theory to her which states that if humans continue to create virtually simulated worlds like we do in video games, at some point the graphics will be so advanced that it will be indistinguishable from real life, so he came to the conclusion that we’re living in a simulation. Van finds Darius and the girl laying outside as Darius tells her that the stars are merely a projection of what we see when we close our eyes. Van sits next to them as the girl starts rambling about nothing being real and Van, seemingly tired of all the lies she’s been fed the whole night answers with “ you’re right. It’s all fake, there’s no Drake, so don’t ruin your high, just enjoy yourself.”

This episode had so many layers it was like a fucking onion. The main point of the episode was about how perception is reality but it demonstrated that in various ways. The first layer is the posturing we do because of social media. The girls were bickering, they were cold, scared, confused, angry and they left each other for most of the night at the party but they posted nothing but their highlights on Instagram. Van was posturing when she posted herself wearing Drakes jacket moments after being seemingly near danger from a guy who was also busy posturing when he was showing her the layout to Drake's house. All the women were posting pictures next to cutouts of Drake. And the friend was telling everyone she was going to a lit party with her girls, only to attend for a few minutes before abandoning them to fake flirt with a guy she didn’t even like and text them saying she had left to T-Pain's party. None of them got to meet Drake and none of them seemed to enjoy their time but you wouldn’t know it by their Instagrams. We’re all mini celebrities now running around focused on social media numbers. Everyone is on instalive like they’re iCarly. People have to post everything they do on Instagram because “pics or it didn’t happen”. And it’s taking a toll on our social gatherings. Everyone’s staring at life through a glass screen and inadvertently creating a life within a screen. Putting up our highlights in this simulated perfect Instagram life and then experiencing FOMO and jealousy over other peoples curated facades. Earn was posting himself having fun with a girl and Van wanted to compete because she felt jealous so she wanted a picture with Drake. But in reality they both have a baby at home they need to take care of and feed, they’re struggling financially and they have to get to work to make ends meet for their daughter. They don’t show any of that on their Instagram because we’re all chasing curated perfection. All the girls came to that party seeking resolve in different ways. Van felt like maybe if she had met Drake and gotten that instagram pic, it would fill a void.

The second layer was the facade of celebrity culture. Celebrity in our world is a very strange concept. We use these people as avatars of ourselves and as distractions from real world problems. You see that example in scenes like when the girl was too high and paranoid so Van told her to stare at a portrait of Drake for comfort. Just the sight of celebrity and our familiarity of them brings us comfort. Drake the brand is much larger than Aubrey Graham the person. People have attached a persona to Champagne Papi that’s much larger than who he really is. At the end of the day, Drake is a person like you and me that makes good music. Yet his notoriety gives him a level of celebrity that makes him worshipped by people. And they’re not worshipping him, they’re worshipping the idea of him. Drake is a pop star with a machine behind him so there is a marketing team and PR agents that curate his image which makes him as perfect as the cutout that was in the room. That’s what Van meant when she said “it’s all fake there’s no Drake”. There’s no Drake at the party but even larger, there’s no Drake in the world. None of us know Drake the person. And for the most part none of us care to know, not really. When Van confronts two women selling selfies with a pop-up Drake, they ask her if she really, truly, expected to meet Drake, telling Van more about herself than she might have wanted, and the truth about all of the women at the mansion, and ultimately everyone chasing the currency of Likes and Follows. One of the girls says to Van: “You thought you was gonna have a meaningful convo with Drake or some shit?” “You was gonna come to the party, ask for a pic, and post it on the ‘gram. So, here you go. You welcome.”

That brings me to the next layer which was the fakeness in relationships once you achieve success. One of the girls ran into the DJ which invited them to the party and even though she was saying that she only spoke to him because he could do her favours once she was next to him it looked like a different story. She was laughing at all his corny jokes, grabbing his arm and being very flirtatious. She pretended to like him to gain from him. Just like Brandon and everyone else that had access to Drake's house that decided to throw a party at Drake's house and profit from his likeness while he was away without his knowledge. We see it with the rapper that pretends to be a pizza delivery man. He was trying to fake his way into a relationship with Drake so he can put him on. Even the girl that had fake tickets to the party because she was a deranged fan was lying because she was in love with the idea of this man she’s never met before and she was willing to fight off security to get near him. We even see it in Van herself which just wanted a picture from him to get her instagram popping.Everyone wants something from a successful person and it’s hard to distinguish who is there because they know you and still want to be around you with no strings attached.

Throughout the episode we see a lot of posturing and ultimately an unspoken understanding that perception is all that matters. Something is exactly how it looks and people will agree that’s what it is even if there is proof against it. Charlemagne tha God always says “nobody cares about the truth if the lie is more entertaining” and that statement rings true throughout the episode. None of the women taking pictures with the Drake cutouts care that he’s not really there as long as people believe they met Drake. The girl that argues with Devyonne Johnson's white girlfriend about being with a black man doesn’t care about the white woman's response. At first glance it would seem like the black man was dating the white woman for superficial reasons but she goes on to explain how she was there for him from the start, cooked and cleaned for him as he went to art school and stuck by his side through his toughest times. Yet the black girl is still upset about all the social ramifications that have happened historically because of what is perceived to be the situation here as opposed to looking at this as the isolated incident it is. Her perception was her reality despite the new information she received. And that’s kind of like our twitter world right now. No matter what the situation is in actuality, you are tried and judged by the court of public opinion and the perception you give off. You are labeled based on what you seemingly represent, not what you are.

The next layer was about the facade that is reality. The exhausting drug induced decoding of reality has left the best of us with the answer that nothing is really real. Reality once broken down is made up of electrons and protons which are constantly vibrating, giving the impression of physical reality. That ultimately means that we are all vibrational waves perceiving this as a physical experience. And looking at the hyper realistic nature of the graphics in the newest video games, it's easy to see that they will soon be indistinguishable from reality which leads you to the question of: How would you know that this isn’t a simulation? And since there’s no way to disprove it, it gives Bostrom's simulation argument some credence.

This entire episode felt like a bunch of revelations made on a couple of bad edible trips. When the paranoia hits and you start deciphering and decoding what our culture and world and ultimately reality are. Just like most religions have been saying for thousands of years, reality is a well orchestrated illusion. A lot of our lives include lots of posturing and curated image branding. The writers eventually come to the conclusion that you’re right. It Is all fake, there is no Drake, don’t ruin your high and just enjoy yourself. Van and the audience learn more about ourselves at the end of this episode. This episode shows what makes Atlanta so great. It was relatable from beginning to end while also breaking down some truths about the world around us and subverting it. I can’t fucking wait till the third season comes out. Donald Glover is a modern renaissance man and a true creative genius that needs to be protected.

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