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Donald Glovers Atlanta: Dreams & Nightmares

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Atlanta ended a few weeks ago. This is my favourite show ever so this was a bittersweet moment for me. I’ve really been contemplating what the show was about. The finale left me more puzzled than ever. Atlanta is a show about dreams, and everything that word entails, from the American dream, to REM sleep, to simulation theory, to surrealism. It’s the only show I’ve seen that’s simultaneously about everything and nothing at all. It’s like Seinfeld, Louie, Chappelle's show, Greek Mythology, Dali & Disney all in one thing. It's horror, comedy, and so many other things. The show follows these characters in their extremely real yet dreamlike journey in trying to achieve their dreams through poverty.

There’s something deep, mysterious & ethereal about this show, and there always has been. Past the absurd surrealism of scenes like the invisible car, transracial Niles, Teddy Perkins egg and black Justin Bieber, the show has always had this uniquely mystical philosophical depth. The pilot had a man making a nutella sandwich on a bus telling Earn to bite a sandwich and that “Resistance is a symptom of the way things are. Not the way things necessarily should be. Actual victory belongs to people who simply do not accept failure. You’ve accepted your losses. That’s why you feel like you’ve failed.” In the pilot Darius thinks it's a De Ja vu, which makes the ending really seem like the whole series was Darius' dream.

This is the most culturally significant show of my generation. This will be looked back at like a Dream Team moment where some of the dopest artists linked up for a moment in the history of visual storytelling, and used it as a way to showcase a culture that has never been showcased in this way before. Each season was better than the last in terms of pure quality, regardless of which season you prefer, it’s undeniable that they stepped up their game and were more ambitious with each season.

From the writers, to the actors, the directors, & cinematographers, this show was next level from beginning to end, the quality of the show is objectively undeniable, while being relatable in a way I’ve yet to see another show be. No other show would play Kodak Blacks Skrrt as an intro, & have Nileseyy Niles, Jai Paul, Slawn & The Migos as actors. At the same time, the people who are making this product are masters at what they do & you can tell. The show is much smarter than you, the world is much bigger than you & it’s taking you through a journey.

In the end, Just like Biggie said, It was all a dream. Life, celebrity, entertainment, media, politics, society, and dreams, realities within realities, but if you break it all down to its very core, even down to reality itself, like Bostrom hypothesized in his simulation argument that Darius references, it’s all a simulation, Darius’ dream. Simulacra, concepts, ideas that we inhabit. It becomes difficult to tell the difference between dreams and reality, when reality itself is dreamlike.

Atlanta started off as a show about a couple of guys that wanted to make it in the music industry, and used that to tell one of the most all encompassing depictions of existence in the world.

The way talent, influence, race, crime, perception, interests, ambitions, & values converge in the world is surreal.

The show depicts the journey of this idea of winners & losers as achieved by social standing, fame, clout, money, stunting, flexing, houses, chains, cars, etc & how it intersects with our instinctual needs for survival, ultimately depicting what we are willing to do to survive & succeed.

The characters journey followed the ideas of culture, celebrity, influence, family, friendship, crime, industry, institutional racism, success, failure, society, wealth, poverty, fame, commerce, art, the human spirit, where they intersect and how they play out as seen through the journey of these 4 dynamic characters, Darius, Alfred, Van & Earn.

These are some of the most fleshed out characters I’ve seen on television since the writing on Bojack Horseman. Rewatching it lets you know how well the writers understood these characters. They knew them inside and out. There was an arch to the story, it was just buried beneath so many other things that you wouldn’t notice at times. Each episode was filled with dynamic, hilarious, profound and current commentary, while showing you a deeper layer about each of the characters & their story in their place in time.

As the show progressed it got more surreal, and much darker, but it was still following these characters in their journey. This show is about the quest for dreams, these concepts we want to attain, and what we are willing to do to get them, and the realities of what's going on in these characters' quest to secure their physiological needs, safety needs, love & belonging needs, esteem needs, and self actualizing needs, what it takes and how genuinely surreal it is to achieve the American Dream.

Donald Glover said he based his series on Kanye West albums and while rewatching it I could clearly see what he was talking about. Glover has always been an outspoken Kanye fan even referring to himself as “the son of Kanye'' It's clear that Kanye was a big influence on Glover and the creation of the show, but as I’ve gone back to rewatch the series after reading Glover refer to it as following Ye albums, it changed my entire perspective of what I was watching.

Season 1 is The College Dropout. Earn who is homeless in the beginning of the show represents the broke yet Intellectual, ambitious and motivated dropout willing to do anything to get on and prove people wrong, Paperboy is the materialistic drug dealing rapper like the Louis Vuitton Don signed to Rocafella records, and Darius is constantly wildly creative, he’s the inner child dreaming up the entire story, something like the dropout bear or the Soul.

Scenes like Earn trying to buy a kids meal but being rejected, or Earn going on a date and only having $100 are filled with the endearing and relatably self deprecating hood circumstances that made The College Dropout so lovable. But it’s also way bigger than that, and as the show progressed they really showed us how much bigger & deeper the world of Atlanta can get.

Season 4 might be my favourite season and that’s honestly saying something. Season 4 Episode 8 is one of my favourite things of anything that’s ever been made, it simultaneously ruined the Disney character Goofy for me & made him cooler. The show took unique risks by incorporating animation, which was wildly different from the tone of the rest of the season. Each episode this season had its own vibe and felt like it drew from a different source of inspiration. The pacing in season 4 was much slower, with long takes & incredible acting performances. Episodes like The Homelist Little Horse & Andrew Wyeth. Alfred's World. (despite having insane moments like Paperboy fighting a hog & Earn setting an old lady up to get roasted by badass inner city elementary school kids) were slower paced and reflective with closeups, long takes and pauses on landscapes, nature, rooms & standout performances from this elite group of actors. This season felt like an Ozu film or like the latest season of Master of None.

Every episode is simultaneously hilarious, absurd, surreal, and heavy. Each season focuses on a different point in the careers of the characters & their socioeconomic situations, season 1 is poverty, season 2 is looking at what it really takes to succeed, season 3 was looking at the horrors and oppression of success, and Season 4 has been about the preservation of the human spirit within the soul crushing realities of industrial reality. It was about reconnecting with nature, feeling secure, respected and safe, solving generational traumas of distrust, what it means to have a soul, to take a soul, to sell a soul & to nurture a soul.

Season 4 delved deeper into the characters' family dynamics, and the idea of values. Moments like Darius and Earn kissing for sneakers was showing how people's morals and values are tested & what they’re willing to bargain for in exchange for something they really want, and what some people want from you in exchange for something you think you need. How valuable are sneakers? How valuable is a hat? How valuable is revenge? How valuable is a human? How valuable is art?

Season 4 of Atlanta is supposed to be the 808's and Heartbreak season. Throughout Season 4 the characters are trying to feel comfortable & cozy in a world designed for their discomfort, with people literally trying to kill them like the Crank Dat Killer, a killer that was killing anyone who made a Soulja Boy Crank Dat video in 2007. This season of Atlanta is making owning land, getting a wife, children and going to therapy cool. The characters were solving some things they needed to solve from the first episode. Earn was going to therapy, he could finally open up about his Princeton past & tell Van he loved her, and he resolved the recurring dream he’s been having since he was eight years old about the arms pulling him down that they discussed in the pilot.

I believe the hands & the sandwiches like The Nutella sandwich from the man on the bus in the pilot, or the D’Angelo peanut butter & chicken skin & seasoning sandwich from the Born 2 Die episode this season all represent The Soul & that feeling of comfort, ease, rest & being that the characters are ultimately seeking in other things. It’s that non verbal communication Loquareous shared with the other foster kids in the first episode of season 3. Earn refuses the Nutella sandwich in the pilot, & he refuses it from the D’angelo experience, so the D'angelo Tells him “Since you were eight, you always had a dream where you were swimming, and below are hands grasping to reach you. You struggle to keep them from pulling you under. You fight to stay free. Why are you so certain the hands intend to harm you?”

The show deals with that feeling of distrust that poverty & racism create and the lingering effects of that in these people’s journey, and its effects on the broader society. They have had to be vicious to get to where they’re at. Earn is in therapy crying about Princeton but also about having to set Clark County up by placing a gun in his bag & various other traumatizing things we’ve seen him have to do to assert his manhood, & gain his place in the world. This industry is cut throat, people really die over this stuff & this show deals with the realities of chasing our dreams.

The finale of Atlanta focuses on this reality within reality, how can you not lose track of reality when everything is fictional? The Atlanta finale, and the entire series begs the question “What Is Real?” and I think the answer the writers have come to is The Soul.

The Hiro Murai-directed finale begins with an episode of Judge Judy playing while Darius is in a complete daze listening to Ye's 'Lift Yourself.' Earn and Al are heading out to a Black-owned sushi restaurant at Van’s request, but Darius has a sensory deprivation tank appointment. Earn tells Darius not to eat before coming to the restaurant because Van will be mad, and Darius tells him not to worry because he's like a teenager, he'll be hungry in an hour. At the restaurant, which Al says “used to be a Blockbuster,” the rapper spots a Popeyes and begins to have cravings for the Cajun-styled chicken.

En route to his “dep date,” Darius stops at a pharmacy that's playing Chakha Khans through the fire, the sample for Ye's Through The Wire, in order to pick up a prescription for a friend and winds up having a conversation with a woman (Cree Summer) who’s also spent time submerged in floatation therapy. “You know I had to stop going because I got too deep into it? The visions in the tank can be so intense, I started to lose track of what was real,” the woman says.

Darius agrees but reveals his trick to “anchor” himself – by looking at a TV and seeing a “thicc Judge Judy” as a reminder that he’s in the tank. As he continues to make his way to the deprivation tank spa, he runs into an old friend named London (Naté Jones), who’s visibly intoxicated and has been “macrodosing all day.” Sharing a blunt with Darius and drinking vodka out of a water bottle, London gets pulled over to take a sobriety test. The test starts out normal but veers off, with the officer randomly asking London a question about Homeboys in Outer Space. London successfully passes but pulls a gun out the officer’s holster, and tries to speed off only to hit a bicyclist. She then blames Darius, who wakes up from the tank.

His consciousness goes into overdrive when people at the spa keep talking about “tea in the tea room” and excessively laugh. He grabs another customer by the shoulders and urges her to “wake up” School Daze style. The move gets Darius kicked out, although he protests: “I thought it was a dream!” He then proceeds to take the prescription to his sick brother, Chi (Kevin Iso), who offers him jollof (although Darius doesn’t plan to stay for long).

“I don’t want you in here, I want you out there,” his brother says before fixing him a bowl of jollof. It all seems real as Darius asks about their mom and dad, but then his brother (presumably deceased) suddenly disappears, and Darius sees a curvier-than-usual Judge Judy. When Darius wakes up to a spa employee saying his been in the tank for “30 minutes,” he’s triggered to wake up over and over again, marking an endless loop.

Back at the restaurant, Al is given the celebrity treatment complete with hot white Hennessy and the chef making sushi with his bare hands. Fed up with the dining experience after going to the restroom at a nearby Rainbow’s, he’s ready to go and get Popeyes. The server then proceeds to offer the trio poisonous blowfish cheek as they try to leave, leading the restaurant’s militant Black owner, Demarcus (Calvin Dutton) to stop them and give a monologue about distrust in the Black community. Just as the owner tells the staff to lock the doors to force Al to eat the blowfish, Darius runs in, punches the owner, and drives his friends off in a pink Maserati. Marvin Gaye’s “Dream of a Lifetime” plays while the crew takes a scenic ride home and finally get their Popeyes (which Darius has surprised them with).

Back at Al’s place, Darius shares that he stole the Maserati from a valet, but he’s not worried about getting arrested because he’s “still in the tank.” Earn says otherwise but Darius still isn’t convinced, responding with: “Maybe it’s just my dream. We’re just in it, always have been.” Rather than argue with Darius they instead retreat outside to smoke while Darius remains inside. On the TV is Judge Judy, who ascends from her seat. However, we don’t see if she’s “thicc” or not. Darius just watches her and smiles before the show ends, Sopranos-style.

I’ve rewatched that scene with the Pink Masterati & the Popeyes over 100 times since the episode aired and I imagine I’ll be watching it a million more times in my life. It makes me so happy & I don’t know why, I don’t know if the show means it cynically, it definitely felt ironic because the Chef was right in literally everything he said. That was one of the best ways anything could have ever ended and I couldn’t imagine anything less from this show.

The chef talks about how hard it is to be the first black artisan trying to make something of high quality in a world that doesn't respect it, and doesn't give space for experimentation. The show Homeboys in Outer Space that was referenced by the police officer in the stop was a show about a couple of black bounty hunters in space, it was wildly creative but it only ran for one season because people deemed it absurd. Shows like Atlanta wouldn't have been able to exist a few decades ago if people weren't constantly breaking grounds and giving new things a try, but like the chef said most times we just want our good old popeyes & hot sauce ( an ode to Hillary Clinton saying she keeps hot sauce in her purse).

This episode told us more about Darius than we ever knew before & a little into why he is how he is after presumably losing all his family. The episode starts with Darius listening to the Lift Yourself sample (one of the many Kanye references in this episode) while staring at Alfred and Earn. Al & Earn are the closest thing Darius has to family, but they’re not really his family, they are really each other’s family though. This continues this seasons allusions to 808s & Heartbreaks and the Isolation one can go through in success when you don’t have family around, like Ye after the passing of his mom, or Darius after the passing of his brother & parents. Darius was in the car with an old friend of his and she was listening to a song, she said she loved it cause it had soul, she was a part of Darius dream which means that’s what he saw in that girl from his past. The music in the pharmacy was Chaka Khans through the wire, a soul sample Kanye sampled for his iconic Through The Wire song. When Darius is talking to Cree summers he tells her she has a beautiful spirit.

Moments like Darius getting pulled over felt more real than a bunch of women saying "Tea in the tea room" and giggling, and Darius yelling at them to wake up then getting kicked out of the spa. It just shows the differences in connection and culture. When you're used to a grim reality the mundane seems surreal. It also gave me allusions to Ye in the Kardashian clan surrounded by a bunch of white women and being so outside of his culture.

The last scene of the episode is Darius watching the screen and it fading away with him smiling, and I think that's the whole point. Are all the issues Atlanta addressed solved? No. But do I still want a Pink Maserati, Popeyes, Marvin Gaye music and to rebingwatch the entire series of Atlanta? Yes. And that's the whole point of Atlanta. This is one of the funniest, deepest, most beautiful and relatable shows ever made and I'm grateful to have been alive to witness it.

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