Hotlanta, Hip-Hop, and Hegemony: A Postmodern Analysis of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta”

Brian Tyree Henry, LaKeith Stanfield, and Donald Glover in a promotional still for the program (left to right)

Success, as a general principle, is written into the bedrock of American ideals — the notion of what defines it, being irrefutably informed by our fidelity to consumerism. Subscribing to the “American Dream” as a form of social currency has been our unwavering source of patriotism in the modern age, and has shaped the way we view success. Popular culture perpetuates an image that is reinforced by late-capitalism: money and fame are among the highest forms of social currency. We inflate celebrities and the wealthy as larger than life figures, ostensibly attaining a “holier than thou” status as a result of the luxurious lives they are afforded. The hip-hop community in particular has been a leading proponent of this image, as has the emerging cultural mecca that is “Black Hollywood”: Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta, in many ways, has become a caricature of clout — a place where burgeoning rappers climb the ladders of success, adding a new Cuban link with each rung. Very often we see the laurels of this success, in fact, their brandishing defines our culture. However, it is rare to see fame as an institution, one in which choice and creative freedom and ownership are often stripped. Fame is not often seen as a condition that individuals largely have little control over. The reasoning is quite simple: if this dystopian view were to be accepted, or even acknowledged, the social currency we place on money and fame would plummet. Thus, calling to question the institution of consumer driven capitalism that defines our nation.

Fx’s Atlanta, created by the modern renaissance man Donald Glover, explores in depth the institutions of success and fame, drawing parallels to the oppressive institutions these artists often hail from, which are, ironically, the same institutions exploited by these cultural arbiters. The premise of the show revolves around the misadventures of an Atlanta native, and aptly named, Earn Marks as he navigates the music scene as an inexperienced manager for his cousin Alfred aka “Paper Boi’’. The show takes the glamorized, “rise to the top’’, trope and puts it under the scrutiny of reality. What ensues is a raw look at the inherent exploitation of marketing one’s talents and attempting to monetize them. With signature wit, the show lashes out at popular conventions not only unique to fame seekers, but also those navigating the black experience. Thus, this awareness of the structures and principles that guide our assumptions, as well as the comedic lens that is placed on these assumptions to challenge them, leads a compelling route towards a Postmodern analysis.

However, a great irony is presented with this method of analysis. In evaluating the rap culture, the assumption is that this culture is engaged in a counter discourse and in rejection of crippling institutions. It adds even more difficulty, and subtlety, to add that this assumption is in large part true, while also wholly incorrect. This is because the rap industry has become an indomitable vehicle of late capitalism — a gilded child in an age where our economic climate has risen to the heights of inequality. A genre that inherently rejects hegemony is now its biggest proponent.

Through this essay I seek to explore this irony through the lens of a show that resides within it. Atlanta finds it humor within this irony, its warmth and complexity of character all driven from the great paradox of their existence. We see, through their own realizations, that the success in which they seek is not an escape from unequal institutions, but rather a reinvestment into them. What are the Postmodern implications of a hip hop culture — largely considered Postmodern in and of itself — that is the epitome of the modern conventions this method of analysis seeks to detract from? And further, how does living this great paradox change the nature of one’s relationships with themselves and others? These questions will contribute to the lens by which I both gather my research, and evaluate the series.

Despite being in its infancy, with a third season expected summer 2021, Atlanta has generated high praise and wide recognition. The present sample size makes it evident that scholarship regarding the show is largely concerned with the stereotype defying and often surrealistic nature of the show. Culture writer Evan Higgins explores these themes in his aptly named article “Atlanta’s surrealism is what it feels like to be black”, drawing from a quote by show runner Donald Glover in which he stated his intentions for the show. Much has been said about the show’s unique and multi-faceted take on the black experience. Whether it’s through its inclination towards portraying bizarre experiences at length, or its tongue and cheek exploration of racial nuances and colorism, the show basks in the everyday vignettes of black culture. Most predominantly, research explores how the series explores the microcosm of culture that is Atlanta, notably the signature tropes that are broken. Maurice J Hobson of Georgia State University, for instance, evaluates how Atlanta dispels misguided neoliberal representatives of Atlanta as a “Black Mecca” and “Hotlanta”. These perceptions of Atlanta as a place of black excellence and public mobility, certainly makes for a good success story, as well as pairs nicely with the hegemony of race. However, for most Atlantans these snappy nicknames mean little for the black masses who still are subject to institutions that disproportionately affect them. Hobson ultimately posits that the series greatest achievement is its ability to show the culture of the city, without all the frills. The frills, my research makes clear, are the vestiges of the modern culture in which postmodernism makes its departure. The rose colored lens that paints a picture of a post racial world, where success can come to any clever kid with a business plan or a rhyme scheme. The notion of Atlanta as “Black Hollywood” perpetuates this idea, disregarding the truth about the institutions being as unequal as they have ever been. This smoke and mirrors trick is not just unique to the characteristization of Atlanta , but also to another critical part of the series: hip hop. College of William and Mary’s Kevin Kosanovich gives insight on the contradictory nature of hip hop as a vessel for the very institutions it seeks to dismantle. Rap operates within “late capitalism structures and systems which have in turn constructed and maintained the post modern city” (Kosanovich, 3). The inherent irony of rap existing under these structures is not unique to this genre, however, and this border between hegemony and postmodernism is a central theme in many works of research. In the most cynical view, capitalism has “stolen the culture, sterilized its content, and reformatted its image to reflect the dominant ideology” (Ide, 2013). However, a more optimistic side of the same coin would suggest that capitalism has allowed the culture the strength to be a worldwide phenomenon, and allowed for rap “superstars”. Whatever view is taken, the simple fact remains that the greatest share of profit is not distributed amongst the artists who create the work, but the top executives who exploit them. One fundamental question exists: must these artists concede ownership in the pursuit of fame and glory.

Brian Tyree Henry as Paper Boi

Few works explore the meaning of symbols quite like Henry Louis Gates Jr’s book The Signifying Monkey. As one of the leading books within black consciousness, the explanation of the term signifyin’ is well documented, the notion of a myriad of meanings being wrapped up in a signified work or phrase. Often the meaning is informed by the struggles of the black experience. However, less famously, in this novel he explores the nature of the institutional barriers of academia. Gates ponders the implications of academic discourse being so full of jargon and convoluted vocabulary, in which the higher one ventures up the academic caste system, the wholly more inaccessible they become. Their works lost within a sea of scholarly research merely residing in long encyclopedias or obscure databases. The question thus arises whether academia is structurally meant to exclude, while, on the other hand, inherently a means of teaching the tools of upward mobility. The same contradiction existing in rap music, and becoming apparent in academia, reveals a trend that I can research within different disciplines.

Postmodernism is well documented through the lens of television, and scholarship regarding the genre has many commonalities. Firstly, the existence of parody and intertextuality is a common theme of these works. The notion that works of postmodernism has an innate understanding of the works of the past. This awareness of pop cultures is distinct to postmodernism, and representative of our refined cultural palette. Postmodernists are liable to signify, encoding messages in a form of doublespeak. As a result, an audience has been cultivated to be attune to these mixed messages, often expecting artifacts to have ulterior motives or straddle some sort of duality. This inclination only widens the dichotomy of an “us” vs “them” mode of thinking. Gloria Anzaldúa explores this mode of thinking in her novel “Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza”, exploring the, often contradictory, duality that lives within many people. Within her own ethnic identity is stories of both the conqueror and the conquered, with her mixed American and Mexican nationality adding even more duality. Her message is clear: we have used the dichotomies inherent in the various labels and social constructs we create, to differentiate between the “self” and the “other”. Black vs white, Mexican vs American, Liberal vs conservative. However, the fact remains that we all live within the borders of these labels. Thus, if we are able to find the various dichotomies within ourselves, we can break down the barriers of the self and the other, and see ourselves in others. Though there is no inherent progress in awareness, discovering the various contradictory dichotomies in our actions or motives allows us to find a new consciousness. Call it surrealism, or “magic realism”, or just plain confusing — “Atlanta” explores this theme predominantly. Beyond this surrealism, the show additionally explores the very real construct of labels, and social structures.

Throughout the series, the subtleties of racism are very apparent, and well reported in the works surrounding the show. Particularly evident, is the social role a rapper plays in the industry. One article in particular evaluates an episode in which a black Justin Bieber is the star. As one journalist chastises Paper Boi, she suggests that he ought to play his role as the villain. Journalist Dee Locket interprets the slight as Atlanta “masterfully winking at the unsubtle narratives at play in the music industry”, an explanation quite apt to describe the persona already carved out for Paper Boi (Locket, 2016). These roles are distinctly informed by the stereotypes and prejudices perpetuated by our society. It is yet another way by which the show reveals the disillusionment of heeding the structures of success. One noteworthy aspect of this episode is the creative decision to make Justin Bieber black. In the paradoxical representation, we are able to ponder whether Bieber’s rebelliousness would be as graciously forgiven if he were black. It is quite obvious for Paper Boi that he does not have that same room for error. This is that subtle surrealism at play, as we see a black man portraying the quirks of the white canadian pop star, leaving us to question our sensibilities. It is the same surrealism experienced in the satirical talk show episode, in which a variety of commercials are recreated for comic purposes. The most jarring is the recreation of the famous “Trix are for kids” ad, in which the titular rabbit is beaten to death for eating Trix by a heavy handed police man. Higgins interprets the dystopian surrealism as a representation of how racism is integrated into every part of the black experience “even something as banal as a children’s cereal commercial — able to appear at any moment” (Higgins, 2018). These moments are all mixed in with a healthy dose of humor, seemingly paradoxical, but exceedingly true. Often, the way to escape these harsh realities is through humor, a fact the show does not shy away from.

In addition to the postmodern functions evident, the show also acts as a compelling case study on the nature of relationships in the black community. Research on the subject says much about the value of close relationships in the black community, namely that black youth, over other racial minorities, are more likely to share close feelings with their peers (Jones, Costin, and Ricard,, 1994). Further, within these close knit relationships, African Americans are more likely to develop “bravado”, as hyper-masculine front, often in response to crippling social conditions (Cunningham & Meunier, 2004). The dynamics are different depending on socioeconomic status. One study found that relationships amongst black young adults rely more heavily on loyalty, and trust then as in other races. As a result, violence among “friends” is more common within this community when this loyalty is betrayed. In higher socioeconomic circles, this pivotal reliance on trust is not as prevalent (Franklin, 1992). It is well documented that black people use relationships as a means to ground them, and provide a circle that is loyal throughout to oppressive institutions that permeate the experience. Thus yet another dichotomy is presented: the structural advantages of black relationships paired with the unintended consequences of bravado also associated with them.

In evaluating my artifact, firstly, I will attribute the messages the show conveys to the mind of the showrunner, Donald Glover. I will utilize a Postmodern approach to analyze the implications of success in the hip-hop industry, and how success under these confines affects interpersonal relationships amongst African American youth. Within the vast confines of this form of analysis, certain facets of it will be particularly useful for me. To begin, intertextuality is utilized throughout the series and will be a focal point by which I view the show. Hegemony is additionally an important term, as I will continually evaluate how the dominant groups and structures maintain their authority, despite the upward aspirations of those on the margins. How do the gatekeepers, particularly of hip hop, maintain their dominance over a culture that stems from the voices of the marginalized masses? Another concern of postmodern analysis is the impact of consumerism under our capitalist system. This form of commodification is so central to the social structures and cultures we create that any form of evaluation absolutely requires that those structures be appraised. The difficult nature of our late capitalism is the explosion of social media, automation, and even virtual reality. The landscape is ever so changing: trends rising and falling, new social media platforms, and streaming changing the access we have to artifacts. Thus, relevance and context become massively important. Even the most thorough research can fail to understand nuances of a culture that has experienced two years of future progress. Along the same vein, an artifact of postmodern criticism can be outdated within just a few short years. Though a seasoned cultural connoisseur could surely pick out the antiquities of Atlanta in the two years since it has aired, the show remains relevant to the age, and to the current struggles and consciousness of this generation of African Americans. Therefore, a critical method of my analysis will lie in not only my substantiation of the claims made by previous researchers, but also be concerned with subjecting them to the scrutiny of our advanced, late-stage Capitalism. Contemporaneous with this progress of technology is also a progress of thought. Woke culture is now the newest postmodern push back of institutions, though already wokeness has been exploited by the engine of commerce.

My analysis will consist of the two seasons of Atlanta that have aired, using every episode as a reference. Specifically, I will evaluate the changes in the nature of the relationships as the show progresses, and as Paper Boi’s career flourishes. A key relationship is the familial “clique” of Earn, Alfred (Paper Boi), and Darius. Particularly, how their relationship is influenced by the inevitable commercial aspect of their bond. Earn is Alfred’s cousin, but he is also Paper Boi’s manager. Darius is Alfred’s closest friend, but he is also Paper Boi’s sidekick and hype man. As such, I will differentiate between Alfred and his commodified rap persona. Alfred is the antisocial man of simple tastes and an unassuming southern twang. However, the only characters who know Alfred are his closest friends and family. Paper Boi is the bag-chasing persona that Alfred ultimately has little to do with creating. This persona no longer belongs to him, it is public domain. But with every outside interaction he becomes Paper Boi, whether he agrees with the representation of the persona or not. Therefore, the consequential people in Alfred’s life are then left to also have a relationship with Paper Boi. In addition to the Paper Boi clique, a key relationship is portrayed through the tumultuous relationship of the young parents Earn and Vanessa. As the show is framed, the success of this relationship is ultimately linked with the financial success of Paper Boi. Helpless in this equation is their young daughter, who’s livelihood is dependent on these outside forces. Earn desperately seeks purpose and has attached his hitch to this rocket ship of commerce, for better or for worse. As he gets closer to the ostensible sense of purpose how is his relationship as a father and as a partner affected?

Donald Glover as Earn Marks, with his daughter Lottie

With all the interpersonal relationship dynamics at play, we can also evaluate the consequences of Paper Boi’s rise to fame through the relationships with the myriad of “fans” he encounters. Each encounter shows how varied his perception is, and how once you enter the public spotlight, you no longer own your public likeness. We see Alfred grow more and more cynical through these encounters with his “fans”. A critical component of this assessment will involve the implications of these fleeting encounters that are now the norm of both Alfred, and the clique. All of these will be considerations while forming my evaluation. Research is plentiful regarding the hegemony of hip hop culture, as well as studies on the interpersonal relations between black youth. However, I would like to draw the link between these two studies. How does this commodification of culture, and being, affect the most important relationships in African American structures? My research will seek to bring more clarity to this inquiry.

To begin, I will evaluate the roles each character plays within the context of the narrative. In artifacts, as well as in our everyday relationships, people play their distinct roles. From an analytical standpoint, having an awareness of these roles helps put the character, with all their distinctions and uniqueness, into an easier to digest context. The show is largely through the point of view of Earn Marks. Immediately, he is characterized by his apathetic disposition, but also an inclination to be a fast talking hustler who wiggles his way into the burgeoning success of Paper Boi. Earn is a character written with much candor, he’s finding his footing in life and isn’t someone you could call selfless. His intentions are self serving. However, his genuine nature allows one to see that it is not of malice, but rather, out of self preservation, and the preservation of his daughter. Despite his self-interests, he manages to show dedication towards his cousin, and his career. As an audience, we never question Earn’s loyalty to family, despite his faulty decision making and less than subtle aspirations. Alfred aka “Paper Boi” is the main vessel by which we will analyze the implications of capitalism on hip hop culture. He is fighting tooth and nail to join the ranks of hot Atlanta emcee’s and chase the ultimate rap bag. However, from the beginning we see a quiet reticence with Alfred. He is not chasing hip hop stardom to fulfill some long held childhood dream, or even out of a reverence for the art form. Like Earn, we see that same push for self-preservation. In many points of the show, Alfred makes it very clear he is rapping because, as a black man in his environment, his options are limited. However, he is not above clout chasing. At many points he also is seen flexing his celebrity, often with his intentions on some flock of beautiful ladies at the club or a pretty young journalist. Despite this, he is largely uncomfortable with any implications of the industry aside from money and women, with some considerations for fame, though he abhors most of his interactions with his fans. He additionally has a reverence for family and his closest friends, giving Earn an opportunity most would be unwilling to concede to a desperate family member. He has few friends aside from Darius and the recently released from jail, Tracy. Darius is one of the most genuine characters on the show, and a foil to the exploitative structures Alfred navigates as Paper Boi. When most characters, including Earn, use Paper Boi and exploit him for capital gain, Darius has no ulterior motives aside from genuine friendship and counsel. His character acts as an unassuming sage, through a dimwitted and perpetually stoned exterior. He often spits nuggets of truth, through the veil of wayward thoughts. His character is completely selfless and often goes out of his way to accommodate Alfred, and even Earn. The final character I will assess is Earn’s on again off again girlfriend, Vanessa. Vanessa’s character is a welcome departure from the one dimensional representations of the love interest. Her character sheds some light into the weight black women bear as mothers, without the same leeway for mistakes afforded to their male counterparts. Vanessa is a caring mother and much more responsible than Earn. She has an apartment, in which Earn often crashes amidst scattered rent payments, and has a full time job to support their daughter. In one episode, during a night of well earned release, she smokes weed unknowingly before a drug test and then proceeds to lose her job — despite being told by her employer that weed ought to be a slap on the wrist offense. This is a representation of the unrelenting environment of a black woman, expected to perform at the highest level, without making any mistakes, and maintaining a happy demeanor. Through Vanessa, we see the burden of this role black women are forced into. However, she is a contemporary woman with contemporary struggles and ultimately the support system that keeps Earn afloat. Though their relationship is rocky, they have an understanding of one another. Thus, despite how his actions may be perceived, Earn ambitions of upward mobility are inspired by Vanessa, and their daughter. Furthermore, through Earn and Vanessa’s relationship, we can see the implications of the hegemony of success on a struggling relationship of young co-parents.

The narrative of the show is largely chronological, beginning with Paper Boi coming off his recent hit that ostensibly puts him into the limelight. Though his apathy is consistent throughout the series, he is still riding a high of his newest single and his local success. As a result he is hesitant to allow Earn to manage him, a sign of him taking his career trajectory seriously. The first episode immediately sets up the high stakes world of hip hop culture, as the clique is involved in a non fatal shooting outside a club. The shooting is a result of Paper Boi making verbal advances towards a woman who turns out to have a boyfriend. In addition to the assertions made about the institutions of the limelight, Glover makes a very clear assessment about the danger of the communities that bear these stars. This danger is only heightened by local success, placing a dangerous target on one’s back. Glover is clear to suggest that though the exploits of an industry are very real struggles, there still exists the immediate danger of the streets around them. This rapper’s biggest concern isn’t mere hegemony, but rather, hemorrhaging.

Immediately, the value of the clique is shown to be of crucial importance, successfully de-escalating a situation that very likely could have been fatal. This loyalty is thus shown to be exceedingly consequential for the safety of this rising star. Earn may not have the fast talking characteristics of a manger, but he serves a much more critical role: having Alfred’s back. As a result of the shooting, Earn and Paper Boi are taken into custody for a night, sparking the whirlwind of industry narratives and assumptions that follow Paper Boi throughout the show. This event contributes to how he is viewed and marketed from this point in his career, fan interactions often mentioning the incident as well as media members not shying away from referencing his new rap sheet. Though not the overt intentions of the series, the jail scenes are poignant in illustrating the problems of the criminal justice system, and it’s inherent biases. We see a brief glimpse at the institutions and exploits of the vast majority of African American’s experience, without the glamour of fame. Glover is effective in using this scene to put in perspective the other problems he exposes throughout the show. Despite how fleeting this scene is, it provides a critical purpose.

Of all the media attention garnered by the story, one of the most illuminating comes at the hands of a racially ambiguous young blogger, who puts up a facade of friendship while vehemently slandering Paper Boi on social media. When Paper Boi finally confronts him regarding this libel, the blogger happily explains to him that he ought to be thankful for all the coverage. He insists this is a mutually beneficial relationship, despite it being wholly toxic. A powerful realization comes when Paper Boi, and thus the audience, grasps the fact that the blogger is right. There are no “friends” in the industry, and success will come to those who can exploit every last ounce of it. To further this assertion, we are introduced to the little black boy the blogger often uses in his videos — exploiting his age and obvious lack of role models by having him chant expletives for views. This is a larger metaphor for the industry, acting as a role model of friend, while merely using people for attention.

Yet another example of the rift between friendship and a cutthroat industry happens with an interaction with Vanessa and a childhood best friend Jayde. Throughout the course of an extravagant dinner, a divide becomes increasingly apparent between the two lives these women now live. Jayde is now a social media influencer and perpetual basketball girlfriend, the type who would jump to be in a series like Real Housewives. As Jayde discusses her recent exploits with NBA players, her extravagant travels, and tangential relationship to fame, Vanessa becomes visibly disinterested. Jayde further implies that Vanessa is not successful, due to her “baby mama” status and her complicated relationship with Earn. It is clear that Jayde is a product of this gilded capitalism, and the values she now holds dear are success, upward mobility, and being known. Vanessa, uncorrupted by the industry, has more fundamental values: being a good mother, providing for those who she is responsible for, and guiding Earn towards redemption. As a result of these differing priorities, the conversation soon turns contentious and Vanessa nearly storms out. However, their genuine friendship prevails in the end as they bond over old memories and a joint (coincidentally, the same joint that gets her fired from her job). We see a brief transition in Jayde, for a moment, realizing that this true friendship is much more potent than any superficial relationship that she can have. These are the moments that define life, the moments with people who have no other intentions but your genuine happiness.

In one of the most well crafted episodes, Paper Boi is featured on a “Black Access Network” special in which he discusses his career, as well as issues in the lgbtq community — all throughout, commercials depicting products significant to black culture are featured. This episode illustrates effectively the intentions of the industry, and how Paper Boi is no more than a pawn for an institution that seeks to profit off of him by any means necessary. An activist on trans issues speaks to Paper Boi regarding his lyrics, seeking to find homophobia in any lyrics she can. The intentions of the interview are clear: they seek to crucify Paper Boi, attempting to catch a single sound bite that can incriminate him and awaken the masses of cancel culture. If this were to happen, the ratings would undeniably go up and a buzz would surround both Paper Boi and the “Black Access Network”. However, their efforts are thwarted as Paper Boi gives thoughtful responses, despite him being clearly in over his head. The relationship between a celebrity and the industry gatekeepers is very clear, it is one of exploitation and disregard for the humanity of the creators. This exploitation is exceedingly clear within the commercials featuring staples of the black community: swisher sweets, cartoon and cereal, Arizona, and Mickey’s malt liquor. These advertisements are anything but subtle, quite obviously using black culture to make a sale. The entire experience is a dystopian look at the industry, one that is ruthlessly self interested. We see this intertextuality of the black experience, being used to make a quick buck. Following the interview, Paper Boi is affirmed of this cruel fact through an experience at the club. When given a VIP booth for his stature in the community, Paper Boi anticipates a successful night of women clamoring over him and his booth filled to the brim with new friends. However, reality strikes when the women merely use him for his drinks and disappear. When the dust settles, the only people left are Earn and Darius.

While the manipulations of the industry are evident throughout, the genuine nature of relationships are highlighted, as a foil. In an episode regarding “Juneteenth”, the day the slaves were officially freed, Vanessa and Earn find themselves in the house of the rich employers of Vanessa. In this plantation style home, the white patriarch is the ultimate connoisseur of black culture. The reason for this cringe-worthy visit was the pursuit of success for their young daughter. The visit was an attempt to get her into a prestigious private school, however, as the facade becomes too much for Earn and Vanessa to bear, they storm out and thus alienate themselves. Instead of being dismayed at this, on the way home they make love on the side of the road, in a sweet display of love and togetherness. They were unwilling to compromise their values to appease the ostensible gatekeepers of success. In this moment of strong character, they show the power of their loyalty and relationship. In doing so, they reject the grasps of late capitalism.

As we see our main characters struggle with accepting this new world they are quickly being thrusted into, Glover introduces us to a character who is the ultimate embodiment of what happens within a life of fame. The character is Teddy Perkins, and the episode leads up to his tragic fate. After Darius inquires about a piano, he is led to the house of the mysterious and unsettling Teddy Perkins, played by Donald Glover in white-face. Teddy Perkins is a child of the industry, explaining to Darius all of his accolades and famous friends he encounters as a popular musician and pianist. He had a successful career, however, was forced into solitude as a result of a skin condition, along with his brother Benny. Teddy now lives in darkness in his mansion, taking care of his brother. Through Darius we see this portrait of a tortured man, once a part of the industry and now a forgotten outcast. He explains to Darius that he is turning his house into a museum dedicated to his life and career. One section of the museum is particularly noteworthy, a section on father’s of the industry. He is memorializing fathers like Joe Jackson, Marvin Gaye Sr., and his own father. These are examples of fathers who groomed their sons into stars, to the great downfall of all of them. These fathers were not the caring, typical figures but rather ruthless industry fathers: managers first then father’s second. Through Teddy, we see the result of someone who lives their entire life in the industry, and the fatal consequences when this industry inevitably turns its back on them. A relationship with the industry is not one of love or care, but one of use and abuse. Tragically, the episode ends as Teddy and Benny reach their fatal end just as Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye did. This particular instance ends in a brutal murder suicide, as Benny shoots Teddy and them himself.

Donald Glover as Teddy Perkins

Throughout the course of the two seasons, Donald Glover makes clear assertions. Firstly, the hegemony of success is ever present in the hip hop community. Success is not an escape from the harsh institutions of poverty and racism, but rather an extension of them. The effects of consumerism within late capitalism are clear: they require a transformation into vanity and self servicing behavior. Earn is not successful as a manager in the institution because he genuinely cares for Alfred, and does not merely see him as a walking dollar sign. In addition, we see this industry being the antithesis to heartfelt relationships time and time again: from the interactions with bloggers, the strained relationship between Vanessa and Jayde, and the industry fatherhood that results in tragedy. The industry is a poison to interpersonal relationships, relationships which are foundational to navigating the black experience.

All the narratives explored by Donald Glover point to these exploitative implications of an industry that too often uses people in marginalized groups. Throughout the show we are exposed to the myriad of ways the industry Paper Boi navigates does not care for him. We see this as it is juxtaposed to the very real relationships that exist in the show. This candor is what sustains people through an unpredictable and unrelenting life. However, this is not to say the industry of fame is the only institution that uses people, everyday people face exploitation and have their backs turned on them in perpetuity. Glover’s strongest assertion is that these institutions exist everywhere, and the antidote to them is the existence of strong and candid interpersonal relationships. We cannot expect to immediately assuage these systemic injustices, however, we can ground ourselves in reality through our closest relationships. Glover makes this assertion very clear through the first two seasons, however, I confess, further research should evaluate the show in its entirety to see if those assertions hold up.

Atlanta could have been a show about the pains of inner city racism. It could have been a show about the comic exploits of learning to industry of music. It could have even been about the glory of an African American man rising to the heights of fame. But Atlanta is much more than that. The show explores the vast confines of the black experience: the good, the bad, and the ghetto. It explores the relationships that are most important within these communities, within the microcosm of the exploits of the hip hop industry. Donald Glover, himself a product of this industry, gives us a raw look at the hegemony of fame. Much to the benefit of capitalism, success and fame have been glamorized to no end. We glorify the lives of these individuals and treat them as larger than life figures. However, Glover is keenly aware how fundamentally flawed the notion is. Those who live the dizzying experience of being in the industry of fame are trapped within a system, no different than the feeling of entrapment of everyday institutions. Through hip hop culture, the black experience has been commodified and sold to the highest bidder. The pain and destitution of these inner city communities, the anguish that is bled into the art of music, and the survival mechanisms that determine their attitudes are all packaged up into a consumable product. It is the product that the industry covets, not the marginalized communities that speak it into existence. However, through hardship comes resilience. Glover beautifully conveys the power of interpersonal relationships amongst the black community. Whether it is within the exploitative confines of hegemonic success, or social inequities — one thing, above all else, allows us to keep our head above water: the infallible support of our friends and family.


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Movie lover, marketer, and social media-er! I have a B.A in Communication Studies from Sacramento State University and I love analyzing culture!

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