Anybody may be white. So proclaims a drawling, drunk white man to his Black fishing buddy within the opening scene of Atlanta’s long-awaited third season. They sit in a small skiff floating on a lake at night time. The vibes are eerie. The pair, dressed nearly identically, are unfamiliar to viewers and are left unnamed. The present’s central forged, led by the cash-strapped and fumbling Earn (performed by creator Donald Glover), is nowhere in sight. The plot, on this scene and for a lot of the premiere, doesn’t join again to the place Season 2 left off 4 years in the past. But the person’s phrases make one thing plain that Glover has been threading by Atlanta since its first episodes: Race is a efficiency, one as horrifying as it’s hilarious. “With sufficient blood and cash,” the nameless man says, “anybody may be white. It’s at all times been that manner.”
Atlanta, a comedy-drama that’s each surreal and sharp-toothed, likes to play with the thought of race as a sort of masks. Within the first two seasons, Glover was primarily fascinated by how Black folks invent themselves. In Season 1, because the present shook off its sitcom exterior and revealed its weirder, impressionistic essence, it launched a smirking Black boy who trolls his faculty in whiteface, and a Black teen with a penchant for Patagonia who decrees himself a 35-year-old “transracial” white man. Atlanta embraced its satirical dreaminess in Season 2. The episode “Teddy Perkins” includes a Michael Jackson–adjoining recluse who invitations, at turns, terror, ridicule, and pity from his visitor, the perpetually bemused Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). These interludes weren’t simply whimsical gestures. Every posed a query: If race is a efficiency, what occurs when a Black individual rejects his assigned function?
Within the second episode of Season 3, white people are performing silly. “Sinterklaas Is Coming to City” brings us again to our core forged, who’re gallivanting in Amsterdam. Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), additionally identified by his rapper identify, Paper Boi, has booked a brand new tour, a yr after the one he was getting ready for in Season 2’s finale. (Now he’s the headliner, not the supporting act.) Right here, blackface is given the lurid remedy that the present beforehand reserved for whiteface—town, and the live performance venue, are full of Dutch folks painted black in celebration of the racist, tiresome vacation custom of “Zwarte Piet.” Previously, in lieu of easy minstrelsy, the principle characters confronted extra insidious caricatures of themselves. Alfred, specifically, has struggled with the stereotypes projected onto his Paper Boi persona, as reporters and shitposters alike tried to scale back him to a “thug” rapper. He needs to money in on his expertise however fears turning into a minstrel for the leisure trade within the course of. That non-public concern turns into a public taunt in Amsterdam, when the rapper is greeted by a horde of individuals in blackface. When it’s showtime, Alfred refuses to take the stage.
However that call isn’t the episode’s climax and is depicted with out melodrama or extended deliberation. As a substitute, the highlight in “Sinterklaas” is aimed on the crowd that’s oblivious to the ugliness of its personal efficiency. At one level, a white character can’t even distinguish between black paint and actual Black pores and skin—in a case of mistaken identification, he assaults a white reveler for one thing that Earn did. Toni Morrison addressed an identical sort of myopia in a 1974 essay. She wrote of the “dumbfoundedness” she feels towards white individuals who insist on a simplistic picture of Blackness. “Certainly they knew that intelligence was judged by the power to inform the distinction between one factor and one other … That the finer the distinctions, the upper the mind,” she wrote. “The shortcoming, then, to inform one black individual from one other was tantamount to a public admission of mind harm.” Atlanta’s script appears to riff off Morrison’s analysis, suggesting that the absurdity is much more amplified when a white individual can’t inform the distinction between their very own fantasy and Black actuality.
Fittingly, within the season premiere, the drunk man on the boat observes that whiteness prevents an individual from seeing the world clearly, and the way in which racist techniques injure everybody concerned. “It’s simple to see the Black man as cursed since you’ve separated your self from him. However you don’t know, you’re enslaved identical to him,” he says. “You lose logic. You see the blood, and also you suppose another person is bleeding.” However Atlanta has at all times seen the place the blood comes from. And it has lengthy proved itself adept at lining wounds with laughter. In Season 3’s first act, the present faucets additional into whiteness, and suggests it may very well be probably the most ugly comedy but.