Why Atlanta’s Police-Shooting Scene Was More Effective Than Others on TV

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Donald Glover as Earnest Marks. Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/Copyright 2016, FX Networks. All rights reserved.

Back in September, when protests erupted in Charlotte, North Carolina, following the police-involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, I had a conversation with a friend about the unrest. He was confused when I mentioned Charlotte. "Why are they protesting all the way in Charlotte over a shooting that took place in Louisiana?" he asked, assuming the conversation was about the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge in July.

The frequency of police-involved shootings of unarmed black men is such that anyone can be forgiven for losing track of them. It's harder to forgive yourself for accepting these incidents as the unfortunate status quo, or to admit that you've been desensitized to implicitly racist police violence. From Scandal to Shades of Blue, scripted television has spent the past year trying to counteract the desensitization by kneading the Black Lives Matter movement into its storytelling, mostly unsuccessfully. No one could have predicted that the show to finally get it right would be a surrealist comedy. 

FX's rapturously received sitcom Atlanta is creator Donald Glover's quirky ode to his hometown, a warts-and-all exploration of hip-hop culture, and treasure trove of hilarious non sequiturs. Part of why its police-shooting sequence — in the season-one finale that aired tonight — is so well-executed is because it isn’t shoehorned into the story line, as it was on UnREAL earlier this summer, when it felt particularly manipulative. Gun violence has been baked into Atlanta since the pilot. In the season premiere, Earnest Marks (Glover), an aspiring hip-hop manager, gets pulled into a violent altercation involving his cousin and client Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), better known as up-and-coming Atlanta rapper Paper Boi. A shot is fired, but director Hiro Murai pulls away from the action, leaving the outcome unclear. All the audience knows is that Earn and Alfred are arrested and quickly released, and the shooting makes the news.

Guns and gun-related imagery are peppered throughout the ten-episode season. They're Alfred's insurance policy when he's handling illicit drug transactions alongside Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), his street-pharmacy partner. In another episode, Darius drops into a gun range for target practice, only to be forcefully ejected when his fellow shooters realize his paper target features the silhouette of a dog instead of a human. In another, gunfire erupts outside a nightclub, sparking a panic that results in several revelers getting mowed down by a speeding invisible sports car. (Long story.)

Despite the prevalence of guns in Atlanta, most of the violence and bloodshed occurs off-camera or at a distance. Shit didn't get real until Atlanta's finale, "The Jacket," in which Earn, Alfred, and Darius go searching for the titular garment Earn lost the night before and wind up witnessing the police-involved shooting of an unarmed man. The first act of "The Jacket" is a lighthearted romp, The Hangover as told through a Snapchat story instead of cell-phone stills. Earn follows a couple of fruitless leads before realizing he probably left the jacket in the car during an Uber ride. Earn, Alfred, and Darius manage to track the Uber driver to his home address, where they sit outside the house, hoping to see the driver come out. Alfred's gut tells him something isn't quite right, but before they can flee, they're seized upon by an Atlanta P.D. swat team, which assumes they have a more formal business relationship with the Uber driver, Fidel Arroyo (Tobias Jelinek.) When Fidel tries to make a run for it — wearing Earn's jacket, no less — the cops riddle his back with bullets. His inconsolable wife tries to rush to his side as their baby wails in the background.

Considering Atlanta's tendency to insert deeply surreal elements — the invisible car, for instance — it says a lot about the scene that it feels so startling, realistic, and sad. Because so many of Atlanta’s story elements can’t be taken at face value, I wondered why I found it so affecting, or why I spent the moments prior fearing Alfred might end up face-down and bleeding. (In addition to all the gun imagery, the season wove in the ominous motif of strange, shady characters popping up to inquire about Paper Boi's whereabouts.) Part of it is my tendency to avoid watching cell-phone footage of police-involved shootings. I made a conscious effort to avoid the Walter Scott shooting video last April, and I haven't seen any of those videos since. I'm glad those stories are being told, but seeing that kind of footage over and over isn't healthy for someone like me, a squirrely black man who could easily wind up looking down the barrel of a rogue cop's gun.

None of the stories told on Scandal, UnREAL, and Shades of Blue made me feel the way Atlanta's scene did. One major difference in Atlanta's execution is the way it's shot, in a vérité style without music or stylistic flourishes, and from the perspective of an onlooker, the type of person who might record one of those infamous cell-phone videos. Murai, who also directed the finale, cut his teeth on eye-popping music videos, but chose a more restrained approach. The script, written by Glover’s brother, Stephen, doesn’t use the shooting to give the main characters something to reflect on or grapple with.  The audience becomes eyewitness, and the only intrusion from the characters comes when Earn asks if the cops can retrieve an item he needs from inside the jacket.

Earn's unabated interest in the jacket, even as a man is freshly dead in front of him, is darkly funny, but it's also unfortunately relatable. The truth is that many of us have become just as inured to the stark reality of police-involved shootings, and "The Jacket" is so effective because it reenacts one in front of our eyes, then shows us what a blithe response to such a thing actually looks like.

The problem with most of the scripted television about the Black Lives Matter movement is that it allows the audience to feel good about itself, as if fictionalizing these stories or consuming them is the same as taking a stand. But when writers use police violence as a plot device, they trivialize it, essentially searching for plot points in the pockets of a dead body. Of all the audacious experiments Atlanta tried in its first season, the most effective of them turned out the be the least funny.