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Donald Glover’s Artistic Journey Has Been Building to Atlanta’s ‘Black Justin Bieber’ Episode

Photo: FX

Last night’s episode of FX’s Atlanta was an instant classic. This is  partly because it was good, but also because it will to be easy to identify. If you ask people quickly for their favorite Simpsons episodes, most often they’ll say “Monorail,” referring to “Marge vs. the Monorail.” Now this is definitely one of the best (we ranked it third), but it has the advantage of a shorthand, unlike that great episode where Sideshow Bob is trying to kill Bart and there are a lot of rakes. Is “The Suitcase” the best episode of Mad Men? Maybe. But it’s definitely the one that is easiest to name. In the years to come, people will talk about the best episode of Atlanta or the episode in which it made the jump to a new echelon and the answer will be the same: “Black Justin Bieber.”

Arguably, they/we/you/me will be correct, as “Nobody Beats the Biebs” is the best, funniest, strangest episode of a show that somehow keeps on getting better each week. Well, better is subjective; it keeps on getting more distinct. “Black Justin Bieber,” written by Donald’s brother Stephen, is a culmination of not only everything Atlanta has been doing, but a culmination of Donald Glover’s journey as an artist. Glover’s is a comedy of questions, and last night the question was perfectly articulated: What is identity in an ambiguous world?

There is a Donald Glover tone. Or, more specifically, there is a Donald Glover and Hiro Murai (director of the majority of Atlanta’s episodes) tone. When I first watched Atlanta’s pilot, I was struck: Wait, this is like his short filmClapping for the Wrong Reasons — which the duo released online three years ago. It was weird — good weird, not weird for the sake of being weird. At first, I’d call the uncanny quality of their world surreal or dreamlike, but as I’ve watched Atlanta mature and rewatched Clapping, I’ve refined my impression. Clapping and Atlanta (after its violent cold open) begin the same way: With Glover’s character in bed, waking up. That’s the tone: a blurry-eyed reality, in which you are still figuring out where and who you are.

In promoting the show, Donald Glover called AtlantaTwin Peaks with rappers,” as Twin Peaks has become short for “Rando shit’s going to happen sometimes.” But to me, Atlanta feels like theater. (In contrast to the other show it gets compared to, Louie, which feels like independent film.) Glover wrote plays before he ever did comedy or made music, starting with his days at an Atlanta-area performance-arts high school. He then majored in playwriting at NYU. In his 2012 episode of WTF With Marc Maron, when asked who “his guys” were, Glover name-checked David Ives, Tom Stoppard, and August Wilson, all of whom make a lot of sense (more on Wilson later). But there is one name he mentioned that seems to have most closely influenced Atlanta: the recently deceased Edward Albee. I’m also going to throw in one other name he didn’t mention: Harold Pinter.

No one likes labels, but what I’m essentially talking about is what is traditionally called Theatre of the Absurd. The similarity I see here is in the creation of an unexplained strange universe to reflect a certain meaninglessness. Why I point to Albee — namely, his early work, like The Zoo Story — and Pinter is because they presented seemingly everyday settings and created uncertainty through the interactions of characters. Atlanta, The Zoo Story, and, for example, Pinter’s The Birthday Party, share a specificity of tone that both seems like its set in our world, but also doesn’t. But beyond that, it is the idea of the Comedy of Menace (a description of Pinter’s work that the writer rejected): That is to say, these are very funny comedies, but they all share a sense of disquieting ambiguity. It’s not unlike contemporary comedies of discomfort, like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the difference is the reason for discomfort is unclear.

It’s partly why Atlanta feels revolutionary. When watching comedy, audiences tend to like to get a sense of what is supposed to be funny — they want a premise — they want a setup to come before a punch line. Or to put in terms of the UCB Theatre, the improv school where Glover trained, there is a “game,” meaning there needs to be a clear comedic element that the scene will explore. Though there are straight-up jokes in Atlanta, the overall comedic tone comes from the lack of clarity.

Back to black Justin Bieber (played by Atlanta singer Austin Crute). Glover has played with celebrity in a similar way before. Clapping featured a cameo from Danielle Fishel, the actress who is known for playing Topanga in Boy Meets World. In the film, she is presented without explanation. Is she playing herself? And what is her self, considering that when people see her they just think of her as Topanga. Funnily enough — especially for old millenials like Glover and myself — last night’s Atlanta featured a similarly unexplained appearance by another TGIF kid — Jaleel White. He is playing in the same celebrity charity basketball game as black Justin Bieber, but he doesn’t say “Did I do that?” after getting the ball stolen to identify himself.

The introduction of Justin Bieber is a more interesting and funny version of this. Because when we initially see him, so many things are unclear. At first, you can’t tell if Earn is joking. Or if Bieber might actually be behind the black guy walking in. Then, when the reporter calls for him, it almost sounds like she says, “Dustin Bieber.” In terms of the thinking behind making Justin Bieber black in the Atlanta universe, it’s unclear if the character is meant to be a satire of how Bieber “acts black.” (Glover made fun of Bieber in his stand-up special, not specifically about this as much as his general privilege.) Or maybe, it’s not satire, but the hope is it makes the viewer think about how we’d respond to a black performer who acted like Justin Bieber. (Which, oddly enough, as Thrillist points out, was essentially a story line on Ray Donovan.) There are ways the script could’ve made it clear, but it didn’t. Because ultimately, having Justin Bieber be black was meant to create a feeling of ambiguity in the viewer that is reflected in Alfred’s uneasiness with being seen as an old and so-called “gangster” rapper.

This is also echoed in Earn’s story line. Like with Alfred — and protagonists in The Zoo Story and The Birthday Party, for that matter — a character is introduced that creates uncertainty. Jane Adams’s character is literally introduced when she mistakes Earn for someone else — someone named Alonzo. Though seemingly innocuous, like the Bieber character, there is something unsettling about her. This is the episode’s sense of menace. That and, of course, Darius’s very brief C-story at a gun range, where his life is seen as less valuable than a paper dog’s.

Of course, spoiler alert for last night’s Atlanta (and The Zoo Story and The Birthday Party, for that matter), this fear does result in confrontation in all three story lines. Alfred gets into a fight with Bieber. Earn — as a twist on the sitcom convention, where the conflict would be that he’s found out — is confronted by Adams’s character for what Alonzo did to her. Darius gets accosted for using a target of a dog. These are, as Saeid Rahimi Poor wrote in a European Journal of Scientific Research article about Pinter, “existential problems of man in a hostile universe” and “[violations] of identity and sense of self.”

It’s a theme that runs throughout the episode, and the series. The first line of full dialogue in “Nobody Beats the Biebs” is Earn being misidentified, as he’s asked if he’s playing in the game. (A question he’s asked a second time, seemingly because he’s black.) It continues, and Earn’s sense of self is directly confronted, considering he’s both being called a different name and trying to act as if he is that person, but also himself. Later when Earn tells Adams’s character that he’s not Alonzo, she doesn’t believe him. For Alfred, the episode starts with him poising for press cameras. Then when he tries to hit on the reporter, he says, “You got me: I’m a rapper,” only for her to respond, “I know who you are: You’re the guy who shot someone.” Alfred then spends the episode trying to prove who he is, only to get in a fight. The episode’s final scene, in which Bieber gives an apology speech, really underlines all this beautifully and hilariously:

Hey everybody, I just want to say I’m sorry about what happened today. It’s not who I am. I guess I’ve been trying to be so cool lately that I became something I’m not. [Flips hat around, reporters gasp.] Wait. It’s cool. It’s cool. This is me. This is the real Justin.

When Alfred then tries to have the reporter film his apology, saying she can get to know “the real me,” she responds, “Listen, I want to give you some advice: Play your part. People don’t want Justin to be the asshole; they want you to be the asshole. You’re a rapper; that’s your job.”

And this is how identity as it’s used by Pinter overlaps with identity as it’s most commonly discussed today — race. Glover said at the TCAs that the thesis of Atlanta is “to show people how it feels to be black.” Again, it’s a comedy of questions — questions I’ve heard Glover wrestle with in interviews for years. What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a black person?  It’s the fact that the general, existential problem of being alive in an uncaring universe is complicated by being black, another kind of existential problem in a country built on racism. Or as he put it in his New York profile, “I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.” Which brings me back to one of Glover’s influences, August Wilson, who wrote about the multiplicity of identity in the New York Times:

Before one can become an artist one must first be. It is being in all facets, its many definitions that endows the artist with an immutable sense of himself that is necessary for the accomplishments of his tasks. Simply put, art is beholden to the kiln in which the artist was fired. Before I am anything, a man or a playwright, I am an African-American. The tributary streams of culture, history and experience have provided me with the materials out of which I make my art. 

Atlanta confronts the cultural perception that black identity is a monolith. Also, it shows us that seeing a black Justin Bieber is funny.

Donald Glover, Atlanta, and Black Justin Bieber