In James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a fictional story unfolds about an unnamed mixed-race Black man from a small Georgia town who decides to “pass” for white after witnessing a lynching. Living as a white man, he keeps death at bay, becomes an average businessman, marries a white woman, and raises his children to believe they are unquestionably white. And though this life is unglamorous, it is without the gratuitous violence he knew of Black life in the South. Still, as he considers his life in old age, The Ex-Colored Man cannot shake his deep sorrow and loss at his sacrifice, which his children will never know of. At the novel’s end, Blackness reemerges, even as it has been disavowed, as the “great secret” of his life — a confidence that in keeping assured he’d be free to live in the world whilst his interiority turned to rot.
This week on Atlanta, in an episode shot entirely in black-and-white à la Rebecca Hall’s recent Netflix adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, the figure of the white-passing Black protagonist appears once more, this time, on less eloquent (or interesting) terms. Enter Aaron, a pale-skinned, straight-haired teen with a Post Malone poster and Logan Paul signed shirt on his bedroom walls. Despite appearances, Aaron is Black. He has a Black father (his mother is absent and never mentioned). In terms of emotional range, Aaron is notably quick-tempered, insecure, and resentful, all of which he manages through a general posture of cool detachment. Though Aaron is canonically a Black boy, he expresses his frustrations, not unlike a caricature of a racist white teen (he resorts to using racial epithets while playing a video game with two other Black players).
As the episode unfolds, Aaron’s relationship to his identity is put to the test when his dis-identification with Blackness becomes an obstacle to, rather than an opportunity for, the future he’s dreamed of — going to Arizona State University with his very white girlfriend Kate and his “close” white friends. Aaron is starting to sweat as his father’s unwillingness to fill out FAFSA forms bars him from accessing the financial aid he would need to afford to attend. When a guest alumni speaker by the name of Robert S. Lee — who is played by Youtuber Kevin Samuels (I’ll address this casting below) — pledges to donate a million dollars to the school, to change the institution’s name from that of a “degenerate slave owner” to his own, and to pay the college tuition of the school’s graduating class if they are Black, all the Black kids rejoice (except our resident incognegro, of course!).
After sitting through his friends’ anti-Black comments (“You’re not supposed to say it out loud, but it’s super easy to go to school if you’re Black”), Aaron goes to collect the scholarship. He is shocked to discover that the grant requires an audition of Black authenticity rather than familial ties. When Aaron is beckoned into the audition room by a panelist who calls him a “redbone” (a title which arguably felt like a stretch to me given his undertones, but I digress!), he finds himself in a dark room standing under a lone stage light before a jury of three middle-aged Black men smoking cigars. In a lightning round of questions, he fields everything from “Why did The Five Heartbeats break up?” to a request that he make a beat on the table with a pencil (this was at least a welcome diversion from the other racial history of the “pencil test”). In the end, they conclude that he won’t receive the scholarship. “How long you been coasting on your whiteness, son?” a panelist asks him.
As one might anticipate, the scholarship rejection means he can’t collect resources reserved for Black students to aid in his efforts to continue living as a white one. “I won’t get to go to college cause this guy is racist or colorist or whatever,” Aaron whines to his dad. Laughing lightly under his breath, Aaron’s father tries to calm his son. “Relax, that’s part of being Black; sometimes you don’t get the things you know you deserve,” he says. Once Aaron sees another (presumably) Black guy commenting on his girlfriend’s Instagram, they get into an argument and she ultimately dumps him in preparation for the transition to ASC without him. This break-up sends Aaron over the edge and onto Google, where he learns to make an amateur flamethrower that he proceeds to take to school to burn it to the ground.
When Aaron arrives at what is now Robert S. Lee High, he meets a (visibly) Black kid named Felix who was also rejected for the scholarship because he is Nigerian. “I’m bout to burn this motherfucker down,” Felix proclaims. What at first might seem like an opportunity for comradery quickly devolves into tired anti-Black takes you’d expect to see during a Twitter “diaspora war.” Aaron sides with the panel on the decision to reject Felix because he has “an entire culture to pull from” and “a country to go home to.” Even though Aaron himself was just tested (however messily) on a subset of Black American cultural narratives or the fact that some Black immigrants, namely refugees and asylum seekers, do not actually have a place to return to, Atlanta uses the character as a voice box for framing Blackness on the most unintellectual and ahistorical terms. This scene is even more troubling coming from a protagonist who is extremely colorist and who, in Felix’s estimation, resembles Frankie Muniz more than, say, Frankie Beverly.
After burning the new school sign, the boys proceed to take turns burning each other (Was this supposed to be an allegory for intraracial infighting? If so, it’s not in the least bit revelatory!). Their fiery feud comes to an end when the cops arrive, immediately shooting Felix whilst telling Aaron to “freeze.” Lee arrives on the scene and grants Felix a scholarship as he is put into the ambulance. “Getting shot by the police is the blackest thing anybody can do,” he tells the boy. If the title, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” wasn’t a clear enough indicator, the heavy-handedness in this episode is the highest of the season. Aaron is arrested and looks out from the cop car at the ambulance, almost as if he is jealous of Felix.
One year later, Aaron is a new man with a job at an electronics store. With a fresh shape-up, diamond studs, a chain, and a P.O. to boot, he’s taken up a new (read: Blacker) aesthetic. His ex Kate walks into the store and is stunned by his look and demeanor. “Can I be honest with you?” Aaron asks her. “I’ve never been more attracted to you in my life,” he says before breaking the fourth wall by looking knowingly at the audience.
At the level of cinematography and narrative, this episode relishes contrast. In the beginning, our Black protagonist “looked” white and leaned into everything that being white affords a young person (white privilege, the unlikelihood of being racially profiled) by “acting” and “sounding” white and surrounding himself with white friends. Yet when defeated, he resorts to another performance that relies on Black aesthetics to capitalize on the “coolness” and twisted desirability it affords him.
In this way, our ex-ex-colored man proves to be less of a character and more a puppet possessed by the show’s racial subconscious. As a mouthpiece, Aaron gives voice to an anti-Blackness unparalleled and unspoken by any other Black characters in the season thus far. And by the end of his tale, he does not embrace his Blackness on the basis of pride, growth, or political education but rather as a means of clarifying his relationship to desire and desirability. This is why his final gaze in the episode is a knowing one. Through Aaron’s closing look, the show anticipates an audience who understands the implications of the value of racial desire. His gaze presumes a shared knowledge of interracial fantasies predicated on racial performance.
Given this episode’s concern with the relationship between desire and visuality, it is fitting that it features a prominent cameo from the now-deceased Samuels, a man who, in the words of The New York Times, “styl[ed] himself as an image consultant” and enjoyed virality largely for videos in which he verbally degraded the looks, dating prospects, and social value of Black women (and to a lesser extent, Black men). Who better than him to bridge the episode’s interest in race, violence, optics, and desire? Certainly, the choice was intentionally made, but that intention reads as an eagerness to provoke Black women viewers in particular from whom the episode’s quippy description enthusiastically anticipates what we will ask ourselves, “Why do they hate black women so much?” (This is a well-documented tension as the show’s creator and star Donald Glover felt compelled in a self-interview to ask himself if he was “afraid” of Black women. He dodges his own question). As a Black woman with a commitment to cultural criticism, I am not inclined to take the bait on the show’s relationship with Black women (Van has said like ten words this entire season, lol the jokes write themselves). However, I do see this episode as a crucial sample of the show’s marrow, and the results show that provocation is the cancer in the lifeblood of the series.
Where this season’s appearances of Chet Hanks and Liam Neeson generated noted controversy, the show’s Samuels cameo goes a step further, knowing well his polarizing reputation, in an effort to balance pushing the buttons of heated intraracial discourse while maintaining a steady interest in the interracial. As a metaphor for these complex commitments and desires, Aaron — whose racial innovation in the face of insecurity proves to be both the Blackest and the whitest thing about him — embodies the contradiction and the chaos at the core of the show’s surrealist self-fashioning. Thus, in looking to this character’s narrative predecessors, we are reminded that the shock-and-awe instincts that make up the cells of the show’s tumor-sized identity crisis are not unprecedented in Black art. After all, as Johnson’s protagonist wrote in Autobiography over a century ago, “I know that I am playing with fire, and I feel the thrill which accompanies that most fascinating pastime; and, back of it all, I think I find a sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the little tragedies of my life and turn them into a practical joke on society.”