‘Atlanta’ is the best of contemporary surrealism

Atlanta native Donald Glover is the creator and starring actor in hit television show ‘Atlanta.’ The show is returning to FX for a third season, and first two episodes have wowed viewers. // Photo courtesy of FX

The first two episodes of “Atlanta” season three dropped on March 24, and any fan expecting normalcy or even slight adherence to the tried and true tropes of mainstream television simply must not have been paying attention for the past two seasons.

Episode one, entitled “Three Slaps,” opens with a five minute scene of two men on a small fishing boat. Tension creeps in as one of the men begins telling the story of the town underneath the lake they are fishing in. An affluent all-Black town that was submerged when the government built a dam to flood it. 

The man then muses in a cryptic, faintly prophetic tone on the idea of “whiteness” as a social concept that can be bought, sold, commandeered and lost. He ponders that the concept as much a part of reality as it isn’t, what a continental philosopher might refer to as an “intersubjective truth.” 

Tension builds and then promptly detonates when the man’s face morphs into a pallid, eyeless, Victorian-nightmare visage, and the other nameless man is dragged into the water by a flurry of Black arms that emerge from the even blacker water. 

The show cuts to the next shot. The head of a young student, Loquareeous, slowly rises from his desk. It was a dream. 

The rest of the episode, which until the final minute does not include any member of the main cast, is an allusion to the real life murder of Devonte Hart, a fifteen year old boy who in 2018 was driven off a cliff along with five other Black orphans under the care of two radically image-conscious white moms. The 35 minute vignette ends with a shot of Earnest Marks, played by show creator Donald Glover, waking from a dream, presumably the vignette.

The episode is a poignant meditation on the modern White-Savior Complex. All ideologies and social dynamics are intrinsically intertwined with the sociocultural context they manifest themselves within, and although it, arguably, may not be as transparent and Kiplingesque as days past, the modern manifestations of said complex are omnipresent, kept alive not by their loudness, but by their quietness. In a way, this is the central thesis of the show and the show’s primary artistic credo: Afrosurrealism.

D. Scott Miller, the author of the seminal Afrosurreal Manifesto, denotes Afrosurrealism to be the best description of the reactions to the “browning” of society. It is the artistic response to living in an unreal world that you must treat as real, lest it beat you down. 

As artist Frida Kahlo once said, “I’m not a surrealist. I just paint what I see.”

The root -sur comes from the French sur, roughly meaning “over” or “above,” thus making the literal translation of surreal mean “above reality.” 

The message of  “Atlanta” is not that the surrealist occurrences in the show are fictive and imaginary, but that they are real and happen everyday.  

The modern day artistic landscape, acting as an almost-too-obvious synecdoche for Western culture, is primarily populated on two antipodal sides of a spectrum. 

On one side, there is art that is gaudy, art that delivers meaning not through the psyche but through the throat, art that gets lots of likes, hearts and internet points. 

On the other side, there is art whose message is that it has no message, art whose lack of clarity is ostensibly a metaphorical vehicle to impart messages of absurdism and overstimulation, but is really an obfuscation of lack of content.

What makes “Atlanta” great is what the vast majority of contemporary experimental art tends to be absolutely void of: clarity within subtlety. “Atlanta” pulls off with elegance and style a lost art of art. Its message is as blatantly obvious as it is intricately nuanced.

Even the least analytical of “Atlanta” viewers can recognize the Afrosurrealist message, and even the most analytical of viewers may struggle to denote exactly how they did it. This is one of the marks of great surrealist art. One can say how it made them feel and yet be utterly oblivious as to why or how. 

Through its shimmering cinematography, incandescent performances and brilliant writing, “Atlanta” has firmly established itself among the pantheon of Peak TV and set a new bar for what millennial television can be. 

Growing hurts. In an age where America and the world at large are going through a kind of collective puberty, where the conflagratory consequences of the West’s attempts to reconcile our two most sacrosanct values, freedom and equality, appear as headlines on our phones and left-behind bodies in our cracks, “Atlanta” captures more than any other show to date the reality of living in a world that no longer feels real.