During the Italian Renaissance, it was common for artists to be practitioners of more than one skill. Sculpture, painting, drawing, and draughtsmanship. Michelangelo is famous for the Sistine Chapel as well as the statue of David. This focus on the development of several techniques is something that seems distant from the sometimes pragmatic and specialized point of view of modern times. But this does not seem to be the case for Donald Glover Jr. aka Childish Gambino. With Atlanta – produced by FX and now available on Disney+ – the young artist proved to be much more than just a musician. And with him, all the black community seems to be living a new renaissance.
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Besides being the creator, Glover plays the main character: Ernest “Earn” Marks. Earn is not the world’s best husband nor father, but at least he tries. While his life slips from his fingers and his skills remain underestimated, he keeps on struggling to bring home the paycheck. At least until his cousin, Alfred aka Paper Boy (Brian Tyree Henry) gets famous with a song – which is actually performed by Glover himself. Earn, in desperate need of a job, becomes his manager.
The series focuses more on Atlanta’s harsh suburban life than the luxurious lifestyle flaunted by rappers. Paper Boy tries to resist modern times and “stay real” to help the family, his cousin Earn, and to create a crew he can trust. But his newfound fame changes the way the world sees him. Earn on the other side is in a constant struggle in order to balance his life. He cares about others but is not reliable; he is smart, but has no experience; is the whitest black around, but not white enough.
A new Harlem renaissance?
It was 1925 when Alain Locke published The New Negro, an anthology of only black writers. In doing so, he set a precedent in African-American history: the black community was claiming its rightful place in cultural life. A new renaissance had begun. Not thanks to a white patron or some isolated shooting stars, but joining forces together, creating a solid cultural background. Both the main cast and crew on Atlanta‘s set are mostly African-Americans. Together, they managed to create a show that mixes raw realism and surrealism to give a taste of what being black in the USA feels like. Other series like Watchman and Queen Sugar are moving in the same direction: re-thinking American culture with a black soul at its core.
Atlanta: a black Florence
When Byzantium fall into the Ottomans’ hands, many Greeks thinkers sought refuge in Florence. Thanks to the re-discovery of Aristotle’s teachings, the conception of the world changed. Similarly, at the beginning of the XX century, many afro Americans moved from the racist south to the industrial north, Harlem. Atlanta represents the alternative. Despite being overshadowed by other cities in the international imaginary, Atlanta is a crucible of culture, a stable center. And the city itself plays a major role in the series in a very subtle way.
Glover chooses to use the slang without giving the audience any reference, but the time to get into it. And it’s not easy due to the controversy of the city itself. It is both the place where the KKK was founded, but also it’s a new Tulsa, a black oasis in the prosperous south. Thanks to this series, and its creator, this underrated city is now having its chance to tell a different story, to show the world the different USA.
A childish (Gambino) renaissance
Glover’s arts reflect his necessity to address the topic of race.
But despite the seriousness of his crusade, he often relies on irony and a sense of the grotesque to convey his message. Like other popular shows (Rick and Morty or The Good Place) he uses surrealism to expose the cracks of contemporary society. A similar approach to racial injustice could be seen in Pass Over, a play from Antoinette Nwandu adapted into a movie by Spike Lee for Amazon. In a possible reflection of Samuel Beckett, the two main characters wait for the day to come when they’ll be able to get out from the ‘hood.