“Twin Peaks with rappers.” That’s the delicious, bite-size logline Donald Glover used to describe his new show. It strikes me as one of those quotes Glover will wind up regretting someday, but for now it’s a legitimately brilliant teaser, one that speaks to Glover’s conceptual prowess and social media savvy. It fits into 140 characters with room to spare, and it takes the form of the classic “[Thing A] but with [Comically Incongruous Thing B]” tweet. It’s also mysterious and intriguing. What does that even mean? And who’s the Killer Bob in this situation?
Even though Glover obviously didn’t mean the metaphor literally, the idea of Twin Peaks with rappers idea can be helpful when Atlanta lets its freak flag fly as it does in “Nobody Beats The Biebs,” the most jarring episode of the show’s first season so far. “Biebs” is an engaging episode if only because it’s impossible to predict anything that happens in it. But it’s also disorienting, due to the provocative decision to cast a black actor as America’s most/least favorite Canadian immigrant.
The action takes place at a charity basketball event, evidence of just how high-profile Paper Boi has become even though much of that ascent has happened off-screen. Alfred tries to step to a beautiful broadcast reporter and is immediately rebuffed even though he’s being his most charming self. She dismisses him as just another hood boy cliche, but is all too eager to embrace Justin Bieber, played here by Austin Crute, who everyone knows is a huge asshole but no one seems to mind.
Casting a black actor to play Justin Bieber is a bold choice. It’s reminiscent of Louis CK’s decision to cast a black actress (Susan Kelechi Watson) in Louie as his character’s ex-wife and the mother of his very Nordic-looking children. In that case, it was more of a lark than a political statement, a way to introduce more surrealism into the show. Casting Crute as The Biebs is mischievous and political in equal measure. The point is that Bieber’s actions are viewed through his status as a white male, and putting a black actor into the role forces the audience to reevaluate Bieber’s obnoxious behavior through the lens of someone who wouldn’t be granted nearly as much latitude just because of the body he inhabits.
Like much of what Atlanta explores, in its deceptively topical way, the Bieber subplot is much heavier than it seems. I was immediately reminded of the dialogue that always happens among black people after a black person is killed in an officer-involved shooting. Would that person be dead if they were white? In the world Glover has created, the answer is a resounding no. This Bieber is even more of a jackass than the genuine article, who can at least contain his inner-douche long enough to make a public appearance. Alfred, who must constantly be aware of how his look and physicality affects people’s perceptions of him, is instantly resentful of someone who can act an ass with impunity. Even when their rivalry erupts into a physical altercation, Justin is able to smooth it over with a trite apology and an equally trite pop song.
Meanwhile, Earn gets an awkward introduction to the big leagues when a seasoned agent named Janice (the invaluable Jane Adams) confuses him with a former colleague named Alonzo. Earn’s plot was classic farce from beginning to end, starting with his many thwarted attempts to explain that she had the wrong person, and ending with an ugly confrontation about how Alonzo back-channeled her clients to woo them away. The final scene between Janice and Earn, when she’s ensuring his destruction in no uncertain terms, is a delight to watch even as it slowly spirals out of control. As soon as Janice starts talking about loyalty with a leading tone, it’s obvious she’s laying a trap. I was tempted to shout at the screen because it was equally obvious that Earn had no idea his foot was dangling over a bear trap.
The third plot, if it can be called that, is the very definition of high-low culture. It’s shockingly thin, about nothing more than Darius’ trip to the gun range with a dog-shaped target, much to the horror of the other gun enthusiasts. Darius’ vignette is another riff on the theme of who is allowed to do what in our culture, because it’s reasonable to assume Darius would have gotten a different response had he done the exact same thing had he been a white guy in camo overalls. To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, racism is “broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” As slight as it is, Darius’ story bear that out as much as Alfred’s does.
All that said, there’s something a little too casual about “Biebs,” and it often feels less like a television episode and more like several web shorts taped together. It doesn’t seem to bear much on the subtle serialized story taking shape, even as there remain unanswered questions about what exactly happened during the shooting incident and what potential effect it could have going forward. Maybe it has none at all, just like it ultimately has no real significance that Atlanta’s Justin Bieber is black. But it’s becoming more important that I know what to take seriously and what to let wash over me. Because I don’t quite get why Paper Boi would have been invited to a charity basketball game in the first place if there’s a widespread perception that he “blew a nigga’s brains out.”
I wonder if the plot seems insignificant now, but will later tie into the larger idea that Paper Boi is getting “too hot” as the show seems to build toward some sort of reckoning. After all, getting into a physical altercation with the Biebs during a charity basketball game is the sort of thing that’s going to draw undue attention to a drug dealer with a possible murder rap hanging over his head. But if that’s the idea, it doesn’t quite land the way it would had the actual Bieber appeared in the episode rather than his high-concept stand-in. If there are real stakes to this, they don’t resonate because it always looks and feels like Alfred beefing with some asshole kid instead of a global pop star who could potentially cause real problems for him going forward. The Biebs is a jerk, but Zan left much more of an impression in last week’s episode.
Despite my reservations, I can’t help but be charmed by this show again and again. “Biebs” is the type of episode I might resent in a theoretical third or fourth season of this show, but for now, it’s all a part of Atlanta’s subtle, smart appeal. The great thing about being the most interesting comedy on television is that you don’t have to be the funniest or the most consistent.
- Adams is so amazing as Janice. After seeing her play so many meek, mousy women, it was a nice change of pace to see her play a shark.
- Brian Tyree Henry is a really handsome dude. I didn’t completely notice it until he tried to kick it to the reporter.
- I suspect writing and recording a song for Bizarro Bieber is the most fun the Glover brothers had all season.
- This week’s title reveal is the best yet.