“Teddy Perkins” is the sixth episode of Atlanta’s second season, a point by which most television shows have become whatever they’re going to be. Even Master Of None, Atlanta’s closest auteur sitcom peer, settled into a groove by the back half of its second season, save for occasional experiments like the Emmy-winning “Thanksgiving.” (Then again, Master’s decision to largely abandon its stylistic and structural flights of fancy in favor of a humdrum love triangle made parts of that season feel competent but inessential.) Meanwhile, Donald Glover is apparently content to leave Atlanta as loose and unhinged as a playground carousel. But the show has never felt more dangerous than it does in “Teddy Perkins,” a psychological horror piece so expertly crafted, you could be forgiven for fearing it might end with Atlanta’s first major character death.
The broad strokes of “Perkins” aren’t that different from “Barbershop” or any other Atlanta episode where a character’s commonplace errand turns Sisyphean and surreal. This time it’s Darius, first seen cruising back roads in a U-Haul truck to the tune of Stevie Wonder’s Music Of My Mind. He’s on his way to pick up what we later find out is a piano with kaleidoscopic keys, the sort of nifty curio that Darius loves, especially when it’s free. But Darius would probably say he would have wound up at the secluded estate of Teddy Perkins and his brother one way or another. He says he doesn’t believe in the concept of time, but he’s into the concept of destiny. And let us not forget, he’s all about the vibes. Weird juju draws Darius like a moth, and I’d guess he was as excited about the free rainbow piano as he was about meeting the person who had a rainbow piano to spare.
The owner of the psychedelic baby grand is Teddy Perkins (Donald Glover, smothered in enough makeup and prosthetics), an eccentric recluse with unsettling, leonine facial features and skin the color of off-brand athletic tape. Adding to his weird intensity, Teddy talks like the canary just before it got ate by that grinning ass cat. He lives in a massive, deserted home with a creaky door and insufficient natural light, and he makes no attempt to offset the inherent creep factor by demonstrating recognizable human behavior such as the handshake. Most notably, he tucks into a soft-boiled ostrich egg, hammering and sawing open the shell and fishing out chunks of goo with his fingers. (Teddy does offer Darius a chunk of ostrich goo, lest anyone accuse him of being rude.) Darius apparently committed to the experience when he signed for the truck, because he goes full-on horror movie protagonist. Every sign is pointing him right back out the door, but he keeps pressing forward.
When Teddy senses Darius’ patience might be waning, he gets down to business and turns the conversation to the piano Darius has come all this way to retrieve. The piano with the multicolored keys, it turns out, was owned by none other than Teddy’s brother, famed jazz pianist Benny Hope. Benny lives in the house too, Teddy says, but stays confined due to a medical condition that makes him allergic to sunlight. Once Teddy has established the existence of a mysterious, reclusive relative with a dramatically fertile illness, the episode has gone full horror flick, and it’s simply a question of whether the suspense will culminate in something horrible. At one point Darius gets on the phone with Alfred, allowing cutaways to Al, Earn, and Tracy and their much less interesting day. Instead of breaking up the suspense, those scenes serve to ratchet up the dread by putting Alfred in the role of the concerned friend who senses something isn’t quite right about this guy. This isn’t some fever dream Darius is having. It’s a real situation with real stakes.
Also, we come to find out later, there’s a real brother. For the bulk of “Perkins,” Darius is under the impression that Teddy and Benny are one and the same, that the once brown-skinned Benny has bleached his skin Sammy Sosa style and has taken on a whole new identity to hide his shame. Teddy comes across as an odd but mostly harmless creative whose relationship with a taskmaster father has manifested itself in some less than ideal ways. Once Darius comes around to this interpretation, he’s basically willing to go along for the journey, up to and including walking into a pitch-black room with newspapers plastered over the glass-paneled entry doors.
Teddy’s reveal is a head-scratcher—the beginnings of an exhibit dedicated to strict fathers like his own, in real life and pop culture—but it’s nothing to be alarmed about. Honestly, the day has all the makings of a solid anecdote until it’s time for Darius to take possession of the piano. In doing so, Darius comes across Benny, who is wheelchair bound and mute, but communicates that Teddy will kill them both unless Darius can protect them with a gun that’s stashed in the attic. Darius remains convinced that he’s one of two people in the house, only realizing it’s actually two people when a bleeding Benny appears with the gun and shoots his brother before shooting himself. A shellshocked Darius watches as the first responders work the crime scene and roll the piano out for their own purposes.
What’s “Perkins” about, exactly? That’s hard to say, though to its credit, there’s a ton of interesting elements and ideas woven through what could have merely been a formalist exercise. There are tons of influences on display, from What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? to mumblegore (specifically Ti West’s The House Of The Devil), but there’s also a surprisingly human story about fame, family, resentment, and shame. And it’s anchored by two amazing performances (or more, if you count multiple Glovers.)
It’s impossible to gauge what evolution looks like for a show like Atlanta, but it’s safe to say that if this show is evolving into something, “Perkins” provides a lot of clues about what that will look like. At 41 minutes, it’s the show’s longest episode yet by a wide margin, and Glover successfully lobbied FX to air the episode commercial free. (Which is fair, because where do the act breaks even go here?) And he made the right call by ensuring that as little as possible was known about “Perkins” before its debut. “Perkins” benefits from going in as cold as possible, and like the best Atlanta episodes, it’s certain to reveal fascinating layers and details with repeated viewings. But there’s no way to watch it again for the first time, to let its weird, menacing energy wash over you. It’s an indelible experience, whether you like it or not.
- The cold open with the Confederate hat is worth an A alone and is probably the scene I would first want to show somebody if I wanted to convey what Atlanta is like. (Then I would make sure they didn’t watch the rest.)
- Teddy’s “strict dads” exhibit was naturally going to feature Joe Jackson, who looms large over a character clearly influenced by Michael’s “Jacko on his back-o” phase.
- Darius, on hip hop’s aging process: “Well we got Jay-Z, he’s like...65.” It’s pretty amazing how funny this episode is, all things considered.
- I appreciated how well suited this story was to the character, unlike “Barbershop,” which felt like an Earnest story with Alfred dropped into it. This story wouldn’t have made any sense with any other character in it.
- The soft-boiled ostrich egg is called an “owl’s casket,” as if that makes it sound more appetizing.
- Talking Book is Stevie’s most underrated record. Just sayin’.
- Question, for anyone who cares to answer: It occurred to me that, with the exception of “The Club,” which I watched with a friend, I’ve never watched an episode of Atlanta with someone else. Did anyone watch this in a group, and if so, how did it play?