|Photo: Guy D'Alema/FX|
From the outset, Atlanta has displayed a penchant for social commentary, satire and outright weirdness (see "Nobody Beats The Biebs"). But the show's seventh episode, "B.A.N.," definitely goes down as the series' most conceptual episode (so far). The entire half hour is a show within a show, in this case a fictional one named Montague that airs on the fictional network Black American Network, a.k.a. B.A.N., complete with hilarious commercials for products and hustles like Swisha Sweets, Arizona Tea, a pseudo religious conman and a Dodge II Charger.
B.A.N. is thinly-veiled parody of a PBS talk show, though to my eyes and ears it also could've easily been a stand in for BET, Centric, TV One, VH1 Soul, Aspire and any other cable network marketed to black people that's ever had talk show or panel discussion.
What makes an ambitious episode like "B.A.N"work is the way it builds on themes of race, identity and hip hop's cultural influence that Atlanta has been exploring since its inception. Paperboi and another guest, author and trans activist Dr. Deborah Holt, discuss a controversial tweet the rapper sent out about "not wanting to fuck" Caitlyn Jenner that was met with cries of transphobia on the Internets. Many panels have been held to discuss rap's attitudes towards women and the LGBT community, and while such talks are needed, often they are laced with the perception black folks are inherently more sexist. homophobic and transphobic.
Dr. Holt takes to that condescending narrative like a haughty nose takes to the air, giving a mini-dissertation on why attitudes about masculinity and power cause black men like Alfred to recoil from she calls a "trans accepting culture." Sigh. Deborah girl, you're preachin' to the same choir Ms. Morello is singin' in.
Earlier, Alfred says "I just don't think I have to have sex with Caitlyn Jenner 'cause ya'll said so," which the host tries to twist as being transphobic, but is really indicative of the way the "outrage police,"can take a remark made by a public figure and proceed to flog them in the online square. That isn't to say Paperboi or real-life celebrities shouldn't be criticized, but there's a difference between not wanting to sleep with an individual trans person and being transphobic. Paperboi may not hit all the right talking points, but when pressed, does express tolerance and basic respect for gay and trans people (while making the very salient point that said tolerance and basic respect should be given to him as a black man.)
That said, his free speech defense is tired. "I just want to be able to say something weird without people hating on me," Alfred says at one point. Hmmm, not so fast bruh. Freedom of speech does not protect you from the consequences of your speech, and if you exercise your right to express your opinion, in particular those categorized as "weird," don't be surprised when others exercise their freedom to read your ass for filth.
"B.A.N." then ups the ante with Montague's other guest, Antoine Smalls, a black teen who believes he's a 35-year-old white man named Harrison Booth, a name that conjures up images of him being arrested for Civil War desertion. Chile.....*sips tea with pinkies up.*
An obvious knock at the Rachael Dolezals of the world, Smalls/Harrison is saving up money for "full racial transition" surgery, while in the meantime engaging in thirty-something white dude pastimes like wearing thick leather belts and asking fictional co-workers if they caught Game of Thrones. Glover and his collaborators seem to be asking "how far does tolerance go?" How much of the benefit of the doubt should we give someone when they say "this is who I am," even if, in the case of Antoine and Dolezal, we believe who they are is fucking ridiculous?
Having been on the receiving end of more than a few frustrating conversations about the validity of my own sexuality, I try to opt for empathy instead of cynicism when, to partially quote the late great Maya Angelou, people tell me who they are. That said, gender and race, while both social constructs, are birds of a different feather. However much he may believe he is white dude, Antoine is black, due to his undeniable physical features that have been historically labeled as black (though those can obviously vary), and as such, the way others see him and perceive him and his behavior is filtered through that lens, which affect his day to day lived experience. Dolezal, or as Michael Arceneaux calls her, fake-ass Freddie Brooks, is wearing a blackness like a costume. At any point, she can straighten her hair, lay off the bronzer and reclaim her white womanhood. Gender is a much more fluid identity, is one that may also have some scientific basis, and in my opinion, can't be measured in the same way.
"B.A.N." both lampoons and gives voice to Antoine's transracial identity, with Paperboi ripping into him when he appears on Montague in a blond wig ("Bangs my nigga?!") while the host and Dr. Holt attempt to be tactful. The ultimate punchline is that Antoine is against gay marriage and finds transitioning unnatural.
Transracial folks be trippin'.
--Atlanta has pretty much avoided touching on police brutality, but thanks to the fake chocolate cereal commercial, that stone's been turned.
--Am I the only who wants to hear "Illuminati Sex?"
--"Questions, the universe....paternity tests?
--"B.A.N."also got in a few excellent shots talk show hosts of Franklin Montague's ilk; the most damning being when, after Dr. Holt and Paperboi agree on free speech, he starts shouting things like "You hate women!" at Alfred in a desperate attempt to spark conflict.