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On Keith Stanfield, Atlanta and Black Comedy

| Friday, September 16, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-09-16 at 5.22.59 PMJoseph Han

In 2001, Nas released a track called “Ether,” a withering attack on fellow New York rapper Jay Z. In the aforementioned song, Nas introduced a new phrase into the lexicon of hip hop conversation when he unloaded the line “and Eminem murdered you on your own s—.” At the time it referenced Jay’s song “Renegade,” but it has since come to describe any song where the artist listed after the “feat” outshines the one before it.

Keith Stanfield murdered Donald Glover on his own s—.

As creator, writer, executive producer and star of FX’s new dramedy “Atlanta,” though, I doubt Glover is too upset about it. Stanfield’s success only makes Glover look better as a writer and showrunner. Not that Stanfield’s success should come as much of a surprise to anyone who has seen any of his prior performances. I first saw him in 2013’s “Short Term 12,” his first appearance in a feature length film. “Short Term 12” remains my favorite movie of all time, due in no small part to Stanfield’s portrayal of the introspective and troubled Marcus.

Naturally, I perked up when I happened upon Stanfield playing a young gang member in 2015’s “Dope.” He poured emotion and weight into that fairly small role, which has been the calling card of his young Hollywood career so far. Despite his relative inexperience, he has drawn the attention of industry insiders. Ava Duvernay picked him to play Jimmie Lee Jackson in 2014’s “Selma,” and after “Dope” he played Snoop Dogg in “Straight Outta Compton.”

“Atlanta” is Stanfield’s first appearance on the small screen, but Donald Glover had him in mind when casting the show. Although the show only debuted on Sept. 6, it appears to be a great fit for both Glover and Stanfield.  Glover plays Earnest Marks, a Princeton dropout trying to jump on his cousin’s promising rap career. He appears to be motivated by a desire to provide for his young daughter and her unconvinced mother, but the bulk of what goes on between his ears remains mysterious. Stanfield plays Darius, the aforementioned cousin’s adviser and marijuana-fueled Confucius. Together with Brian Tyree Henry as “Paper Boi,” the rapping cousin, the trio make up the backbone of the show.

The characters, while compelling, have not yet established themselves as something we haven’t seen before on TV. The show itself, however, has made waves by confronting issues of police discrimination, mental illness and the glorification of gun violence in a way that bluntly represents real life for millions of African Americans. With such dark subject matter, “Atlanta” integrates its comedic elements surprisingly well. Whether it’s subtle gallows humor from Glover or destabilizing absurdism from Stanfield, “Atlanta” has established itself as some of the best comedy of the year. It also sets itself firmly in the recent trend of dark comedies popping up on the air.

When historians go back and look at the current era of TV, they will almost definitely wonder what was wrong with us. From “You’re the Worst” to “BoJack Horseman” and now “Atlanta,” we obviously need some help.

With any luck, these shows will give us the therapy we so clearly need. “Atlanta,” in particular, has the potential to raise our collective racial consciousness by bringing issues of discrimination to the forefront of television. Like “Ether” more than 15 years ago, “Atlanta” is a diss track from Glover and superstar-in-wait Keith Stanfield to the people of the United States. It’s up to us to laugh along and respond.

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