Just like that, Atlanta came back with a literal bang. Donald Glover’s searing FX series returned with an opening scene taking the audience back to a pocket of impoverished America where playing Xbox from your couch is as seamless to your day as violence and death. Things that are commonplace depend very much on what constitutes place.
In the past few months we’ve also seen new stand up specials from Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. Their return to the limelight was a reminder that those who emerged in their absence were playing Double-A ball. Rock delivered his trademark acerbic wit, but new to his act was a defenselessness we haven’t seen before. The man who skewers other people’s narrow-minded mistakes suddenly started parsing his own. Likewise, Chappelle has always been the best at flipping presumptions about race on their head where laughs precede a reflection of how absurd racial inequality is in America. But his latest shows a man struggling to examine inequality outside of race. Watching these two publicly grapple with their own transgressions and stubbornness made for a set designed to make you laugh, but squirm a little too.
Additionally, the #MeToo movement created a sorely needed character and conduct audit across America, apparently except in the White House. The bravery of the women that came forward to demand change forced guilty men to own their actions and ignorant men to consider their complicity. This set off a culture change still in its infancy, but advancing furiously. What started as an expulsion of men who have an issue keeping their dick in their pants at work (…literally), has grown into a complete reevaluation of power dynamics in America.
These events speak to the cultural and political climate right now. For straight white males like myself, you can label my attention to it as wokeness. I’m okay with it. I’d rather be a meme than a detractor. Regardless of your engagement in debates of race, gender, inequality, policy, or other deep-rooted issues refusing to stay buried, there is an undeniable discomfort looming over each of them. That discomfort is hard, it’s clumsy, it’s defensive – it’s promising.
Watching Atlanta is not a relaxing experience. Donald Glover never intended to make a show about triumph. Atlanta makes me laugh and I am in awe of the performances, originality, and direction. More than that though, it shows me distress I don’t know, but for thirty minutes every Thursday, those show gives me a feel for it. It’s hard not to note that when the episode ends, I get to turn it off.
Seeing two celebrated comics reveal their faults, in retrospect (Rock) and in real time (Chappelle), made me cringe, but mostly it made me reassess the toxicity of blindly defending cultural figureheads you like. Stars, they’re just like us—they’re wrong.
Hearing men I used to respect publicly disclose their confusion over consent and consider their abuse of power was frustrating, but having the conversation out loud disarmed the tabloid hysteria of it all. It allowed for a nuanced discussion, one that I’ve had openly with many of my friends. Knowing what guilty men did is important. Openly examining why they did it is progress.
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All of these things show us that discomfort by nature is trying, but it is also necessary to evolve. There is nothing easy or fun about the conversations in America right now. That said, you can’t change a conversation you refuse to have. Facing what makes us uncomfortable takes courage and vulnerability, two virtues thought to be in direct competition. But as the silos of our culture come down, they’ve become one in the same.
The polarization and entrenchment of public discourse makes uncertainty feel like weakness. That it is better to avoid discussion around questions you don’t know how to answer. But as we wrestle with systemic problems we all contribute to, let’s lean in to the discomfort. Progress is not reliant on having the answers. First, it takes a willingness to look for them.