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  • Writer's pictureOmar Pusey

Afro Surrealism & Atlanta

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

“Us humans are always close to destruction. Life itself is but a series of close calls. I mean, how would you know you were alive unless you knew you could die?”

Atlanta, a show that took us by storm back in 2017 came to its end in 2022. The ending left me in a rabbit hole, hopelessly trying to piece together how the world of Atlanta works. Ultimately I gave up, but I decided to investigate some of the concepts that the writers implemented throughout the series.

Before going any further, I will admit that Atlanta is my favourite TV show and I may show some bias.

Atlanta was a unique piece of work and not just through its comical experiences or how the show addressed Black culture, but it was how the show took advantage of a fictional world and explored new possibilities that felt farfetched but could happen. Essentially, in the world of Atlanta something traumatic happens every episode, but the characters just shrug it off and move on in their lives.

Over the last decade, black surrealist concepts have emerged in modern film. Films like Sorry to bother you, Get out, and Atlanta serve as examples that help afro surrealism gain more exposure. Afro surrealism essentially blackness exists within its own world, a world that seems impossible to most but normal to the ones emersed in it. Amiri Barkaka used the term first in 1974 to describe the work of Henry Dumas, a Black American poet and writer that was often regarded as a genius for his works.

Atlanta utilizes a mix of Afro Surrealism, real life stories, and hypothetical scenarios while still making it feel like a genuine comedy. It’s because most of the stories have either happened to black viewers or somebody at least conceptualized it. Like the situation where you are with your friends and say: What if a black person was trans-racial? What if white people were forced to pay reparation taxes?

At times Atlanta seemed farfetched but an achievable reality, traumatic but also hilarious (because it’s a comedy). Have you noticed that the most surreal scenarios happened when one of the main characters was by themselves. The team behind Atlanta combined a good use of camera shots with writing to make scenes even more authentic.

Afro-Surrealism was first proposed in 1974 by Amind Barkaka in response to Henry Dumas writing on the black experience. Henry Dumas was regarded as a genius for his writing, particularly his short stories that brought a realist perspective and illustrated how black lives were peripheral to white people during the 1960s, including violent confrontations that existed between white and black people. Dumas even wrote a short story about a black man being killed by police, before he was killed by police in 1968.

Afro-Surrealism – The Afro Surreal Manifesto

Black Is the New black—a 21st-Century Manifesto

D. Scott Miller’s Manifesto from 2013 provides an important insight to what Afro Surrealism is and exactly what it is not. Short but packed with captivating perspectives and concepts, the Surreal Manifesto does not disappoint.

Miller provides an important distinction between Black perspectives that seem like Afro Surrealism. For example, Miller starts with explaining Afro-Futurism – a diaspora intellectual and artistic movement that uses science, technology, and sci fi to speculate on black possibilities in the future. Afro Surreal doesn’t live in the future it lives in the present as a future past defined as right now.

“European Surrealism is empirical. African Surrealism is mystical and metaphorical”

The negritude movement is something surreal because it is black lived experience.

The afro surrealist perspective is not interested in thinking about the past or the present, but a state known as the Right Now. Afro surrealism creates a specific aesthetic and transforms the way that we see things. In the Surreal Manifesto Scott states that the afro surreal views of art saves cities and reclaims their souls. The world is ready for a San Francisco art movement. Afro-Surrealism is drifting into contemporary culture on a rowboat without oars to find the cure to western civilization. A very interesting claim that makes you wonder if afro surrealism is the saviour to current western culture. Overall, the Afro Surreal Manifesto is a great piece of work and I highly suggest for you to read it, it should be relatively easy to find online through Google Scholar.

Respectability Politics

Respectability Politics is an important concept when watching a show like Atlanta. Atlanta reminds you that colonialism has happened like the real world. Atlanta also reminds you that the Black experience exists within a completely different world at times. Personally, I believe that Atlanta makes it seem like the worst scenarios occurs when the opposing character is also Black. If you have watched the series, then you would know that Alfred has a near death experience almost every season.

What is Respectability Politics

Respectability politics essentially is a concept that explains how black people essentially police and govern themselves. Specifically, Respectability Politics explains how Black people police each other and establish a sense of double consciousness, where respectability politics is a performance split into two audiences; Black who should be respected and whites that should be shown that Blacks are respectable. The performative aspects of Atlanta occur happens almost every episode to some degree. For example, Let’s start with the scene in “Streets on Lock” Earn Is stuck in the waiting area of the Atlanta Police Department. During the scene a Black man was talking about his sexual history with a Woman about their relationship. One man can’t contain himself and starts laughing, before the whole group chimes in and provides their opinion on “My Girl”. Since they are in the male section of the jail, everyone claimed that his girl was in fact a “man”. The man in question attempted to callout other men in prison for their homosexual endeavors but they were not having it. Meanwhile, Earn is literally stuck in the middle of situation. Ironically, they are in the police department, but the real policing that occurs is through the black community.

Final Thoughts

Atlanta was so absurd, it only made sense that the show ended in a fashion like of Once upon a time in America or The Sopranos. Only in a place like Atlanta could absurd things happen regularly, then have us question at the end which ones occurred or were the result of hydro chamber psychosis from Darius. Though unusual, I think Atlanta provides an element of perspectives that are relatable to people (Not just Black people). The series even introduces a white perspective for majority of Season 3. However, we should also think about the main characters of Atlanta. Earn is on the brink of being homeless despite being educated and is considered oftentimes as whitewashed by his peers either indirectly or abruptly. Earn is the victim of stereotyping and racism because he wants success in both the White and Black world. Alfred is the stereotypical black drug dealer that wants to become a rapper. Alfred is confronted with several life-or-death scenarios and almost brushes them off every time and acts like they never happen afterwards. V is a single mother that mostly tries to do the right thing, simultaneously trying to enjoy her life at the same time. As a result, she almost has a psychotic break in Europe. Darius is the spiritually woke character that often introduces new concepts and themes to the group. But, inside Darius exists a world fueled by anxiety and Hydro Chambers. Its possible that the events of Atlanta are within Darius’s head. Everything that happened in Atlanta seemed surreal but many of the events in the show happened in real life; making us question what is real and what is made up.


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