Donald Glover Talks Race and ‘Atlanta’ in New Profile

By Sameer Rao Feb 27, 2018

In a profile published by The New Yorker yesterday (February 26), Donald Glover explains that his path still intersects with racism enough to make even the biggest success—Emmys, critical acclaim, new projects—feel completely isolating. 

That viewpoint influences "Atlanta," which returns for a second season on Thursday (March 1). The FX show mixes humor, drama and ethereal visuals to tell the story of two cousins as they spin their wheels while seeking success. Fans of the show know that copious amounts of marijuana accompany much of its comedy, but Glover insists that the drug theme is much darker than audiences—especially White ones—may recognize:

I want [White people] to really experience racism, to really feel what it’s like to be Black in America. People come to "Atlanta" for the strip clubs and the music and the cool talking, but the eat-your-vegetables part is that the characters aren’t smoking weed all the time because it’s cool, but because they have P.T.S.D.—every Black person does. It’s scary to be at the bottom, yelling up out of the hole, and all they shout down is, "Keep digging! We’ll reach God soon!"

Glover says that his race has never ceased to be a consideration in his career, dating back to his first writing job on "30 Rock":

“I wondered, Am I being hired just because I’m Black?" Glover reflected. Tina Fey, the show’s creator and star, told [writer Tad Friend] that the answer was in large part yes; she admired Glover’s talent but hired him because funds from NBC’s Diversity Initiative “made him free.”

The theme continued throughout his career, including when he realized he would have to "Trojan horse" the idea behind "Atlanta" for FX to buy it: 

“I knew what FX wanted from me,” Glover said. “They were thinking it’d be me and Craig Robinson”—the “Hot Tub Time Machine” actor—“horse-tailing around, and it’ll be kind of like ‘Community,’ and it’ll be on for a long time. I was Trojan-horsing FX. If I told them what I really wanted to do, it wouldn’t have gotten made.” Stephen Glover, Glover’s thirty-year-old brother and his closest collaborator on the show, said, “Donald promised, ‘Earn and Al work together to make it in the rough music industry. Al got famous for shooting someone and now he’s trying to deal with fame, and I’ll have a new song for him every week. Darius will be the funny one, and the gang’s going to be all together.’ That was the Trojan horse."

Even after winning two Emmy awards, Glover still feels like he has to qualify himself in ways that his White peers don’t. He discusses this when Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles on "Atlanta," relates a conversation they had at Glover’s birthday party:

Glover has a quizzical view of the relationship between awards and attainment. Even before the first season aired, he declared, “The second season of ‘Atlanta’ will be a classic.” But he’d also told me, “A lot of this season is me proving to people that I didn’t get those Emmys just because of affirmative action.” At Glover’s birthday party, in September, he and Brian Tyree Henry had a loud exchange about the topic. “It was just rage,” Henry told me. “Because at the end of the day, after we win all these Emmys and get all this love, as soon as the show is over we’re just niggas to you. We were drunk and high, and I was getting really dark. I made Donald come back to my house to keep talking about it, and Donald just kept coming back at me: ‘Really, Brian? Really?’”

Glover said, “To Brian, the basic fact that White people don’t want their feelings hurt so we have to make everything palatable to them is really upsetting. I used to feel the anger he feels about it, anger to the point of tears. Now it’s just boring to me. If Brian is Magneto, I’m Professor X”—the X-Men mutants modelled, respectively, on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.


“If ‘Atlanta’ was made just for Black people, it would be a very different show. But I can’t even begin to tell you how, because Blackness is always seen through a lens of Whiteness—the lens of what White people can profit from at that moment. That hasn’t changed through slavery and Jim Crow and civil-rights marches and housing laws and ‘We’ll shoot you.’ Whiteness is equally liquid, but you get to decide your narrative.” For the moment, he suggested, White America likes seeing itself through a Black lens. “Right now, Black is up, and so White America is looking to us to know what’s funny.”

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