Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson
Matt Thompson is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.
  • What Do Southerners Hear in S-Town?

    Andrea Morales / S-Town

    S-Town plays on some familiar themes of storytelling about the South. As Aja Romano has noted at Vox, the show fits firmly into the Southern gothic tradition immortalized in the works of authors like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, even though it’s nonfiction. But in an interview with Deep South Magazine, the show’s producer Brian Reed said his instinct was to push beyond stereotypes:

    Reed hadn’t spent much time in Alabama before traveling down from New York to meet John. His wife, who is African American, advised him to set his social media profiles to private. He thought she was just perpetuating a stereotype, but he does meet his share of racists among John’s friends. “In a way, the vision that John was feeding me of this Shittown or S-Town that he lived in, it had all the trappings of the stereotypes you think of when you think of rural Alabama,” Reed says. “My knee-jerk was to go against that. It can’t be exactly that. I know it’s more complicated than that.”

    I grew up in central Florida. As Floridians know, the weird cultural geography of the state means that the farther north you go in Florida, the closer you get to “the South,” so central Florida is a somewhat ambicultural middle zone, not fully Southern, but bearing whiffs and echoes and markers of the South. So I’ve been interested to hear the reactions to S-Town from listeners who grew up in the region, and I’ve excerpted a few here.

  • The Problem of Bingeing on S-Town

    Artwork by Valero Sandoval / S-Town

    Given the market dynamics of media in 2017, I expect that this very moment, somewhere in America, the invisible hand is penning an epic takedown of S-Town. The seven-part series from the makers of This American Life and Serial is popular enough that backlash is near-inevitable. Already, many folks have commented on the show’s milieu, a perfect fit for America's political zeitgeist in the same way that J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was in 2016. Between that context and the inherent problematics of any show that dives so deeply into the complex inner lives and tragedies of its subjects (see also: Serial, Making a Murderer, Missing Richard Simmons), this is a show that is likely to rub at least a few listeners the wrong way. But it’s a rich enough endeavor that no matter how you feel about it, it offers many footholds for conversation.

    One danger in releasing a show like S-Town all at once is that it induces a sense of sudden, ephemeral ubiquity, at least within a certain cultural bubble. Conversations about the show will burn hot for a few weeks around its release, and if you don’t immediately start binge-listening, you’ll miss the social experience of it. You might get spoiled on key plot points. And it might already have gone through the critical wringer, so it will be impossible to listen fresh. Your impressions might be shaped by the vague sense that the show’s been deemed problematic, subtly priming you to listen for its flaws rather than its merits, a spoiler of a different kind.

    So I’d like to discuss S-Town—with you, if you’re interested— a little at a time, here on Notes. I haven’t finished the show, but what I’ve heard has been remarkable. Although all the episodes are available, our discussion can proceed at a leisurely pace; the show is rich enough to reward multiple listens. Any spoilers will appear after the jump, and we’ll make sure to include a note that says "[ Spoilers ahead through episode X ]” before that point in each post.

    If you’ve got thoughts to contribute, send them to hello+stown@theatlantic.com. My Atlantic colleagues will join me, and we’ll make sure to excerpt coverage that runs elsewhere on the site. Whenever you’re interested in digesting the show alongside a thoughtful and curious crew, our thoughts will be here for you to catch up. (Start, perhaps, with the thoughts of the great Spencer Kornhaber.)

    Just remember: Make haste, but slowly. Soon comes night.

  • How Is Your Life Situated in History?

    The Atlantic

    It’s difficult to piece together, in the moment, which of the events we live through will be remembered over time. Will it be the resignation of a national security advisor weeks into a new presidency? Will it be the sight of people wearing shorts in the middle of winter, a chaser for the hottest year on record? Or will it be something else altogether, a domino that tumbled mostly out of sight, setting off a chain of events more significant than anything that grabbed headlines at the time? What historic events have you lived through that weren't thought of as historic when they happened?

    Today, The Atlantic is launching something we call the Life Timeline. Enter your birthday, and the Life Timeline will show you a brief tour of the history that’s happened all around you. You can think of it as a rearview mirror for your life, allowing you to view the milestones that dot your journey to this moment, stretching back until just before you were born. Just like history, each Life Timeline comprises many different types of events—delightful moments and tragic ones, world-changing milestones and moments merely worthy of note, some you probably remember, some you might have forgotten, and a few you might not have known about at all. Many are paired with stories from The Atlantic’s archives, so that you can see how these events and their significance play out in the memory of this 160-year-old institution.

    My Life Timeline tells me that right around the middle of my life, Google was founded. So right at this moment, I’ve lived in a world with Google just as long as I lived in the world without it, and as I age, I move further into a world where it's been around for most of my life. Those still-vivid pre-Google scavenger hunts through Dewey Decimal cards will start to recede deeper into the fog of memory. For me, the milestone is a reminder to mark my memories of that time before they get blurrier, to take a moment to think about what I might have gained and lost. But I imagine your Life Timeline will prompt different sorts of reflections.

    We plan to continue adding to the Life Timeline over time and in response to your feedback. After viewing your own timeline, you can share your email with us to be notified of future updates. Whether you consider it a blessing or a curse, you’re living through interesting times. And you’ve already lived through enough to fill history books. Consider this a sneak preview of what those books might say.

  • Katie Martin / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

    The Hundred-Year-Old Fix for Razor Bumps

    There are a slew of products aimed at black men with this problem, but I found relief in early-20th-century razor technology. Now, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur has built a company around the old-fashioned solution.

  • Memo to the White House on the Contributions of Frederick Douglass

    George Kendall Warren

    At an event marking the start of Black History Month, President Trump gave a very Trumpian shoutout to Frederick Douglass, who, he said, “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” The vague nature of the praise has drawn scorn from some corners of the Internet, but let’s not be churlish: Frederick Douglass was a king among men. So let us continue with our now-annual tradition of reacquainting you with his brilliant and prescient mind. It’s a valuable exercise in part because Douglass’s preoccupations are still very much the topics of contemporary political debate.

  • David Gray / Reuters

    The Freedoms of George Michael

    He proved he could still move records even after he discarded his teen idol image, and after the world knew he was gay.

  • Ye Aung Thu / Getty

    A Podcast Listener's Guide to the 2016 Election

    The best audio sources to get through the next few days

  • Must Political Stagecraft Be Evil?

    Tom Kirkman, surrounded by screens as always, in Designated Survivor. ABC

    I caught up with the first couple episodes of the new show Designated Survivor this past weekend. In the show, the top 12 people in the line of presidential succession, including the president and his entire cabinet and almost everyone in Congress, all perish in a bomb attack during the State of the Union address. So the running of the country falls to a somewhat obscure cabinet member, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), the “designated survivor” who’d been picked to watch the address from an undisclosed location in the event of just such a crisis.

    Watching Kirkman wrestle with the burden of the presidency crystallized for me what bugged me about The Candidate (a film discussed by Megan here and here). Like Bill McKay (Robert Redford), Tom Kirkman is ambivalent at best about taking on a high-profile political office. But Kirkman’s ambivalence comes from the momentous regard he has for the office. McKay, on the other hand, treats the Senate seat he’s pretending to campaign for as something of a joke.

    The promise McKay’s campaign manager makes him—the one that convinces him to run—is that he won’t actually have to follow through on any of the idealism of his campaign message. He can say whatever he wants, because he doesn’t intend to win. Although he gradually evolves into a more conventional politician, what drives him is his impulse to spread his cynicism about politics. He runs to mock the artifice of campaigning, and the biting satirical point of the movie (spoiler alert) is that his phony campaign compels voters all the more for its insincerity.

    It’s hard to think of a more cynical move than asking people to invest their hopes, their votes, and their money in one’s campaign, all the while intending for that campaign to go down in flames. Yet many viewed McKay as a hero. Legend has it that the film inspired Dan Quayle to run for office, which inspired Jeremy Larner to address the future vice president in a 1988 op-ed in The New York Times. Larner wrote:

  • Stephen Brashear / AP

    The Mass Shooting at a Washington Shopping Mall

    Five people were killed in the attack; police later arrested a suspect after a day-long manhunt.

  • Matt Thompson

    Date Night With the Zombies

    Why battling the undead with my partner via a two-player Playstation game makes for surprisingly fulfilling quality time together

  • Felipe Dana / AP

    The Cable Empire Strikes Back

    The 2016 Olympics will be a test of how well Comcast and NBC can deliver live programming in the digital, on-demand era.

  • Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

    To Be Outed in the Worst Possible Way

    A first-generation American who grew up in Orlando imagines a horrific phone call.

  • Track of the Day: 'Sueña'

    It was right around this time in June twenty years ago when, in preparation for the theatrical release of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the group All-4-One released the single “Someday.” I’ve found myself playing Luis Miguel’s version of the song over and over again since this weekend’s horrific massacre in the city where I grew up, and I thought perhaps its maudlin-but-optimistic message might bring comfort to someone else today:

    A taste of the song’s lyrics:

    Someday 
    When we are wiser
    When the world's older
    When we have learned
    I pray 
    Someday we may yet live
    To live
    And let live

    The context for the song’s release is notable. Disney was facing increasing criticism from Christian conservatives, particularly over its relationship with the gay and lesbian community. In 1994, the company’s subsidiary Miramax Films had released the movie Priest, about a young priest who struggles with his sexuality. Then, in 1995, Disney approved same-sex domestic partner benefits for its employees. The annual Gay Days event at Disney’s Orlando theme parks had become so popular that the company’s official neutral stance on the occasion, neither welcoming nor discouraging attendees, was increasingly untenable. A couple short weeks before Hunchback’s release in theaters, the Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly in favor of calling for a boycott of all Disney properties. 

    Then, Hunchback was released, with its themes of both religious devotion and tolerance for the world’s most vulnerable. The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, back when he was a film critic at the South Florida Sun-Sentinelwrote that the film might “come as a surprise to Disney's Christian critics, and should buy back tumbrils of goodwill. Unlike the anti-clerical Victor Hugo novel, Disney’s rewrite of the Hunchback story has rendered it openly pro-Christian.” LGBTQ fans of the movie, on the other hand, found a welcoming message in the film’s portrayal of what it means to be closeted, represented in songs such as “Out There” and “God Help the Outcasts” and “Someday.”

    Despite the boycott, Hunchback was a box office success. And the first single from the film, All-4-One’s “Someday,” was a modest hit on the Billboard charts. Luis Miguel’s version of the song, “Sueña,” which reached the top of Billboard’s Latin Pop Songs chart, is the one I’ll be playing on loop this week. 

    (Track of the Day archive here. Earlier archive here. Submit via hello@.)

  • Marvel Studios

    Picking Sides in Captain America: Civil War

    Four Atlantic writers discuss the newest installment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

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    Even if you’re not asked to come in for an in-person testing session with our site, we may survey you about your experiences with the site, and solicit your input and feedback. So whether or not you’re in the area, please do fill out the form if you’re willing to offer us your thoughts. Thanks in advance for helping us refine the site!

  • Clone Zone: Democratizing April Foolery

    If this tool didn’t exist, Slavoj Žižek would have had to invent it.

    Clone Zone was built by a pair of artists and opened to the public last April, after the artists’ TechCrunch spoof site won them some Facebook love. The tool aims to democratize the art of spoof-making, letting users create fake spins on popular sites with as little time and effort as it takes to craft a tweet.

    Because it was out of beta weeks after April Fool’s Day 2015, Clone Zone wasn’t ready for the public to test its true Internet-trolling potential last year. This year it is live, but is the Internet ready?

  • In Praise of Political Reporters

    Last night, President Obama gave the keynote lecture at an annual dinner to honor excellence in political reporting. The dinner is held once a year to commemorate Robin Toner, a legendary reporter who covered domestic politics for The New York Times until her death in 2008. (Obama recounted one of the anecdotes that has sealed Toner’s legend: over the course of nearly 25 years of reporting for the Times, she filed or contributed to more than 1,900 stories. She was such a meticulous fact-checker of her work that only six of those stories had corrections appended.) Every year, a political reporter is awarded the Toner Prize for his or her work; this year’s winner was Alec MacGillis of ProPublica. My colleague Molly Ball won the award in 2013 for her terrific coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign.

    Obama’s remarks came at a somewhat freighted moment for the nation’s political press corps. Countless stories from political reporters and media observers over the past several weeks have posed questions about the appropriate role of the press in covering a candidate like Donald Trump, who is an expert at using critical coverage of himself as a foil to draw more attention from the media and more approval from his supporters.

    Although Obama didn’t mention Trump by name, the GOP front-runner’s unique relationship with the media was the implicit focus of the president’s comments (highlighted in the clip embedded above).

  • Answers, Questioned

    “Judge a man by his questions, rather than his answers,” said the great Voltaire, according to Forbes.com, and BrainyQuote.com, and GoodReads.com, and a thousand other places across the Internet.

    But where did Voltaire say this, or write it? Pursue that question a short distance, and you’ll come across Wikiquote, which says the source of this expression wasn’t, in fact, Voltaire, but a book of maxims by Pierre Marc Gaston de Lévis. And sure enough, there it is: “Il est encore plus facile de juger de l’esprit d’un homme par ses questions que par ses réponses.” (“It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.”)

    The Internet is filled with answers to life’s conundrums. Many of those answers are helpful, and a great many are suspect, or insufficient, or just wrong. How to figure out which is which? Perhaps by taking the answers as a starting point, rather than the destination.

    Over the next few weeks, we’re trying a spin on a long-loved format for journalism: the A&Q. We’re taking the classic Q&A and turning it on its head, beginning with some of the most frequently posed solutions to pressing matters of policy and complicating those answers with thoughtful questions. Here are the first eight, published today:

    You can peruse all the A&Qs (as well as forthcoming topics to be addressed) here. If you know of a good answer we haven’t questioned, send it along: hello@theatlantic.com. And if you’d like us to take on more topics in this format, send us those ideas too.

  • Welcome to the Next America

    Reed Saxon/AP

    That the United States is losing its ethnic majority is now a familiar fact. The Census Bureau still dutifully updates the projected tipping point every few years, but the moment when most Americans will be people of color (as we’d consider them today, at least) should come sometime around 2042 or 2043.

    Although the fact of this demographic transition is old news, its ramifications are still very much being worked out. “What will the new mainstream of America look like,” Hua Hsu asked in The Atlantic in 2009, “and what ideas or values might it rally around?” At the time, my colleague Ta-Nehisi had similar questions about the demographic shift: “I'm not saying nothing will change,” he wrote. “I'm just saying that we probably don't know what, or how.”

    Now we’re starting to see. The racial and ethnic diversification of the U.S. is visibly in effect across the country, transforming homes, classrooms, businesses, street corners, and rippling out into the world.

    The Next America team at National Journal has been covering this transformation in communities around the United States. They followed activists who “smuggled” into Tucson books that had been banned from the city’s Mexican-American Studies curriculum. They traced the effects of the rise in black consumer spending in America, projected to reach $1.2 trillion in 2015. They visited communities scarred by a series of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raids ten years earlier, and covered the legal plight of minors who’ve crossed the border unauthorized and unaccompanied.

    You may notice those links all go to Atlantic stories. That’s because as of today, Next America is a project of The Atlantic. With the team’s arrival, we’ll be significantly boosting our coverage of how the nation’s demographic shift is playing out. Between Next America and our expanded politics and policy section, I think there’s no better place to track the continued evolution of the American idea. But of course I’m biased. You can follow Next America coverage through Twitter and Facebook, and in all the places you usually find Atlantic stories.

    Go to almost any elementary school classroom in the country and you’ll see: In many ways, the next America is already here. And now, I’m delighted to say, Next America is right here, too.

  • 10 More of the Year's Best Podcast Episodes

    We just published a list of 50 of the best podcast episodes of the year, as chosen by the editors of The Timbre, who also produce a weekly podcast roundup that I highly recommend. If you listen to a lot of podcasts yourself, I’m sure you’ve got a few favorites from the year that aren’t included on our list. Here are 10 of mine:

    “Sounds Up There” by BBC Radio 4

    What do astronauts hear in space? The answer to that question contained in this episode isn’t a classically linear story. You may, on listening, struggle to identify which person’s speaking at any given time. But it was one of the richest, most stimulating thirty minutes of listening I’ve enjoyed in 2015. To get a sense of the mood of this piece, put on a decent pair of headphones, turn the volume up to a comfortable level, and give this three-minute sample a whirl. Close your eyes if you’d like, or pull up a gorgeous looping movie of our blue marble in motion. It’ll stop your thought.