Atlanta Confronts the Spectacle of White Ignorance

The show’s long-awaited third season revisits the idea that race is a performance, one as horrifying as it is hilarious.

Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred a.k.a Paper Boi in 'Atlanta'
Coco Olakunle / FX

Anyone can be white. So proclaims a drawling, drunk white man to his Black fishing buddy in the opening scene of Atlanta’s long-awaited third season. They sit in a small skiff floating on a lake at night. The vibes are eerie. The pair, dressed almost identically, are unfamiliar to viewers and are left unnamed. The show’s central cast, led by the cash-strapped and fumbling Earn (played by creator Donald Glover), is nowhere in sight. The plot, in this scene and for most of the premiere, doesn’t connect back to where Season 2 left off four years ago. Yet the man’s words make something plain that Glover has been threading through Atlanta since its first episodes: Race is a performance, one as horrifying as it is hilarious. “With enough blood and money,” the anonymous man says, “anyone can be white. It’s always been that way.”

Atlanta, a comedy-drama that is both surreal and sharp-toothed, loves to play with the idea of race as a kind of mask. In the first two seasons, Glover was primarily fascinated by how Black people invent themselves. In Season 1, as the show shook off its sitcom exterior and revealed its weirder, impressionistic essence, it introduced a smirking Black boy who trolls his school in whiteface, and a Black teen with a penchant for Patagonia who decrees himself a 35-year-old “transracial” white man. Atlanta embraced its satirical dreaminess in Season 2. The episode “Teddy Perkins” features a Michael Jackson–adjacent recluse who invites, at turns, terror, ridicule, and pity from his guest, the perpetually bemused Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). These interludes weren’t just whimsical gestures. Each posed a question: If race is a performance, what happens when a Black person rejects his assigned role?

In the second episode of Season 3, white folks are acting foolish. “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town” brings us back to our core cast, who are gallivanting in Amsterdam. Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), also known by his rapper name, Paper Boi, has booked a new tour, a year after the one he was preparing for in Season 2’s finale. (Now he’s the headliner, not the supporting act.) Here, blackface is given the lurid treatment that the show previously reserved for whiteface—the city, and the concert venue, are filled with Dutch people painted black in celebration of the racist, tiresome holiday tradition of “Zwarte Piet.” In the past, in lieu of straightforward minstrelsy, the main characters confronted more insidious caricatures of themselves. Alfred, in particular, has struggled with the stereotypes projected onto his Paper Boi persona, as reporters and shitposters alike tried to reduce him to a “thug” rapper. He wants to cash in on his talent but fears becoming a minstrel for the entertainment industry in the process. That private fear becomes a public taunt in Amsterdam, when the rapper is greeted by a horde of people in blackface. When it’s showtime, Alfred refuses to take the stage.

But that decision is not the episode’s climax and is depicted without melodrama or prolonged deliberation. Instead, the spotlight in “Sinterklaas” is aimed at the crowd that is oblivious to the ugliness of its own performance. At one point, a white character can’t even distinguish between black paint and real Black skin—in a case of mistaken identity, he attacks a white reveler for something that Earn did. Toni Morrison addressed a similar type of myopia in a 1974 essay. She wrote of the “dumbfoundedness” she feels toward white people who insist on a simplistic image of Blackness. “Surely they knew that intelligence was judged by the ability to tell the difference between one thing and another … That the finer the distinctions, the higher the intellect,” she wrote. “The inability, then, to tell one black person from another was tantamount to a public admission of brain damage.” Atlanta’s script seems to riff off Morrison’s diagnosis, suggesting that the absurdity is even more amplified when a white person can’t tell the difference between their own fantasy and Black reality.

Fittingly, in the season premiere, the drunk man on the boat observes that whiteness prevents a person from seeing the world clearly, and the way racist systems injure everyone involved. “It’s easy to see the Black man as cursed because you’ve separated yourself from him. But you don’t know, you’re enslaved just like him,” he says. “You lose logic. You see the blood, and you think someone else is bleeding.” But Atlanta has always seen where the blood comes from. And it has long proved itself adept at lining wounds with laughter. In Season 3’s first act, the show taps further into whiteness, and suggests it could be the most gruesome comedy yet.