‘Atlanta’ Exposes the Black Lives Matter Industrial Complex

‘Atlanta’ Exposes the Black Lives Matter Industrial Complex

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As the episode description promises, tonight’s Atlanta is sure to make some folks mad, primarily a certain Black Lives Matter activist not so subtly depicted as a non-profit leader who goes by a mononym and unironically wears a Baltic life jacket as a fashion accessory.

“White Fashion,” written and directed by Ibra Ake—who also directed Beyonce’s Black Is King—comes for a lot of necks over the course of 30 minutes, from the fashion industry, obviously, to anti-racist book authors to the whitewashed culinary world. At its most keen moments, the episode highlights the perverse symbiosis between social-justice grifters and corporations while the marginalized communities they purport to care about are left out in the cold. There’s also some poking fun at the “listening and learning” industrial complex that hit a peak during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. However, the episode strangely invokes the ill-informed concept of Black buying power as a productive alternative to these corporate-driven measures and not an equally ineffectual, capitalist trick. It’s primarily confusing in an episode that ends with a Nigerian restaurant owner having her business hijacked by white people.

Despite some muddled messaging, the satire that works in this episode really works.

Al faces a moral dilemma when he’s contacted by a luxury fashion brand called Esco Esco to assist in their PR efforts following a scandal with one of their products—a jersey with the number 5 on the back sandwiched between the words “central” and “park.” We also see marketing that features a white woman modeling the jersey while lying on a picnic blanket surrounded by Black people. As a result, the brand’s publicists ask Al to be a part of a press conference to announce their new diversity advisory panel but instruct him not to say anything and imply that his role is short-term. Earn is reasonably concerned that Al’s involvement will look like an “Uncle Tom” situation. He also says that, if he were in Al’s shoes, he would take the opportunity to learn about diversity programs and start his own initiative encouraging Black folks to reinvest in their own communities instead of supporting white businesses.

As I hinted at earlier, this episode’s failure to interrogate Black consumerism from this angle is disappointing but not necessarily shocking for a show helmed by Donald Glover. The whole ”support Black business” mantra that was offered as a solution to Black people being shot by police in 2020 is problematic for a number of reasons, including the studied myth that Black people could significantly change their socio-economic circumstances if only they didn’t buy Nikes—but I digress! Predictably, Al scoffs at his “Martin Luther King Ebenezer Baptist Church” soapbox moment and says that he just wants an endless supply of free designer clothes for him and his “hoes.”

Meanwhile, Darius’s very mundane journey to attain some jollof rice in England becomes a fable about cultural appropriation and gentrification after he requests the Nigerian staple at the Esco Esco fashion house. Unsure where to buy it from, an assistant named Sharon (Tamsin Topolski) goes with Darius to a Nigerian restaurant and becomes fascinated by the food and culture, Shazam-ing the music playing from the speakers and inquiring about the term “Naija.” Darius doesn’t make much of her ignorance about his culture as a British white woman. But her curiosity is revealed to be much more nefarious by the end of the episode when she buys the business and creates a whitewashed Nigerian food truck called Naija Bowl.

Back at the racial apology press conference where a Black woman is warming up the crowd with a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Al meets a young, gay-coded Black man named Khalil (Fisayo Akinade) donning the aforementioned piece of swimwear over a suit. When he introduces himself to Al, he retorts in an exasperated tone that he already knows who he is, clueing us in on Khalil’s celebrity-activist status. Khalil immediately makes it known that helping corporations get out of racial controversies is practically his entire job, bragging that he hasn’t paid for a meal in “73 police shootings.” Later, he tells Al that if he wants to know what his charity does, he needs to buy his book.

It’s debatable, throughout the course of the episode, whether Ake thinks the audience should loathe or respect Khalil’s hustle—especially by the end—given that he’s taken rightful advantage of white people’s useless guilt but also perpetuating this idea that racism can be eradicated with conservative, ultimately hollow gestures of solidarity.

It’s debatable, throughout the course of the episode, whether Ake thinks the audience should loathe or respect Khalil’s hustle—especially by the end—given that he’s taken rightful advantage of white people’s useless guilt but also perpetuating this idea that racism can be eradicated with conservative, ultimately hollow gestures of solidarity.

Likewise, when the press conference begins, he informs the reporters that, under Esco Esco’s new diversity efforts, they intend to end racism “by 2024.” Before that, a representative for the brand kicks off the event by telling the press that he is “the least prejudiced person in the room.” Al is obviously perturbed and attempts to answer one of the reporter’s questions honestly before he’s cut off by Khalil.

Later, the discovery advisory panel, which includes an anti-racist book author and a social-media influencer whose Blackness is questionable, in addition to Al and Khalil, meet in a boardroom to discuss what the brand’s apology gesture will entail but, first and foremost, what each person wants out of it. Khalil requests tickets to A Raisin in the Sun, which features Julia Roberts in a central role. DeMarco, the influencer, wants Nikes and business-class plane tickets. Sam, the author, wants a thousand copies of her book sold for sensitivity trainings. And they all want a hook-up to the Black Panther 2 premiere.

When Al asks how any of that helps Black people, DeMarco, a blue-eyed, racially ambiguous fellow with a fade and a Blaccent, replies that he’s Black and that it helps him personally to a bunch of curious stares. Inevitably, Al ends up taking Earn’s idea from earlier, suggesting that the company launch a capsule collection along with a “reinvest in your hood” campaign, to which everyone is onboard.

Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles and Donald Glover as Earn Marks in Atlanta‘s “White Fashion”

Rob Youngson/FX

Meanwhile, Earn is hanging out in a hotel lobby where he finally runs into Van reading a book. When he asks where she’s been and why she hasn’t been communicating with anyone, she doesn’t give him much besides a shrug and smile. Out of nowhere, an angry white woman walks up to Van and accuses her of stealing a wig she bought at a store down the street. The concierge eventually kicks the woman out of the hotel and offers Earn the best room, where the two spend the night.

So far, these writers are not beating the Manic Pixie Dream Girl allegations when it comes to the hollow portrayal of Van, especially in this episode where she solely appears to have sex with Earn before vanishing into the night without any explantation of what she’s doing when she’s not with him. It seems that her mystifying journey/state of mind exists solely as a point of curiosity for Earn and an occasional reminder for him to enjoy life’s adventures and not be so tied down by work. At this point, the gesturing toward this very noticeable trope in male-driven stories feels uncanny.

“White Fashion” ends on an expected pessimistic note. When we see the commercial for Paper Boi’s “reinvest in your hood” campaign, it features mostly white people of varying occupations, ages and sexual orientations telling the camera “we’re all from some hood.” When Al confronts Khalil about his campaign essentially being “All Lives Matter-ed,” he responds astutely that there was no way a white-owned corporation would encourage its consumers to stop buying from them—something you’d think the typically cynical Al would understand from the jump. Khalil also suggests that Al take advantage of guilty white liberals like he does and invest in his own charity if wants to make any actual change.

At this point, you sense the show trying to give #Resistance grifters the benefit of the doubt or at least imagining a scenario in which their grifting could be subversive or even ethical. But if the egregious controversies surrounding Black Lives Matter’s global and local networks and their use of funds are any evidence, they certainly haven’t earned any sort of generous depiction. Overall, the episode concludes in a long, exhausted sigh.

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