'Atlanta' And The Black Sitcom

In telling stories about a real part of many black lives, FX’s new show feels more like a protest than a sitcom

Atlanta feels like a protest more than a cable sitcom. To depict such realistic black lives on television is like taking a knee during the national anthem. The most popular black television shows at the moment are dramas; the black sitcom has always been tricky. How do you make a show that's true to blackness without turning into coonery like Homeboys in Outer Space? And when there's already a popular show like Black-ish on the air, how do you convince people that there should be more? That black lives aren't a monolith and there can be thousands of television shows depicting our lives and you still wouldn't reach all the depths that our souls have to offer? First, you have to look back into television and dispel the notion that the definitive black sitcom was The Cosby Show.

Even before the unraveling of Bill Cosby's carefully knitted image, I didn't fuck with The Cosby Show. The show never seemed relatable like a sitcom and it never seemed aspirational like a soap opera. It always operated as a morality tale, a twisted Aesop fable about how to be respectable enough for white people to like you. Of course, the morality tale isn't foreign to The Cosby Show. My childhood was full of them — but most of them were white morality tales. The gang at Bayside High routinely got into trouble on Saved by the Bell, only to learn a valuable lesson at the end. Alex P. Keaton often clashed with his parents on Family Ties politically and because he was a narcissistic teenager, but a speech from Steve or Elyse often set him back on the right path. The difference in these stories is that white teenagers are afforded the privilege to fail, to be themselves, to be human — in real life and on television.

The kids on The Cosby Show often got into trouble, but it could never be part of their personality. Cliff Huxtable's son, Theo, doesn't smoke pot; he has a joint planted on him and has to prove his innocence. Theo is mocked for wanting to take flying lessons. Theo has to go through family court to prove that he's not lying about coming home late. The concept of a black man putting his son through a mock trial over tardiness is laughable to the age of protests of police brutality and a prison system that disproportionately targets black men. But it was par for the course on The Cosby Show, where Cliff's children didn't just have to learn a lesson, they had to be respectable enough to appeal to white people.

Cosby's infamous “Pound Cake Speech” in 2004 was practically the thesis for the entire run of his popular sitcom. He referenced 50 percent drop-out rates for black high schoolers (the rate was 13 percent) and parents spending money on "$500 sneakers." The latter pops up in The Cosby Show when Theo wants an expensive designer shirt to impress a date and the plan blows up in his face. Contrast this with Lisa Turtle: A black character, yes, but one on the blindingly white sitcom Saved by the Bell that never addressed Lisa's race (except for the random episode where Jessie discovers her Italian ancestors were somehow slave traders and we spend an episode on her performative white guilt). In an episode of the sitcom, the selfish, fashionable Lisa spends an exorbitant amount of money on her father's credit card, then feels guilt about it.

For what it's worth, even coming from a background where I never could have done that, Lisa's character flaw made her more human. The same goes for the similarly characterized Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a far better series than The Cosby Show. The former used characters like Hilary, Will, and Carlton to comment on social issues while also allowing them to exist as comedic sitcom characters. The Huxtables, by contrast, only ever seemed to do something wrong so that Cliff could teach them that it was wrong. It was a lesson to the children and the parents that Cosby would eventually shame decades later with his speeches on respectability, and how only if we presented ourselves the correct way, then our lives would be improved.

The Cosby Show was created as an alternative to the black sitcoms that dominated the airwaves in the 1970s. Norman Lear's white working-class shows like All in the Family, One Day at a Time, and Maude led to the creation of black shows (all developed by Lear as well) like Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, the latter of which spun off from a working-class sitcom despite its turn as an aspirational show about being black and wealthy (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air followed this blueprint as well, mixing working-class values with a lush setting). While dealing with social and political issues of the time, each of these sitcoms dealt with the fact that their characters lived paycheck to paycheck.

The early ’70s saw black families challenging the Jim Crow era of the South and looking for employment in Northern, Eastern, and Western cities while also challenging inequalities in education and housing discrimination. That made the plights of Florida Evans and Fred Sanford relatable. They were working as hard as they could to keep their family together and put food on the table each week. And amid that, they managed to laugh at themselves and the cards life dealt them.

It was the American turn toward conservatism and Reaganesque values in the ’80s that saw a pushback to these depictions of black lives. With shows like Dynasty and Dallas populating the airwaves, why couldn't black families be seen in the same light? The answer to those shows, unfortunately, took decades to come to fruition with the recent creation of soap black series that either put black characters into the same glitzy fantasies white families had enjoyed since the ’80s (Empire), thrillers with insane plot twists (Scandal), or dramatized human stories (Being Mary Jane). The Cosby Show could have been a sitcom full of larger-than-life characters that built on traditional sitcom stories and yet offered a richer tapestry of black lives on television. Instead, it became a vessel for how Cosby wanted black Americans to pull themselves out of poverty. Never mind that his bootstraps story included becoming famous, a path that most Americans, black or otherwise, will never be able to accomplish.

It's telling that one of the greatest black family sitcoms of recent years ignored respectability politics — Everybody Hates Chris. Chris Rock's depiction of his childhood in ’80s New York shows a far more realistic depiction of black lives, with a working-class family that managed to instill values into their children while also addressing the fact that race wasn't simply something you could wash away by putting on a colorful sweater and pulling up your pants. Julius leads his family with a tight wallet while Tonya is constantly worried about how white people and bougie blacks like Cosby might perceive her family. In that essence, she reminded me of my mother, a woman who, like most working mothers, worried about taking care of her kids while also being painfully aware of how society views them.

It's that rich history of the working-class family that Atlanta, Donald Glover's hilarious show, draws from. While it has earned comparisons to Master of None and Louie, the show has nothing to do with either of those projects that focus on the lives of successful comedians and the worlds they inhabit. Glover's character, Earn, is not as famous as he is in real life, and he's not a comedian: He's an aspiring rap mogul who's managing the career of his cousin, "Paper Boi." Glover's depiction of black lives in Atlanta is thoughtful and nuanced, from the men who aspire to be stars, to women who want to take care of their children, to people caught in the correctional system, to a black woman raising her daughter while also having to raise the man she had that daughter with.

Earn's stories revolve around his character learning a lesson each week, but he's not punished for who he is. He learns to be a better role model for his daughter, he learns to be up front when he can't pay for an expensive date, but he's never shamed for the circumstances he's in. The pilot's conclusion shows him in a confrontation with Paper Boi and another man that involves a gunshot. When Earn is arrested, despite not being directly involved, we see how he has to sit through an entire day waiting to be processed. Throughout his ordeal, we're introduced to other men and women who are repeatedly circled through the prison system. And when Vanessa bails out Earn, he's not humiliated for his arrest. She reminds him that it's not the first time she's had to bail someone out of prison. In this moment, Atlanta manages to tell a story about a real part of many black lives without being condescending.

Every one of the characters in Atlanta feels familiar, feels recognizable. Even black families that have reached the level of wealth that the Cosbys had are not far removed from a history near the poverty line. Black families in America were not historically born into wealth. It's all been earned through decades of hard work, and sometimes a person breaks through with a degree, with a rap career, with a stroke of luck. But the system is not designed for black success, and there's been no better representation of that than the black working-class sitcom that holds a mirror up to what over 20 percent of black Americans face and manages to be funny, all the while showing America that our lives are important even if we're not Huxtables. Sometimes, the greatest protest is laughter.

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