I’ve been thinking about the jail waiting-room scene in episode two of Donald Glover’s Atlanta. There’s a lot at work here, from the worn, uncomfortable-looking chairs, the dim light, the scrape of the chairs, the coughing. You can smell the burnt coffee, urine, the BO, the unceasing, mundane theatrics of law and order at work. Earn, Glover’s indolent-with-a-heart-of gold wants to sleep; he just wants to be processed, jailed, and bailed, but perchance to sleep for God’s sake. It’s the banality of fatigue under low-level duress, constantly threatening to erupt into life-ruining cataclysm that takes things from the level of simple Sartrian numbitude into something sinister and scary. Indeed, there’s lots of boring nothing at work, a nothing pregnant with menace that never quite arrives, until something suddenly and grossly does happen (no spoilers, because toilet water). Something that robs everyone of their dignity, as it breaks the loose bonds of fraternity that’d settled in.
Oftentimes in extended scenes and sequences like this, we’re primed to look for the object of menace, or the signifier of dramatic tension that’s about to raise the stakes. On several occasions in this sequence, it seems like that menace is approaching. It never quite does. Glover’s broader objective here seems to me to show the normalization of this bureaucracy, without forcing an opinion or judgment. It is what it is.
There’s a lumpen, slow-moving quality to the pacing and emotional trajectory of each exchange. Earn snuggles confidently and desperately with Van, Paper Boi lumbers down a street, weighted, awed, a little scared, and intrigued by who his world thinks he is or wants him to be. This writing really cares about contemplation; these characters worry about who they are, and who their world thinks they are.
None of this seems to foreclose a feeling of dramatic completeness, however. Perhaps because it’s more important to Glover, a comedian, to punctuate every sequence with humor. I don’t know that that’s exactly right, because I don’t know that I’ve quite figured out the rhythms of this show. And I’m so, so fine with that.