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How the subtle imitation of nightmares became Atlanta’s greatest trick

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Helena Vesty
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How Donald Glover's Atlanta mastered the uneasy horror of nightmares

As the Emmys approach, we must remember Teddy Perkins was not the most horrifying part of Donald Glover’s hit show 

It comes as no surprise to anyone with a working TV screen that Atlanta is expected to clean up at the 2018 Primetime Emmy Awards tonight. ‘Robbin’ Season’, the sophomore effort of Donald Glover’s creation, premiered earlier this year and shaped up to be a truly unique watch.

The twisting, and often twisted, tale of two cousins on the rise in Atlanta’s rap game scored a total of eight nods, making it the most nominated comedy show on the list. Along with Outstanding Comedy Series, Atlanta could scoop two, hellishly deserved, awards for the infamous ‘Teddy Perkins’ episode – in which Donald Glover played the titular role in whiteface – alone. 

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Teddy Perkins 

The second season distinguished itself by committing hard to horror, giving fans ample opportunity to see their favourite characters at their most vulnerable.

The dark mystery of Teddy and Benny in their haunted mansion is the most obvious step towards the genre, as Atlanta’s resident oracle Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) arrives in his U-Haul truck to collect a piano. He is instead met by the results of violent childhood abuse and his disturbing discoveries are set to a myriad of creepy pop culture references, analysable until your brain breaks.

Other installments also prove the show has found a happy home in the thriller lane. During ‘Woods’, a dissociated Alfred ‘Paper Boi’ Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) is confronted with his suppressed grief and confusion whilst running from his real-world attackers through a forest maze.

In brief but powerful bursts, Glover has demonstrated there is more to fear in Atlanta than meets the eye. However, for all of the jump scares and Madame Tussauds-worthy prosthetics in the world, where the show truly shines is in its quiet ability to unsettle in seemingly innocent episodes.

These episodes create a dramatically different and even more terrifying impact precisely because they aren’t out to scare you explicitly. The stories are made to feel just slightly abnormal, only a little adjacent to reality - enough to set in motion the swirling, uncomfortable sensation of a nightmare about to begin.

The typical tropes of horror may spark a more explosive audience reaction, however these moments are used sparingly in the show. Rather, through the confusions of everyday life across seasons, Atlanta creates rising dread.

Topping it all off, the mastery of this nightmarish torment is so subtle that you’re never entirely sure what set you off feeling so damn uneasy. The daily tasks of the title characters are sometimes so mundane, it’s a tad puzzling why they’re even featured. Yet, these are the trials viewers connect with the most. Earn Marks’ (Donald Glover) sinking hunch that his credit card will bounce as he hands it to the waitress on his date with Van (Zazie Beetz), his gut-wrenching realisation at airport security in the season two finale - these are anxieties we can all relate to.

On closer inspection, there are whole episodes dedicated to this familiar tension. 

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Season one’s final episode, ‘The Jacket’, perfectly constructs a disturbing, waking nightmare, despite it being hailed as one of the more comedic stories. 

Earn loses his jacket on a bender at the club, the next morning his foggy, fantastically hungover mind can’t remember where it could have ended up. We can all relate to feeling unaware of your past actions and how you got to a certain place when waking up after a night out, the uneasy feeling of attempting to piece together the blurry club stamps, the binned takeaway…

Paranoia is loaded on when Earn suggests that there is something important inside the pocket, we later learn this is the key to the storage unit he’s staying in. As the episode progresses, Earn gets precious little help and information about how he can get the jacket back, even when he locates the Uber driver who now has hold of it and, of course, ends up being shot in the very same jacket.

The jarring vision of a moonlit Teddy Perkins may well have kept me up for a full night, but it’s the feeling of chasing something for it to be just out of reach that’s the stuff of my stressful dreams.

Atlanta nightmares

Earn wakes up to realise he’s lost his jacket

Fast forward to season two, episode five. We’re in the barbershop and it’s Alfred’s turn. The A.V. Club review described ‘Barbershop’ as “underwhelming” and “annoying.”

Alfred needs to keep to his appointment, instead, barber Bibby (Robert S. Powell) railroads him with every distraction possible to stop him getting a haircut. One inconsequential errand after another and Alfred is dragged around what feels like the entire state of Georgia - the story is definitely annoying and that’s the trick. 

The lack of urgency is reminiscent of every ‘running late but can’t get there’ dream you’ve had, so much so that you have to know how it ends, just as Alfred does. 

Atlanta isn’t alone. Some of the most popular shows have also tuned into the midly irritating in recent years. The entire plot of Breaking Bad is pretty harrowing, but the episode ‘Fly’ proved to be one of the most frustrating, as Jesse attempts to persuade an obsessive Walt to stop chasing a bug. I’d never been so antsy for him to snap out of it and get on with, you know, the whole meth thing.

With Glover’s apparently growing affinity for creating real horror stories, it’s possible we can prepare for even more fear factor when the newly commissioned season three commences. 

But the most nail-biting scenes will remain those where we watch routine problems play out, excruciatingly, before our eyes. 

(Images: FX)

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