After an almost four-year hiatus, the long-awaited arrival of Atlanta’s third season is upon us. Each episode reflects the ongoing debates around race and the authenticity of Blackness going on in the world right now. And, much in like real life, these tense discussions in the show usually play out on Twitter—where the raging diaspora wars pit Black Americans and Black people from other parts of the world against each other. There’s never any resolve, because that would have to formally acknowledge the real problem: white supremacy.
Donald Glover, the series creator, writer, and star, is definitely in activism mode this season, as recent episodes have been rife with curated vignettes about common microaggressions. In the season’s penultimate episode, hilariously titled “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” we’re introduced to Aaron, a young biracial man who outwardly passes as white. We quickly find out how he leverages that privilege: Aaron is on the verge of his high school graduation and hell-bent on gaining admission to the same college as his white girlfriend. Unfortunately for him, his Black father isn’t offering much assistance in that arena. Instead, he corrects his son’s dangerous naïveté about police brutality and demands rent in the event that his son ends up at home, after all.
Since his dad isn’t interested in helping to fill out financial aid forms or providing any kind of counsel on how his son’s college tuition might be paid, Aaron finds himself in a slump until a distinguished Black alumnus, Robert S. Lee (not to be confused with the Confederate general Robert E. Lee), enters the fray. Lee is played by none other than the late Kevin Samuels—a dating guru who became a household name thanks to his controversial viral YouTube videos and died in early May. Unlike the real-life Samuels, who often berated and degraded Black women in his videos, Samuels’ Lee is a multi-millionaire who returns to his high school to bless the latest graduating class with an offer to pay the college tuition of only the Black students. But there’s a catch: He wants to change the high school’s name from “Stonewall Jackson High” to his very own.
Aaron is desperate to get his hands on the scholarship fund and is even willing to finally claim his Blackness, if that’s what it takes to do so. But he falls short during a meeting with Lee and his associates, a group of Black middle-aged men. They gather to judge whether or not the young man standing before them is Black enough to earn a full-ride scholarship to the college of his choice. After a series of random questions blatantly contrived to revoke the membership of those claiming to be Black, Aaron gets a “no.” The judges determine he isn’t eligible for the scholarship because he isn’t authentically Black enough.
So our sullen protagonist channels his frustrations into creating a flamethrower, thanks to handy directions from Google, and storms over to his newly renamed Robert S. Lee High School—only to find himself confused that someone else is also there to burn the school to the ground. Felix, a dark-skinned Nigerian-American who also wasn’t the right kind of Black to qualify for a scholarship, tells Aaron: “I’m ‘bout to burn this motherfucker down.”
What happens next is stunning: Aaron—a light-skinned, white-passing Black man who only reclaims his identity when it suits his motives—proceeds to diminish the Blackness of a peer who is vividly Blacker than he is. He tramples on Felix’s defense using the tropes that Black immigrants are all too accustomed to hearing—namely, how we already have a foundational culture to directly pull from, unlike Black Americans, and a homeland that recognizes our ancestral codes. Black immigrants are not suffering the dire consequences of white supremacy in the same way Black Americans are because they don’t have to weather the indignities of not knowing where they came from, Aaron charges.
It doesn’t take long for things to spiral out of control, as both Aaron and Felix turn on each other while wreaking havoc on the school grounds with their flamethrowers. The ruckus gets crazy enough to summon cops to the fiery scene, and shots ring out. Felix falls to the ground. Luckily, his bullet wounds aren’t life-threatening, and his near-murder by the police scores him high praise from Robert S. Lee—who suddenly now deems the wounded student “Black enough” to receive a scholarship.
The episode doesn’t end there, but that’s definitely where I needed to take a pause to consider my own Blackness as a Nigerian-American and how I choose to define it, especially in a world that categorizes us without our input. I appreciate how Glover used the episode to centralize themes of Blackness, anti-Blackness, colorism, and anti-immigrant sentiments that fuel the diaspora wars. The fact that Felix was initially denied the scholarship because he’s of Nigerian descent—and because he can easily trace his lineage without the help of a genealogist—definitely hit home for me. As a Black woman who was born in the States and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, I find myself conflicted: I’ve been straddling two very distinct worlds my entire life in search of my own identity. It’s really difficult to be both Nigerian and American and not feel completely accepted by either culture.
I’m not so sure I would’ve passed the grilling that Aaron was subjected to when he was tasked with defending his Blackness. I didn’t spend my formative years in America, immersed in the Black community. I can barely live up to the highest expectations bestowed on Nigerians, who are expected to be brilliant scholars amassing multiple degrees from Ivy League institutions. Those insecurities resurface every now and then, and they did again, quite overwhelmingly, as I watched this episode.
The show also has me thinking about the many Nigerian-Americans who have been victims of police brutality. Chinedu Okobi, a 36-year-old unarmed Black man from the Bay Area, suffered from mental illness and died after being violently tasered by the police because he was seen “running in and out of traffic” back in 2018. And Mathew Ajibade, a young Black man who had a history of mental illness, was found dead while in police custody in Georgia back in 2015, also after being tasered multiple times. The names of these two men aren’t easily recognizable to most within the Black community, making me wonder if they weren’t the “right kind of Black” to become viral hashtags and merit inclusion in America’s online memoriam.
For me, the accredited definition of Blackness will always be a mystery, due to the historical atrocities that made it so. We can’t reverse the hands of time; but moving forward, there at least needs to be open dialogue about why various Black communities are being pitted against each other this way. The enemy did a great job dividing and conquering, and we can’t easily defeat them if some of us aren’t considered “Black enough” to fight back. Nuanced explorations of this issue in pop culture, at the very least, are a good place to start.