In a profile for The New Yorker, Donald Glover talks about some of the strange dealings he’s had with clueless executives while navigating the very white space of television.
While the feature gets deep into the mechanics of Glover’s FX series Atlanta (which returns this week) and its surreal exploration of racial anxiety, many of the most compelling points are about the elements we don’t see on the show—the compromise, the process of making a black show that’s considered “different,” and how much television demands black creators tailor their comedy to the preferences of white executives and audiences.
This is not a revelation, but the allure of Atlanta is its ability to do the unexpected. Still, Glover has had the usual extra interactions with white TV execs. In his profile, he recalls convincing FX to allow the use of the word “nigga” in conversation. Citing episodes of Black-ish and The Carmichael Show, in which the word was used only as a spark for debate, Glover says:
“No black people talk to each other like that, or need to. It’s all for white people.” (“Black-ish”’s audience is about one-fifth black; “Atlanta” ’s is half black.) FX told Glover to avoid the N-word in his pilot; the network’s compromise position was that only a white character who says “Really, nigga?” and “You know how niggas out here are” could use it. Recalling the dispute, Glover exclaimed, “I’m black, making a very black show, and they’re telling me I can’t use the N-word! Only in a world run by white people would that happen.”
Part of getting the show made basically involved tricking a bunch of white people to the point that Glover had to bring in a white liaison for the “N-word” talks:
On the phone call that finally resolved the matter, it was a white executive producer, Paul Simms, who argued successfully for the authenticity of the show’s use of the word. Glover had brought in Simms, the elder statesman on “Girls” and “Flight of the Conchords,” to serve as what black creators call “the white translator.” “You need the translator for the three-minute call after the meeting,” Barris explained. “It’s for when the execs call the white guy to say, ‘What exactly did Kenya mean there?,’ and to be reassured.” Since then, “Atlanta” has used the N-word unself-consciously, in a profusion of ways.
Glover says, “The hardest part is surprising FX every time. They need that to feel that you’re an authentic black person. I surprised them up front by telling them I wanted to make them money.” Profile writer Tad Friend adds:
The point he’s had trouble conveying, to the networks and studios and record companies, is that the sand castles people cherish most are the handmade ones with melted edges. With a bleak chuckle, he said, “Steve always reminds me, ‘FX didn’t want to do this show—you had to beg them. Fuck them!’ I like Landgraf, I’ve learned a lot from him, but FX is a business. It’s not there to make some kid from Stone Mountain, Georgia,’s dreams come true.”
Glover seems hyper-aware of how he and his show are perceived and thus is ready to push back. All the secondary quotes from peers like Issa Rae, Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, and The Wire creator David Simon show both the range of admiration for Atlanta and the sad rarity of a non-traditional black show. Friend notes, as an aside:
(Issa Rae said that when she was making her Web series, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” “someone told me, ‘White people watch if you put a white character in it.’ And it turned out it kind of was that simple.”)
I’ll end with this gem, courtesy of Lena Dunham, about Glover’s Girls guest appearance on the show:
When Hannah broke up with him, Sandy began pumping his shoulders to imitate her privileged cluelessness: “ ‘Oh, I’m a white girl, and I moved to New York and I’m having a great time, and, Oh, I’ve got a fixed-gear bike, and I’m going to date a black guy and we’re going to go to a dangerous part of town.’ ” Dunham told me that Glover improvised his lines: “Every massive insult of white women was one hundred per cent him. I e-mailed him later to say ‘I hope you feel the part on “Girls” didn’t tokenize you,’ and his response was really Donald-y and enigmatic: ‘Let’s not think back on mistakes we made in the past, let’s just focus on what lies in front of us.’ ”
Read the Donald Glover profile in full here.