closeup of a man's face that shows he has been blinded
Posted on May 30, 2022

Horror in the ATL: White Liberals and the Specter of Racism in Atlanta Season 3

Guest Post

The scene opens on a dark lake outside of Atlanta where two fishermen, one white and one black, are finishing up midnight fishing. The black fisherman comments that this area always gave him the creeps, ever since he almost drowned in the lake when he was a kid. “It’s shit water” the white fisherman comments. He goes on to explain that the lake was once a successful, self-governed black town. He clarifies, “A town full of black folk that were almost white.” He goes on to explain that whiteness is just a social construct and that the black town had gotten too close to being white. No matter how successful someone becomes, those in power will never let those deemed inferior to become truly white. The scene crescendos when the white fisherman turns to the black fisherman, revealing that he has no eyes exclaiming, “we’re cursed too.” The black fisherman is then grabbed by dozens of black hands reaching up from the water. The scene ends as he is pulled into the depths below.

The opening scene to season 3 of FX’s Atlanta acts as a thesis statement. Specifically, the scene of two fishermen, one white and one black, sitting on a seemingly peaceful lake hundreds of feet above a forgotten massacre, sets the tone for the entire season. It does not matter how much we try to hide, the specters of racism haunt us. While the entire season is worth commenting on, I will focus on three episodes in particular: S03E1 “Three Slaps,” S03E4 “The Big Payback,” and S03E7 “Trini 2 De Bone.” These three episodes utilize horror to portray white neo-liberals haunted by their own racism.

The season opener, “Three Slaps” follows Loquareeous, a black child, whom CPS sends to live with two white women after they deem his family situation abusive. The narrative unfolds as a fictional retelling of the Hart Family Tragedy. The two women, Gayle and Amber, apparently collect black foster children. On the surface Amber and Gayle seem like two white women who are just trying to help the less fortunate but, as horror is wont to do, the veil is quickly pulled back to reveal horrid living conditions and forced manual labor. The episode ends with the two women attempting to kill themselves and the children by driving off into the same lake that opened the season. At the last moment, the kids escape before the van crashes into the water. It would be easy to dismiss Amber and Gayle as racist monsters feeding on the anguish of children. Yet, producer and writer Stephen Glover complicates the narrative. Before driving the van into the lake, Amber expresses hesitation. “When we adopted Fatima I knew we were doing the right thing. The agency said so….But I kept thinking why isn’t anyone stopping us.” Gayle consoles her wife, “Without us to protect them, what is going to happen to these kids?” For all of their self-proclaimed “wokeness,” their white savior mentality leads them to death.

An opened refrigerator showing bottles with a pickle jar containing a head

In episode 4, “The Big Payback” we are introduced to Marshall Johnson, a seemingly “normal” white middle class man. While on the way to pick up his daughter, Marshall hears a report that a black man recently won a lawsuit against his ancestors’ owners. This lawsuit sets a precedent that leads to black people suing the decedents of slave owners. Marshall hides from his own history by turning down his coworker’s offer to search an ancestry website for him. When his daughter asks if they owned slaves, he deflects by pointing to their Austrian-Hungarian heritage. “Our ancestors were enslaved during the Byzantine Empire.”  Yet, Marshall’s family history appears at his door in the form of Sheniqua, a black woman claiming that Marshall’s family owned her ancestors. He spends the remainder of the episode running and hiding from Sheniqua. He eventual ends up in a hotel where he meets another white man experiencing the same predicament. Marshall complains that he did not do anything to deserve this. The man expresses that he is not so sure. “We were treating slavery as a historical curiosity, something to be explored….But to [Black Americans] it is a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts in a way we can’t see.” The scene ends with the man getting up, walking to the pool, and shooting himself in the head.

a woman holds a cell phone and looks into the distance at an unseen person

In episode 7, “Trini 2 de Bone” we are introduced to an affluent white family in NYC. The parents, Miles and Browyn, are rushing through their morning routine when they receive a call that Sylvia, their son’s Trinidadian nanny, has died. Miles and Browyn struggle to decide what is best for Sebastian. They eventually agree to take him to Sylvia’s funeral. At the funeral, Miles and Browyn are clearly out of their element, but, to their surprise, Sebastian is well versed in Trinidadian culture. He eats the right food, shouts “amen” during the sermon, and sings along to Sylvia’s favorite song, “Trini 2 de Bone.” While Miles and Browyn attempt to be respectful, their apparent discomfort at Sylvia’s influence on Sebastian is tangible. At one moment, Browyn suggests that maybe Sebastian’s next nanny could teach him Mandarin. “Look, you know how hard it is to find a Chinese nanny right now.” The episode ends with Sebastian saying goodnight to Sylvia as the camera focuses on an empty rocking chair. Meanwhile, Miles hears a knock at the door, opens it, and finds a mysterious envelope. Inside is a picture of Sebastian and Sylvia at a school family day.

a distance shot showing someone kneeling at the end of a hallway

These three distinct vignettes examine the lie that racism is dead. We have not killed racism, we have just pushed it into the shadows where it lurks waiting to rear its monstrous head. In the season opener, the white fisherman exclaims “we’re cursed too.” In “The Big Payback” the white man at the bar, played by the same actor as the white fisherman, states that they are going to be okay because we have finally opened our eyes to our racist history. “Your daughter is going to be okay because the curse has been lifted from her.”

In Season 3 of Atlanta, racism, in its many forms, is a monster lurking in the shadows. The only way to be freed of the monster is to bring it out into the light and confront it. Until then, it will continue to be a screaming specter haunting us all.

Atlanta is streaming on FX and Hulu.

Leland Merritt is a PhD student in Southern California studying the intersection between horror and the Hebrew Bible. His essay “Making the End of the World Great Again: Bird Box, Borders, and the Refugee Crisis was published in Seeing the Apocalypse: Essays on Bird Box. His essay “The Monsters Within: Rape-and-Revenge in Genesis 34” was published in Religion, Culture, and the Monstrous: Of Gods and Monsters.  You can read his short essay Cruel Nations: Horror and Human Sacrifice in the Time of Covid here.

Twitter: @LelandMerritt

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