How Atlanta Is Creating The Black TV Utopia We Desperately Need

Photo: Courtesy of FX.
Sometime between the last (underage) drink I had with her in college and this fall, 24-year-old Stefani Robinson began working on a hit TV show. Not just one of those forgettable Emmy-baiting premium cable TV dramas, either: She's a writer on Atlanta, the often absurdist, sometimes surrealist series chronicling the life and times of a hustler named Earn and his career managing up the up-and-coming ATL rapper Paper Boi, who also happens to be his cousin. Every episode of Atlanta, the brainchild of actor Donald Glover, is an ode to Black life. It's a show about Blackness and music that looks beyond a recording studio or a club: Blunts and bottles of Hennessy are contrasted against quotidian realities of being Black and alive in 2016. The lead characters are constantly broke, their relationships are unstable, and they have clueless white friends. In other words: Shit is real. Robinson is too chill to admit what the show is really up to, a.k.a. making a radical statement about the way that Black people are typically portrayed on the small screen. She says Atlanta is "easy," and describes the writers room, where she works alongside the show's creator, as "loosey goosey." But all silliness aside, Atlanta focuses on the in-culture understanding of Blackness without the pressure of explaining that experience to non-Black viewers. It's also a show that turns its lens on Black life in a way that's been a long time coming. "I remember being in theater in high school, when we would put on these shows like Oklahoma or Grease," Robinson, who was one of the few Black students at her high school, recalled. "I remember either not getting parts or just feeling strange about auditioning. It felt so clear that these spaces and these shows just felt like they were only for white people." And then...along came Atlanta. We spoke with Robinson about what it's like to work on the series and what it means to actually bring Black perspectives to TV.

I really have no idea how a writers' room works, so what is your day-to-day life like?
"For Atlanta, specifically, the writers' room is pretty different than any other writers' room in Hollywood [laughs]. First of all, we meet in a house. Donald and the writers meet to hang out, and we just sort of talk about what's on the internet. We talk about funny videos we've watched, the things that bug us. It's kind of therapeutic in a way, like you're hanging out with friends, which I think sort of is reflected in the show.
"From there, we focus on story. And — with all the loosey goosiness of it — it's really helpful because we're bringing the discussions that we have to life through different characters and different points of view. Sometimes it's coming up with different characters to tell specific stories...and that's kind of the process. I've worked on a different FX show called Man Seeking Woman, and that experience was completely different. We were meeting at an office every day and we just talked pure story, from 10 to 6 p.m. That set-up is more of a traditional writers' room, but both have been great experiences for me, in terms of writing styles.”
Were you the kid who always wanted to write for TV?
"For a really long time I wanted to write movies, just because that's what I was consuming more of. As I got further into college, TV was sort of becoming a better space for storytelling. In college, I got a lot of TV experience. I was, at one point, interning at Comedy Central, and I was on set for the Daily Show and Colbert. It became this sort of thing where I thought I wanted to do film, but everything I was physically and technically doing was just born out television. It sort of happened to me more than it was choice." Give me an idea of your taste: What are some great movies you like? Favorite TV shows?
"I'm pretty all over the place. There's this BBC show The Mighty Boosh that I discovered early on in high school. I think it sort of changed my life: It's very experimental, it's very absurdist. It was just so strange. But it spoke to me in terms of my sense of humor, which at the time — and I think still is — pretty dark. But the show manages to be lighthearted and silly and goofy. That show was super important. MADtv gave me a lot of my real role models. First and foremost, it was just awesome seeing comedians of color every week. It was a very special show to me when I was like in middle school, high school." Can you name those role models?
“I really liked Debra Wilson. I love Stephnie Weir, Aries Spears, and then even Key and Peele before they were Key & Peele, the show. It was, it was just so cool to see this group of not only Black people — which was incredible — but really incredible women! Like Mo Collins, Nicole Sullivan, Alex Borstein. They were always dynamic characters who weren't afraid to make themselves look gross for the sake of comedy. And I thought that was so cool. "So that's what confirmed that I wanted to do comedy. Seeing them was affirmation: Hey, yeah, I can do this, and I don't have to feel weird about it as a woman, that I don't have to feel weird about it as a woman of color. These were women and people really doing it, and they're knocking it out of the park. People don't give MADtv enough credit, but it was great for me."
Does working on Atlanta change how you watch TV?
“Yeah, but that was happening before Atlanta. Sometimes it's harder for me to enjoy television because I'm just so fascinated by it. I have to break it apart. I like pinpointing different devices the writer might've used. I've become hyper aware of plot points and story. But these things happen in the back of my mind. I don't want to say that I can't enjoy any television — I can. I'm just watching with a different awareness of the mechanics that go into something." Do you ever second guess yourself when you're writing? Something like 'Is this really funny or is it only funny to me?'"
“Oh yeah, all the time.” How do you talk yourself out of that?
“It's tough. I haven't completely figured that one out. With anything, especially writing, you just have to be confident and know what you like. I second guess myself a lot. But I'm getting better at it. You can't write for anybody else. To me, the best television is when I can tell that the writers didn't write for people: They wrote what they thought was funny.

I remember thinking, 'Wow, the only way that someone like me is gonna get parts is if a Black person writes parts for them.'

Stefani Robinson
Talk to me about when you were younger, growing up in Atlanta. What were you into?
"School and community theater. I was acting at the time in Atlanta. For a long time, I think I really wanted to become an actress. I wanted to be a movie star, someone like Tina Fey... I'm glad that I'm not that. I think of it as a necessary dream for me to have, because it did lead me to writing as a career goal, which I'm very, very grateful for. "It just felt like I was always a bit of an outsider. Like, 'Okay, we're doing Oklahoma... there aren't really any Black people in Oklahoma, but I guess I'll audition.' I remember thinking, Wow, the only way that someone like me is gonna get parts is if a Black person writes parts for them. I wouldn't call it an epiphany, but I started to understand that I'm just not gonna get the parts I want unless I write the parts I want. That's when I really started taking writing seriously. Whether or not I really became an actor became less of a concern. And not to say that there aren't brilliant Black playwrights out there — there certainly are. It's just that my motivation at the time in high school to start writing. Was, wow, I can't perform these parts 'cause they weren't written for me. I should learn how to write these parts for myself.” Atlanta is more than just has a cast of Black people: It's a show that's naturally Black, that doesn't center or privilege whiteness. How does it feel to be a part of that?
“It feels great. Atlanta isn't heavy-handed. That's what I love about it, that Blackness just exists on the show. I don't want to get soapbox-y, but I've always wanted to work on a show like this. Atlanta just validates what Black people go through all the time. I like that it's been such a critical success, sure. But the coolest thing is that there's a bunch of 15- and 16-year-old kids watching this show who have something to look at other than Friends or Big Bang Theory."

You co-wrote the episode about Van, where she has dinner with a Basketball Wives-style friend. Van has a job, and a child with the Donald Glover character, but they're not really together. Meanwhile, her friend has a revolving door of professional athletes footing the bill for her life. How did that episode even happen?
"That was a story that Donald actually had been thinking of: He just had this idea in his head in about the value of Black women. He mentioned something like, 'If a Black woman goes missing, nobody really cares.' He asked questions like: How are Black women valuable? How can they become valuable? It's hard to articulate what that means, to be valuable, especially as a Black woman. So we wrote something where you understand where this character Van comes [from], but you also understand where her bougie friend comes from. They're adding value to their lives in different ways."
Have you ever wanted to pitch something that just feels too Black or too inside the culture in a writers' room that's mostly white?
“No, I haven't. Because it's one of those things, as you probably know, that being Black requires you to speak different languages. If Black people are good at anything, we're great at discerning what and when to bring up certain things about white people. So in Man Seeking Woman, I wouldn't ever pitch anything Black, just because that's not the audience for it. If you've ever spent time in white spaces, you know how to present something differently, or how to read a room and understand what people can hear and what they can't."

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