Atlanta: Robbin Season is off to a great start. Donald Glover’s efforts on the sophomore season of his FX original series put the full range of his brilliance as a writer, director, and actor on display. There is no better demonstration of this inventiveness than Thursday night’s episode, “Teddy Perkins.” It focuses on Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and unlike other episodes of Atlanta, this one is scary. Glover dons white face to play a Michael Jackson-inspired recluse named Teddy Perkins. Darius travels to the Perkins estate to pick up a free piano that was advertised on a chat room, and things take an ominous tone for the eclectic when he realizes he’s wrapped up in a bigger plot. The urge to compare “Teddy Perkins” to Get Out, another psychological horror that Stanfield appeared in is strong, especially given some of the similarities. But I think we would be doing a disservice to Glover, Stanfield, and the progress that has been made for people of color in the genre in doing so.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Get Out was the Oscar-nominated horror film that was directed by Jordan Peele that totally shifted conversations about race and scary movies in this country. Peele dared to play up the ways in which liberal racism can be just as dangerous to people of color as overt discrimination, and implicated white women as perpetrators. Peele not only spoke loudly about the racial climate in our country, but he also gave voice to Black fans of horror who so rarely see their experience or fears validated. The latter was also an achievement of “Teddy Perkins,” which included several scenes that mirrored those in Get Out.
For example, both stories are set in remote, but expensive homes. Darius is sabotaged by the unexpected flash of a camera, while Andre Hayworth (who Stanfield plays in Get Out) is temporarily brought out of the sunken place by the same burst of light. At one point Darius calls his friend Alfred (Bryan Tyree Henry), uneasy about Perkins’ strange hospitality, but unwilling to leave empty handed. He is scolded by his friend, who is actually concerned about his safety. Lil Rel played a similar voice of reason to Daniel Kaluuya’s character in Get Out. Themes like “you know better,” “you don’t belong here,” and “this is sus” are going to be found in any realistic horror/thriller with Black protagonists, because those are the fears we experience in a white-leaning culture where we are made to feel like outsiders. But that’s where the comparisons between the two content creations end.
“Teddy Perkins” stands on its own as another lane that Glover’s ingenuity can dominate when given the opportunity. It is moreso an exploration of the dark side of Blackness than it is a cultural musing on race. Whiteness is not the only thing that scares us. We could laugh and cower at the mystery surrounding the changed appearance of a musical icon, the family secrets that affected his career, and outlandish beliefs unknown to the public. Like many things, the mystery of the unknown can have specialized, cultural meaning for Black folks. For example, why did Sammy Sosa bleach his skin, and what was the deal with Jacksons?
Despite all the barriers that Peele broke with Get Out, Black people have always been capable of artistically telling our stories in a number of formats. “Teddy Perkins” could have been the opener to an episode of American Horror Story, or expanded into a movie of its own, because stories of overcoming terror do not belong exclusively to the Ryan Murphys of the world.