On Sunday night's 74th annual Golden Globes, Atlanta won for Best Comedy TV Series and Best Actor in a Comedy TV Series (Donald Glover), while Insecure was nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy TV Series (Issa Rae). This week's blog on complex and inclusive media representation on television comes from guest contributor Joseph Pate at the Center for Community Change, an organization that empowers low-income people of color with the skills to build social movements.
Atlanta and Insecure are arguably two of the best new shows on television. For me and many of my friends, these shows have filled an unconscious void. They have filled a void that we couldn’t define or even know was missing. Created by the stars of the programs, Atlanta and Insecure demonstrate an authenticity of the young black experience in a way that I have not seen since Moesha, the sitcom starring R&B singer Brandy that ran in the late 1990s.
Atlanta tells the story of Earn (Donald Glover) who helps his cousin Paper Boy (Brian Tyree Henry) take his rap career to the next level. The show depicts struggles of financial security, parenthood, and the idea of “selling out” for potential advancement in one’s profession. Insecure focuses on Issa (Issa Rae) and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), as they journey through the challenges of career and dating. Wrapped in natural-feeling comedy, Insecure gets deep into the ideas of identity, sexuality and self-worth.
I remember sitting in my dorm room, taking a break between my procrastinated attempts to study to watch new episodes of Issa Rae’s web series Awkward Black Girl. Similar in many ways to Insecure, Awkward Black Girl was the first web series that I had ever watched. It was also the first show where I said to myself, “I can relate,” after almost every scene. It was a glue that kept me connected to my friends from high school who went away to other colleges. We texted about our favorite moments, the jokes that made us laugh the hardest, and what we thought was going to happen in the next episode.
During that same time period, I listened to Donald Glover rap as Childish Gambino. His projects Culdesac and CAMP were staples in my iPod rotations and testimonies about what it means to be Black and “other.” He raps about what it means to not be the cool kid, to love hip-hop but be called an “Oreo” for not measuring up to the toxic standards of hypermasculinity that are expected from Black men. Childish Gambino challenged the mold of what it means to be an authentic, well-respected rapper. From early listens to his new project Awaken, My Love!, it seems as though he is breaking a mold again.
These projects have taught me the qualities that we have often labeled as being weird, strange and uncool are really everywhere. The “otherness” that as a kid I wanted so desperately to shed is in many of us. Their art shows sides of Black people that are not often displayed in mainstream media. The “us” that has traditionally been portrayed has not been reflective of the collective. That is one of the reasons why it’s important to have our stories told by us. When our stories are written by people who have first-hand experience, it gives voice to many people with similar experiences who may never have the opportunity for their stories to be heard.
One of the biggest highlights of both series are the music and the musical guests that are featured. Some of my favorite artists from Ty Dolla $ign, BMac The Queen, and The Internet are the soundtrack to my life in the same way that they are for these characters. These emerging artists give melody to the struggle of “trying to make it” through their personal stories and fresh interpretations of R&B and hip-hop.
In a world where Black people are misjudged and wrongly characterized as angry, unintelligent, and “ghetto,” these two shows shatter those proverbial boxes. They demonstrate what it’s like to be job hunting in a rebounding economy that is more competitive than ever. In Atlanta, Donald Glover’s character Earn hustles to make a living, even as he works to manage his cousin’s fledgling rap career. They demonstrate what it’s like to be successful and respected in your profession and organization and still have to code switch to fit company culture. In Insecure, Molly is someone that both white people and black people like, embodying a “get you a girl who can do both” meme. Most importantly, they do all of these things in a bold and brazen way. They offer authentic characters that were built less to create enticing protagonists, and are used more to show the realities of young Black people in our world today.
These shows do not attempt to paint an image, instead they depict truth. In the midst of all the chaos that has occurred this fall, and in 2016 as a whole, these shows have been a release. A communal place of reflection for myself and my friends. And a reminder of the beauty, complexities and resilience of being black.
— Joseph Pate is the digital community manager for the Center for Community Change.