Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Eventually, Donald Glover had to get around to poking fun at Tyler Perry. Glover’s TV work sits at the exact opposite end of the creative spectrum from Perry’s. Where Glover is high-minded and nuanced, Perry’s work is meant to be, let’s say, much easier to understand. But artful Black folks can’t help talking about and critiquing Perry because of his massive commercial success. So in the fifth episode of the final season of “Atlanta,” titled “Work Ethic,” Glover gives us Kirkwood Chocolate, a Black TV creator who’s so massively successful he owns a whole studio, but he uses it to create so much work so rapidly that you question if the shows can possibly be good.
The character of Mr. Chocolate gives Glover the chance to mock Perry’s production schedule, his power, his speed as a writer and the quality of his output. Van tells us she’s above watching Mr. Chocolate’s work and ends up throwing hot grits on him in a move that recalls a famous moment in soul music history—in 1974 the Rev. Al Green, then one of the biggest singers in the country, got into a fight with his girlfriend Mary Woodson, who was married, and she retaliated by throwing a pot of hot grits on him, causing second-degree burns that required skin grafts. Later that day, Woodson shot and killed herself. Green took the whole incident as a sign from God that he should return to gospel music and the church. Yet, in the world of “Atlanta,” the hot grits do nothing to Mr. Chocolate. It had life-changing potential, but his skin is too thick.
You would expect Van to be someone who comes into Mr. Chocolate’s world and changes him in some fundamental way—that would be a normal plot turn. Van stands up to him in a way no one else in his world ever would, but no one changes here. Van’s daughter Lottie gets sucked into the Chocolate Studios maze, moving at light speed from set to set, perhaps symbolic of how people can get pulled into the entertainment industry and quickly lose themselves for better or worse. Van chases after Lottie with the ferocity of a mama bear, never losing herself, never being seduced by the money they’re offered. Mr. Chocolate also doesn’t change, and he’s revealed to be an egotistical monster. It’s Glover himself playing Mr. Chocolate, just as he played the reclusive artistic genius Teddy Perkins back in season 2. Overall, I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to laugh at Mr. Chocolate or recoil or both.
But the episode doesn’t entirely attack Mr. Chocolate because even though the portrayal is vicious, Glover is smart enough to see through the matrix. Mr. Chocolate comes off as a mysterious cult leader who seems like the Wizard of Oz in that he’s surrounded by lies.
But when Van calls his work “unrelatable,” he points out that if she were viewed through the right lens, her character would fit right in with his oeuvre. As a struggling single mother with a formerly incarcerated carpenter pursuing her and a protective gun-toting Christian grandmother figure protecting her, she’s “a Kirkwood Chocolate woman.” In a way, here he absolves Tyler Perry by saying most Black people have lives that could fit into one of the Perry dramedies that we mock. This is real: Most of us have such dramatic lives that if you turned a camera on us, it would be a show. Some days, it would look like a Tyler Perry production, and some days, it would look like “Atlanta.” We are both.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.
TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!