In the latest episode of Atlanta, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga”, the series takes on its own version of The Imitation of Life. Throughout the third season, the series has followed an anthology that follows the “curse of whiteness,” where white – or in this case, white-adjacent – characters are faced with their racial ignorance. In the season three opener “Three Slaps,” Black student Loquareeous is adopted by a lesbian couple whose neglectful “white savior” qualities ultimately costs them their lives.
In episode four, “The Big Payback,” protagonist Marshall Johnson is rattled by a new restitution law that literally comes to his front door. Sheniqua Johnson, a Black woman whose ancestors were slaves of Marshall’s great-great-grandfather in St. Louis, declares that she’s suing him for $3 million. Although Marshall first wallows in denial, he soon comes to terms with his responsibility, with losing his job and restitution taxes coming out of his paycheck while he works as a server.
In seventh episode “Trini 2 De Bone,” a white family in New York City, The Warners, is riddled with guilt after their Trinidadian nanny Sylvia unexpectedly dies. The parents, Miles and Bronwyn, aren’t necessarily guilty of their mistreatment of Sylvia, but guilty that their son, Sebastian, adopted Sylvia’s Trinidadian culture. While Sylvia sacrificed her relationship with her own children to care for Sebastian and other white children, the episode calls for white viewers to acknowledge their privilege.
In “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” the penultimate episode from season three of Atlanta, biracial Stonewall Jackson High School Aaron comes to terms with his proximity to whiteness when “businessman, philanthropist, philosopher and Christian” Robert ‘Shea’ Lee (played by the now-deceased Kevin Samuels) visits the school. The entrepreneur also vows to rename the school Robert S. Lee to shed Stonewall Jackson’s scarred racist history, although Robert S. Lee sounds eerily close to Confederate general leader Robert E. Lee.
An alumnus of Stonewall Jackson, Lee shares that he had painful memories of the school, but offers to pay tuition to each graduating senior. But it comes at a cost – the students have to prove their Blackness. Aaron wrongly assumes that since his father is Black, that he’ll undoubtedly receive the scholarship, but a South Asian student – wearing a du-rag, no less – explains that Lee “doesn’t believe that ADOS necessitates Blackness when you’re really talking about the culture of Black in America.”
Greeted by a council of three Black men, including Lee, Aaron is put to the test with randomized ‘Black’ questions, including, “Name me six things that mix with Hennessy?” and “Where’s the first place you take your cousin when he gets out of prison?” Aaron stumbles through the interrogation, ultimately losing out on the scholarship with the council deems him ‘white.’ “How long you been coasting on your whiteness, son?” one person from the council asks.
Back at home, Aaron balks at the realization of losing out on the scholarship, but his father gives him a dose of reality that it’s also just a “part of being Black – sometimes you don’t get the things you know you deserve.” Also frustrated that his white girlfriend, Kate, has broken up with him, Aaron builds a flamethrower and sets off to Stonewall Jackson to burn the school down. Upon stepping foot on campus, he meets Felix, a Nigerian immigrant who was also denied the scholarship. Aaron boldly confronts Felix about why he was turned down; “You know where you’re from, you can trace your ancestry, you even have a country and identity to fall back on.”
Both continue to offend each other before Felix chases Aaron, and both get into a flamethrower duel, with Felix torching Aaron’s shoes. Felix is ultimately shot by the police, but survives, with Lee arrives at the scene offering him a scholarship and says “getting shot by the police is the Blackest thing you can do.” With Felix’s medical bills and college expenses taken care of, Aaron is subsequently arrested. One year later, Kate discovers her ex-boyfriend working at a local electronics store, but the Imitation of Life act is dropped – Aaron now has a fresh fade, gold rope chain, diamond earrings and speaks in AAVE.
We’ll see if Atlanta returns to Europe to follow Paper Boi, Earn, Darius and Van in the season finale next week, but this season’s experimental anthology definitely served its purpose.
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