‘Atlanta’s’ Problem With Writing Black Women Characters

Jaelani Turner-Williams Jaelani Turner-Williams is a contributing news writer for Okayplayer with…
Atlanta Black Women Characters
Photo credit: Roger Do Minh/FX

Despite its hard-hitting commentary on racial issues in season three, Atlanta continues to come up short in its depictions of Black women.

Atlanta has often fallen flat with one-dimensional portrayals of Black women. When series creator Donald Glover said at SXSW that the long-awaited third season of Atlanta “is more about Van than Earn,” show enthusiasts were hopeful to see the only primary Black female character be fully-fleshed out in a way similar to her lead counterparts. But the Parisian Van-centric season finale episode “Tarrare” left viewers divided, with some rallying behind Atlanta bringing Van’s nervous breakdown full-circle and others feeling that she had yet to uncover her true identity. By the episode’s end, even Van was left with a self-loathing realization: “Who the fuck am I? I don’t even know.” 

Unfortunately, Van isn’t the only Black woman on the series who has faced the same identity crisis, with depictions ranging from Black women being loud, aggressive caricatures to aimless and without profundity. Despite its hard-hitting commentary on racial issues during this latest season, some viewers have bemoaned the lack of depth in Black women characters throughout the show.

The most slighted of all is Van who, despite being the show’s female lead, is centered in one-off episodes each season that usually end without any resolution or complexity to her character. Atlanta began with Van having a near-matriarchal role and cleaning up Earn’s mistakes, whether that be bailing him out of jail in “Streets on Lock” or covering him for an elaborate meal in “Go for Broke.” The only season one episode where Van was at the forefront was “Value,” which begins with her trading passive aggressive banter with childhood friend Jayde, who scoffs at Van when she reveals having a dalliance with Earn. While Jayde is also a Black woman, she’s characterized in a superficial light, insisting to Van that “Black women need to be valuable.”

Atlanta Black Women Characters

Photo credit: Guy D’Alema/FX

A similar materialistic schema is found in penultimate season one episode “Juneteenth,” where Van and Earn attend an Emancipation Day celebration hosted by an interracial couple, Monique and Craig. While Craig is a tone-deaf “woke” white optometrist who presses Earn about tracing his African roots and micro-aggressively serves him Hennessey, Monique — like Jayde — scolds Van about her choice in men. 

“You don’t think I know how crazy my husband is? This whole ‘Black people as a hobby’ shit? I get this big ass house and he gets the Black wife he always wanted,” Monique says to Van in a sidebar conversation. “That’s marriage — I love Craig, but I love my money.”

These two episodes in particular — as well as most episodes centered around Van — were written by Atlanta’s only woman screenwriter, Stefani Robinson. In both “Value” and “Juneteenth,” Robinson succeeds in illustrating Van’s existential crisis, but fails in showing how Van ended up there in the first place.  It’s troubling that Jayde and Monique are seen as snide gold-diggers, an archetype regularly seen in housewife-styled reality shows that feature Black women.  In “Tarrare,” Robinson gets closer to the root of Van’s inner turmoil, but it gets lost in Van finding escapism while living out her Amélie fantasy. Robinson has previously spoken on the challenges of being the only main woman writer for the show (this latest season saw Francesca Sloane write the episode “The Big Payback”), from wishing that there were more female screenwriters a part of the series to facing criticism for the depictions of Black women on the show.

“I just see my name get thrown around, like, ‘Well she’s the only one, so she’s responsible. Is that how she thinks of all women?’ I become the lightning rod for the females’ perspective,” she said in an interview with The Wrap. “I’m just one person, and I’m here, and it’s a different perspective and I’m championing this and I’m happy to be in this space. But I think when you are the only one of anything you are suddenly the voice for everyone. And it’s such a hard place to be in and, I think, not a fair place to be in. There need to be more women everywhere, to be honest.”

Despite the misconception that Robinson is in control of Van’s character and voice, she isn’t the only one to write Van-centric episodes. Taofik Kolade took over the character’s narrative in the season two episode “Helen,” which is notable in how it unpacks Van’s German heritage to not only provide more background on her character, but exposes the relationship miscommunication between Van and Earn (and the resentment the former has for the latter as a result). The episode is the first time viewers see the pair tackle their relationship head-on during a poignant conversation, where Van’s wants are the focus instead of Earn’s.

Season two also included what is arguably the most divisive episode of the series when it comes to its portrayal of Black women, “Champagne Papi.” Written by Ibra Ake, the episode follows Van and her friends — Candice, Tami and Nadine — through an odd night out hoping to meet Drake at his mansion (although the rapper isn’t even there). The boiling point of “Champagne Papi” comes through a scene with Tami, where she jealously eyes and berates a white female partygoer for being in an interracial relationship. The woman explains that her relationship began with supporting her Black boyfriend Devyon through community theater, but Tami rebuffs her as a defensive “Sapphire” stereotype, saying in response: “There are plenty of good Black women but you don’t see Brad Pitt trying to date Shonda Rhimes,” Tami said. “Type ‘beautiful woman’ in Google Images, honey. Then you can talk to me.” 

The scene was criticized by both critics and fans alike as a problematic jab toward Black women, especially those that are darker-skinned. In a Nylon piece titled “What TV and Movies Still Get Wrong About Black Women and Dating,” Cate Young wrote that it “dismisses her and her frustration over the sexual politics at play out of hand,” presenting her reaction “not as an unfortunate mix of intoxicants and built-up social resentment but an unfounded envy of a white woman’s Black partner.”

Singling out Black women as being aggressive and opportunistic is a recurring problem throughout Atlanta. Aside from season one’s Jayde and Monique, there’s season two’s Sierra from “Woods” (also written by Robinson). Centered around a despondent Al on the anniversary of his mother’s death, the episode finds him with platonic friend Sierra, who’s portrayed as an influencer obsessed with money and image. Despite there being some truth to her competition with “Blackfishing” white influencers (“Everybody wants to be a Black girl but the Black girls ain’t making no money from it,” Sierra states at one point), Sierra is presented as inconsiderate and only someone who cares about the transactional benefits to be had by working with Al. 

Black mothers — besides Al’s late-mother, Lorraine — are also often seen as cold or opportunistic, particularly in this latest season. Season three premiere, “Three Slaps,” depicts the heavy-handed mother of Loquareeous being verbally and even physically abusive, voluntarily tossing her son out of the house when she assumes he’s called Child Protective Services. Sheniqua Johnson from “The Big Payback” isn’t even really humanized at all (save for a moment when protagonist Marshall Johnson scrolls through her Instagram and sees posts of her with her children) in the episode, instead seen as angrily stalking Johnson for reparations indebted to her slave ancestors.

In a recent Complex interview, Robinson shared that her intention for giving Van a breakthrough in “Tarrare” was to build “into this bigger reveal and reveal a better character.” “Atlanta could do better by its main and secondary Black women characters, and it’s not just Robinson’s responsibility to repair the mishandling of the show’s problematic depictions. With the series concluding later this year with its fourth season, here’s hoping that more care and empathy can be poured into its Black female characters. 

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