2016 served as a standout year for diversity and representation both on the big and small screen. From Moonlight to Atlanta, black bodies were arguably more apparent throughout film and TV this year than they ever have been before, introducing multiple displays of blackness.
However, one that particularly stood out, was Atlanta‘s Darius. Portrayed by Keith Stanfield, Darius’ introduction comes at the start of a very tense season premiere. As an altercation intensifies between Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and an unnamed man, Darius abruptly cuts through the tension, as he finds himself in a state of deja vu.
“Where’s the dog with the Texas on it,” Darius asks as the unnamed man looks on confused. The comedic relief comes in such an unexpected way, a meta moment where we — the viewers — are also taken aback by Darius’ calm throughout the confrontation. The dog then appears in the shot, only adding to the absurdity of Darius’ declaration.
“This is so weird, man,” Darius says, his final comedic contribution punctured by a bullet fired off in the Atlanta night.
Darius essentially functions in this manner throughout the first season of Atlanta: always present but aloof — simply there. He’s perpetually high, the *Hits Blunt* meme brought to life, often providing observations and requests that tread between genius and stupidity.
But dismissing him as the comedic foil or relief of Atlanta, is to undermine the ways in which he contributes to the surrealism of the series.
In “The Streisand Effect,” the fourth episode of the show, Darius gets the most screen time throughout the season. Earnest Marks (Donald Glover) and Darius partner together for the first time to get the former some quick cash. The two’s day-long excursion takes them everywhere from a pawn shop to a dog breeder’s farm, with a frustrated Earn rewarded a phone from Darius for his troubles.
Underneath the absurdity of the two’s misadventures, a poignant moral lesson is learned — the hustle is real. At that moment we witness not only a bond being built between Earn and Darius, but an important commentary on the day-to-day survival of two human beings. We’ve witnessed a spectrum of hustle all throughout Atlanta: from drug dealing to Van going Breaking Bad for a drug test. The allure of Atlanta is in its balancing, where the slightest move can lead to death, displacement — harsh realities that are often too common for black people in America.
There’s a moment in which Darius encapsulates this. In the first episode Earn arrives at Paper Boi’s apartment unannounced. As the latter greets the former, Darius awaits in a corner, one hand gripped around a knife, the other holding a plate of cookies. Paper Boi allows Earn into his home, as Darius offers him a cookie.
The sequence symbolizes this idea of the slightest move, Darius’ actions providing a commentary that’s more important than the exchange occurring between Earn and Paper Boi. In that moment it’s easy to laugh, but you have to wonder which guests have been less fortunate in visiting Paper Boi’s humble abode.
But what truly makes Darius’ character so refreshing is that he’s simply allowed to exist, a part of that being how well written he is and how well Stanfield portrays him. His archetype is one that we’ve seen in more ways than one: the pot dealer and smoker. With that the route is to often go to one of two extremes: the idiotic and lackadaisical or the overly intellectual and cynical.
Accompanying that is a particular typecast that’s just as easy to succumb to, but Atlanta redefines — the weird black dude. When drawing this description it’s often treated as an anomaly, the character’s eccentricities emphasized to a degree to where they lack depth and substance. The reason why it’s easy to default to this is because black people aren’t often allotted the privilege of weird. To be black and weird is to be seen as a less desirable or inauthentic form of blackness.
But Darius is all his own. He’s a balanced character that never becomes too much, and is treated with a humility that allows him to wax poetic on everything from the inevitability of death to discussing the hypocrisy between animal and human rights. This is why, even in his eccentricities, the people that know Darius take him seriously, and why we should too.
The beauty of Darius is that he hopefully serves as a foreshadowing of what’s to come in future black films and TV series — where a black character is simply allowed to be, while offering wonderfully insightful commentary when necessary.