Teddy Told the Truth: Atlanta and the Pain of Black Music

Donald Glover as “Teddy Perkins” in Atlanta, Credit: FX Networks

Teddy Told the Truth: Atlanta and the Pain of Black Music

I want to say that the “Teddy Perkins” episode brought a shocking and unexpected twist to the second season of Atlanta, but calling it a twist doesn’t seem exactly right. The events of the episode didn’t alter the continuity of “Robbin’ Season,” and the episode differs from the rest of the series in tone and form, but “Teddy Perkins” also amplifies some of the show’s main concerns. Throughout its two seasons Atlanta has lovingly, and hilariously, skewered the city and its music industry from the inside out, while also exploring the effects of digital connectivity on contemporary social life and cultural production. Recently, Donald Glover revived his musical persona as Childish Gambino and dropped the provocative video for “This Is America,” which has already launched a million thinkpieces in the two weeks since it appeared. Looking at the conversations around “This Is America,” and the full narrative arc of “Robbin’ Season,” it is apparent that “Teddy Perkins” exposes a skepticism about hip-hop at the heart of the show.

The images, performances, and musical cues in “Teddy Perkins” are a master class in storytelling. Director Hiro Murai, Donald Glover, and their collaborators, have pulled off a creative coup by dropping a short horror film about the painful legacies of black music into the middle of the comedy series. Some fans and critics immediately compared “Teddy Perkins” to Get Out, and the comparison is warranted. Like Get Out, “Teddy Perkins” uses horror cinema to examine the terror of what it means to be black in the afterlife of chattel slavery, and how even black music, that vaunted coping mechanism of black experience, remains haunted with the ghosts of the past.

Teddy Perkins told the truth. Teddy told the truth about black music and how it mirrors the pain of this 400-year debacle of black suffering in this American wilderness.  Teddy Perkins is Du Boisian double consciousness and Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. He’s the ghost in the black musical tradition. He’s the black musical prodigy at the piano, toiling for hours a day under the stern discipline of an abusive father who wants his child to have all the things he could not. Teddy is Joe Jackson beating the shit out of his sons to keep them on the road and in the studio cranking out hits. He’s late career Michael Jackson with all that weird Neverland shit and his fucked up face. He’s Charlie Parker with the needle in his arm, Marvin Gaye Sr. shooting his own brilliant son, Sam Cooke dead in an L.A. motel room, Billie Holiday’s addiction, Nina Simone’s volatility, and Donny Hathaway’s demons. “Teddy Perkins” is a message to the young black artist about what’s really at stake in this music. It’s a lecture about all the pain and sacrifice that it took to create the music that we can now so casually download and stream at will, and that rap producers can pick over to “make beats.”

The episode begins with Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), the lovable spaced-out philosopher of the show, stopping off in a hardware store where he impulsively picks up a red baseball cap with a confederate flag and “Southern Made” on it, because this is Georgia and things like that are available in Georgia. He scratches out the letters of “southern made” leaving only “u mad,” a clever shout out to the popularity of “erasure poetry.” The gag is also reminiscent of Percival Everett’s short story “The Appropriation of Cultures,” about a black musician in South Carolina who encourages black people to confound white racists by reclaiming the song “Dixie” and the confederate flag as their own.

Lakeith Stanfield as Darius. Credit: FX Networks

Darius hops into his U-Haul truck and we hear the sounds of Stevie Wonder’s “Sweet Little Girl” as the truck winds through the roads of suburban Atlanta. Music of My Mind turns out to be more than just another dope musical reference. The image of the word “School” painted across the road foreshadows the lesson that Darius is about to learn.

The reason for the trip is that Darius saw an online ad for a free piano and rented the truck to go pick it up. As he pulls up to this weird gothic mansion in the Atlanta suburbs and steps out of the truck, the camera’s perspective switches to the quiet interior of the house. This shot is a staple of horror cinema, and a device that alerts the viewer to the presence of another mysterious consciousness present in the scene.

Darius steps into the house and meets the reclusive weirdo Theodore Perkins. “Teddy” is played by a heavily made up Donald Glover, whose name does not appear in the credits. (It only lists Teddy Perkins “as himself.”) Teddy emerges in a smoking jacket and ascot, his large white face stiff with cosmetic surgeries that have turned his once brown visage into a white mask. That face, that weirdly halted way of speaking, that coiffed perm, are all unmistakable signifiers of Michael Jackson. “Was that Mr. Wonder…in the car?” Teddy asks in his affected rich white man’s accent. “Music of My Mind. Masterpiece.”

It turns out that the piano belonged to Teddy’s brother Benny who was a gifted pianist but is now a shut-in due to a rare skin condition that requires him to avoid sunlight. (Again, the Michael Jackson connotations abound.) Teddy shows Darius the pictures on the mantelpiece of Benny taken with other notable black musicians. But soon we get the sense that maybe Teddy is an unreliable narrator, and a maybe “Benny” doesn’t actually exists.

Teddy asks Darius if he plays the piano, and Darius sheepishly admits he hasn’t really studied music, but he wants to learn to play, and that his friend is a rapper. “Rap?” Teddy says, his weird face perking up. “Now there’s a funny one.” Teddy is too much of an herb to be down, but he’s speaking from a place of knowledge, and not just condescension.  “I found that it never quite grew out of its adolescence,” he says. “Don’t you find it insufficient as an art form?”  In many ways this idea, the inadequacy of hip-hop, is the key to the episode, and maybe the whole series. In a show built around rap music “Teddy Perkins” is a device that allows the creators to play devil’s advocate against hip-hop.

You see, for Darius the piano is just a fun hobby. It has multi-colored keys, and it’ll look dope in his house, and maybe he’ll fool around on it once in a while.  But it’s just another thing that he found for free on the Internet. For Teddy and Benny, however, the piano is an instrument of suffering, pain, and sacrifice.

Teddy walks Darius into a museum he has kept to honor his father, and other “great” fathers including Joe Jackson, Marvin Gaye’s father, Tiger Woods’s father, Serena Williams’s father, and “the father that drops off Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club.” And with that we get a clearer picture of the abuse that has made Teddy who he is. “There was no way for a child to understand what’s at stake,” he says of his father’s discipline. These black celebrities accomplished what they did because they had fathers who pushed them to develop their talents, even before they were old enough to understand the value of what they were doing. It’s hard for us to accept, but that kind of abuse is often behind the “black excellence” people love to boast about on Twitter. These were black fathers who grew up in the Jim Crow South, who moved to Jim Crow Northern ghettoes, who knew what poverty felt like, and who pushed their children to greatness. We can scoff at Joe Jackson, and we should. But when we bop to the Jackson 5, and listen to those brilliant black boys playing the hell out of their instruments like grown folks, we’re listening to something that Joe Jackson’s abuse made possible, and we have to swallow that pill every time we crank up “ABC” and “I Want You Back.”

Darius doesn’t understand the sacrifice that went into making the music, and that becomes more apparent when Teddy has him cornered and shackled. Darius tells Teddy that what his father did to him was wrong, and that “Sometimes it’s love. Not everything is a sacrifice.” Darius brings up Stevie Wonder as an example, saying that he was “blind, but not blinded,” and that he “saw through his music.” It sounds nice, but its actually offensive, ableist nonsense. Darius was trivializing the challenges of blindness that Stevie faced. This is a common trope in which the disabled genius like Stevie has transcended his condition, while regular old disabled people are shunned and forced to live with everyday inaccessibility. (For further examples, see some of the commentary after the recent death of Stephen Hawking). Darius essentially does the same thing that white America does when they look at black success and go, “See, black people overcame their suffering. Just look at Jay-Z, Oprah, and Obama!”   And that’s when Teddy delivers another money line from the episode when he listens to Darius talking about Stevie, pauses, then says, “That’s beautiful…but wrong.”

No, it is not my intention to reinforce this overwrought distinction between rap and “real” music. And I’m not hearkening back to some mythical era when everyone always understood the value of things.  It matters that this critique comes from Donald Glover with his background as a rapper and singer. The great gift of rap music is that it is a democratic artform. Its creative energy, its sexiness, comes from the fact that it’s a form with a low bar of entry, where young artists who couldn’t afford years of expensive music lessons inventively figured out how to use the tools of musical playback and turned them into instruments. At its best, rap can be an invigorating form that keeps the archive of black music alive with its inventive sampling. At its worst, rap it can be a parasitic enterprise, leeching off the creativity of musicians who never got credit for their labor, and who will never get a taste of the millions that their music is making for others.

It is a banal truism now that Napster radically changed the way music is consumed and distributed. Atlanta is very much a TV show of the digital age, inspired by social media, and producing its own viral phenomena. (It’s also worth noting here that Childish Gambino’s second album was titled Because the Internet.) There seems to be a generational critique going on in this episode. It is directed at a generation of people who have never paid for an album, who have never stood outside Tower Records in line for hours on a Monday night to get a CD signed, who have never spent time scowering record shops for rare vinyls. The culture has come too cheap now, and we expect to get a musician’s lifetime of pain and sacrifice for free on the Internet whenever we want it.  These are the kinds of issues that Prince was trying to raise by keeping his music off YouTube, then signing an exclusive deal with Tidal.  (After Prince’s untimely death in 2016, his lawyer released the music to other platforms, prompting a stern rebuke from Jay-Z on the track “Caught Their Eyes” on 4:44).

The series also explores the way that social media seems to encourage and facilitate so much reflexive cruelty in us. While Darius is outside waiting for Teddy to get his shit together, he calls Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) to fill him in on what’s happening. They start talking about Teddy’s face, and Darius tells Paper Boi to Google “Sammy Sosa hat.” It was a hilarious scene, but also shitty on so many levels. Yes, Sammy definitely looks messed up now, and his denial that he’s actually done anything to himself is even more messed up. But behind that ghostly face is a whole dissertation about white supremacy, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and its lingering psychological effects (not to mention a related conversation about Hispanic anti-blackness). Michael Jackson’s transformation was the most prominent example of how the successful black entertainer ends up at the mercy of the white gaze. We’ve seen this script played out enough to know how this kind of attention has a way of fucking with a black performer’s mind. We’re seeing this dynamic play out right now in whatever the hell is going on with Kanye, who met with Trump after the 2016 election, and recently returned to Twitter and started praising white supremacist pundits for being “free thinkers.”

When Darius, sitting at the piano, tells Teddy he can imagine what Benny must have gone through, Teddy lashes back with a high-pitched scream of “No you cannot! You have no idea!” At that point it’s obvious that Teddy was talking about himself when he was talking about Benny.  But then who was that guy in the wheelchair at the end? Was it Benny? Was it actually his father? Was it someone else? Was it an alternate version of himself? The show is clearly designed to provoke such speculations without giving away a definitive answer.

Using Stevie Wonder’s “Evil,” the last track on Music of My Mind, in the final scene of this episode, was as perfect a match between music and image on screen since Spike Lee dropped “A Change is Gonna Come” for Malcolm’s ride to the Audubon Ballroom. We hear the song as Darius leans out of the driver’s side of the U-Haul looking back to see the paramedics hauling away the bodies of Teddy and Benny (or whoever that was), and the police taking away the piano, the sole reason for his visit.

Like Darius we want to believe that despite all the bullshit this world is essentially full of love. “Teddy Perkins” rejects this naïve worldview and taps into timeless questions about the existence of evil. Why must the world be so full of pain and suffering? Why can’t we just have a good time? Why did black people have to go through all of this? Why must we continually perpetuate the violent abuse of our oppressors and call it love? When Teddy says “Great things come from great pain,” he was not just talking about himself or Benny, but all of black music. Ending the episode with “Evil” invoked all of the confounding existential questions at the heart of the spirituals and the blues and hip-hop, and all points in between. There’s an unresolved pain at the core of black music, and in the midst all the weed, strip clubs, champagne, and mansion parties, Atlanta won’t let us forget it.