‘Atlanta’: Race hustling 101

OPINION: In episode 6, 'White Fashion,' Paper Boi gets schooled on who gets to profit from racism.

Atlanta FX theGrio
Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, and Fisayo Akinade as Khalil in “Atlanta.” (Sophie Mutevelian/FX)

What if you could personally profit from racism? Would you? I’m not talking about reparations for the entire community. I’m talking about just you. On Atlanta’s sixth episode, “White Fashion,” we see several people trying to profit from racism but Paper Boi’s journey into faketivism and Earn’s retort to a Karen attack are entirely different examples of profiting from responding to racism. 

The episode opens with a fashion designer who recalls Marc Jacobs, John Galliano or a young Karl Lagerfeld. He’s planning a collection that is inspired by Central Park. He will use the number five throughout the collection to celebrate the brand’s fifth year of existence. And there are no Black people around to point out that they are sailing directly toward the iceberg of racism. They make a high fashion sports jersey and on the back it says…Central Park 5. 

Were they intending to be racist or insensitive? No. Is this indicative of the bad outcomes that can happen when there’s nothing but white people in the decision tree? Yes. Does this brand need some Black people to come to their rescue and proclaim that they’re not racist? Absolutely. Paper Boi arrives to be one of their professional apologists—excuse me—to be part of their diversity advisory board. That just means he’s one of the Black people who will work with them to get them through the PR storm—though he’s not being paid money for his time and effort. “We can’t give you actual cash,” the designers say. “That would look disingenuous.” Wow.

For me, it all recalls the NFL hiring Jay-Z—they were in a racial crisis so they got Hov to stand beside them to make them look not racist. When you’re a brand in trouble, you need a Black person to proclaim you’re not racist. And when you’re a professional apologist, you must communicate that the institution is non-racist so white people feel comfortable continuing to support it while also making Black people stop protesting. You must be both the smiling professional Black best friend who reassures people of the accused’s inner goodness as well as the wrangler of all those who are causing them trouble. This is Paper Boi’s first time apologizing for white people, so he makes all kinds of mistakes—when they ask him if racism is over, he says no. When they ask him what he wants them to do, he suggests things that will actually help Black people. The activists he’s working with know how this charade should go. 

This episode is savage in its parodying of the veteran activists who arrive to rescue the brand in distress. They’re focused on making sure they get something for themselves. One of them says, “I haven’t paid for a meal in 73 police shootings.” Incredible line. They’re not at all thinking about helping Black people or even making sure the brand is actually held accountable. After one of their self-involved suggestions, Paper Boi asked, “How does that help Black people?” The response: “I’m Black and it’s helped me a whole lot.” That destroyed me. But it’s so real. 

This is what some Black people fear some Black activists are really like—preying on companies that need to apologize for racism in order to boost themselves. When we see BLM leaders buying multimillion dollar homes and other activists being repeatedly accused of absconding with funds intended for families of victims, we see people who’ve nominated themselves as leaders but are actually robbing the community. This Activist Industrial Complex is disgusting—they’re people who enrich themselves while helping institutions escape accountability.

Sure, all of this feels gross, and most of us would obviously refuse to be the racism apologist for some huge brand. But what if they started dangling huge carrots in front of you? Most people have a number that’s big enough to make it hard for them to stick by their principles. What if the carrots became too huge to turn down? What if, instead of “We can’t pay you because it would seem disingenuous,” it was, you’ll get a ton of money? Would it be easy to refuse to be the racism apologist for some brand?

Once, years ago, my TV agent got a call from a major network. They wanted me to come in and meet about me to possibly host a new show for them. The show would be high-minded, smart and focus on great things going on in the Black community. It sounded like a great opportunity. This was a network that was then dealing with the massive success of a new reality show, a show that was widely judged as coonish, and it stood out to me that the show they were pitching stood in stark contrast to the coon show they were winning with. But one thing had nothing to do with the other, right?

I was sitting with several executives in a stark, modern conference room, and as the conversation went on, the execs began talking about the coonish reality show and revealing how embarrassed they were about it’s success. I began to feel like I was their priest, and they were confessing in hopes of me absolving them. Their white guilt began pouring out—they were mortified at being known as the network behind this coonish show—and they apologized to me for airing it. It became clear that the point of me being there was to help save them from themselves. I was there to help make them look better. And I could see, given the size of the network, the momentum of their coonish juggernaut, and the white guilt in their eyes, that this could be a big financial splash for me. But there was no way I could be their absolver. I love white guilt. I take baths in tubs of it. I’m kidding, but not really. 

I walked out of the meeting and thought about all the Black people who had fought for me to have the opportunities that I had and reminded myself that I had to honor them in some way because without them, I would not be here. I couldn’t betray them. My sisters and brothers, I maintained my Black integrity, and part of why I did was because after I had that little communion with the ancestors, I called my TV agent and told him to never, ever tell me how much their offer was. The larger the number, the easier it is to justify whatever you have to do to get it. But Black people should not let themselves be used to save white people from themselves. Never be a human serviette that cleans the stain of racism off of white people.

OK, so Paper Boi’s trip into the den of activist sellouts introduces us to a rogue’s gallery of people without Black integrity, but Earn’s story puts an entirely different spin on the question of would you profit from racism. As he and Van sit in a swanky hotel, a crazed woman runs up and accuses Van of stealing something from a store. (Now we see why Atlanta let us see Van steal something from the billionaire’s house in episode three, “The Old Man And The Tree.” Without that precursor, this would be the simple story of a racist Karen, but knowing that Van stole before makes us uncertain. Maybe this is a racist Karen but maybe Van stole again?) 

Atlanta FX theGrio
Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles in “Atlanta.” (Sophie Mutevelian/FX)

The woman is dismissed as racist (even though she may be right), and Earn, ever the quick thinker, plays on the hotel’s embarrassment and says they’re supposed to be staying there but a computer glitch has messed up their reservation. The hotel gives them an expensive room for free as an apology for experiencing racism on their premises. Is that OK? Is it acceptable to personally benefit from an act of racism that happened to you directly? This seems OK, but what if it wasn’t actually racism, and you’re just claiming racism when in fact you’re a kleptomaniac?

One disconnected thought: This episode gives us a second time that characters are talking about going to the premiere of Black Panther 2 (In episode one, “Three Slaps,” the school teacher tells the kids they’re all going to Black Panther 2.) I love that Atlanta exists in a world where Black Panther 2 is about to come, out and the characters are in a tizzy about it. I’m not sure why Whoopi Goldberg would be a major part of it, but OK.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure´ Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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