Donald Glover has given us two excellent seasons of Atlanta (with two more finally on the way)—a bold, provocative series that’s simultaneously hilarious, deeply unsettling, and really moving and lovely. An episode centering on Zazie Beetz’s Van feels as compelling and cinematic as the famous “Teddy Perkins”. episode, in which Glover portrays an uncomfortably eccentric aging pop star in white face. It’s a series that takes risks, and according to Glover, there’s a reason why more TV shows aren’t doing the same:
It’s a criticism that’s become fairly common in the era of “cancel culture”: artists aren’t taking as many chances because everyone’s afraid of getting canceled—never mind the fact that cancel culture is a myth. And we know this because Bill Maher still has a TV show and Joe Rogan exists, and on a more relatable level, every man who ever did something shitty to or around you is likely doing just fine out in the world. But is this what Glover is referring to when he speaks of “getting cancelled”? If so, it’s not a particularly new idea. Hacky white male comics have been whining about cancel culture since before it even became a thing (ah, yes, we lost a lot of great white male comics in the old “are rape jokes funny?” wars), while some prominent comedic voices—like Mike Schur and Sarah Silverman—disagree with the notion that cancel culture is having a negative impact on comedy.
But there’s also the possibility that Glover is referring to “canceling” as in having a TV show canceled or a movie scrapped because it’s too risky—which, despite increasingly frequent exceptions, is generally true. Studios are risk-averse, often to their own detriment; if something isn’t approaching Marvel-bucks territory, it’s hardly worth it. Remember: it wasn’t long ago that studios were still hesitant to make movies fronted by ensembles of women, despite overwhelming evidence from the box office that these movies can be and often are successful. And according to Glover, he had to “Trojan horse” his version of Atlanta onto FX.
A third possibility arises: Donald Glover is very much aware of the double-meaning at play here, and we have taken the damn bait. Still, whatever Glover might have to say on the topic of experimental pop culture is probably coming from a more genuine, thoughtful, and informed place than whatever the fuck Ricky Gervais has to say on the matter.