A review of this week’s Atlanta, “Work Ethic!” coming up just as soon as I develop a tolerance to grits…
The last time Atlanta put Donald Glover into heavy prosthetic makeup, it was to play the unnerving title character of the incredible “Teddy Perkins” episode. That one was a commentary on Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and a host of other Black artists who channeled the pain of their own abuse into their music. So it made sense to give him a chalky, uncanny valley face not unlike Jackson’s post-plastic surgery appearance. “Work Ethic!” is not nearly as tragic as “Teddy Perkins,” but it’s nonetheless satirizing a huge figure in Black popular culture, so into disguise Glover once again goes as the Tyler Perry-esque Kirkwood Chocolate(*).
(*) If we are being technical, the prior episode credited “Teddy Perkins as himself,” and the guest credits FX PR provided me for this episode start off with Kirkwood Chocolate being played by… Kirkwood Chocolate. (He is top-billed over even Zazie Beetz!) But the voice and the eyes are unmistakably Glover’s, regardless of all the latex and padding that the rest of him is hiding under.
“Work Ethic!” is a substantially frothier, goofier episode than “Teddy Perkins,” yet the two feel linked by more than just Glover going incognito once again. Both feature Atlanta regulars out on what seems like a simple mission. Back then, it was Darius trying to get a piano with colored keys, while here, it’s Van filming a guest appearance on one of Mr. Chocolate’s shows, not as a new career but as a fun thing to try. Instead, each of our heroes find themselves trapped in a haunted house of sorts, subject to the whims of an inscrutable figure representing a distinct slice of Black pop culture. And both of our heroes survive, shaken by the day but ultimately reassured that they have not invested all of themselves in art the way their temporary captors had.
Though Glover and Perry’s productions both operate out of Atlanta, they occupy distant poles on the pop-cultural spectrum. Perry is a machine, churning out movies and TV episodes at a pace that seems physically impossible, while Glover has, before these consecutively-produced final seasons, taken his sweet time making Atlanta. Perry has won an Oscar and an Emmy, but honorary ones for his work as a mogul rather than competitive ones for his work as a director or writer; most of his industry plaudits have come from the Black awards shows that Van sounds so dismissive of in this episode. Atlanta has won six Emmys and gotten more than two dozen nominations. Both filmmakers can be divisive, but the love for Perry’s work comes almost exclusively from Black audiences(*), where affection for Atlanta has more easily crossed racial barriers. Perry’s stuff is often unapologetically lowbrow, where Glover is aiming for something stranger and more thoughtful, even as he leaves room for bursts of silliness like we get in this very episode.
(*) Perry has treated this like a feature rather than a bug; as he said in a cameo on Kenya Barris’ Netflix comedy #blackAF, “I don’t give a fuck [about winning over white audiences], because I’m talking to us!”
Kirkwood Chocolate is Tyler Perry by way of the Wizard of Oz — an enigmatic, heard-but-not-seen figure who churns out product in ways that simultaneously seem rushed, ludicrous, and inscrutable. Van is there for what she thinks will be a few hours to play a small role in one of Chocolate’s sitcoms(*). Instead, it is Lottie who inadvertently catches the eye of Mr. Chocolate when she interrupts a rehearsal to defend her mom from being yelled at by a character in the scene. Watching on a monitor from his private office, and appearing to everyone in Chocolate Land as a deep and ominous voice on an intercom, Chocolate not only inserts Lottie into this show, but in seemingly every other production on the lot(**).
(*) It’s Van’s first appearance since “The Most Atlanta.” Of note: In “The Homeliest Little Horse,” Earn told his therapist that he hoped Van and Lottie would move to Los Angeles so that they could stay close when he took his new job. The show has been a bit vague about his current living status, but Van does not seem like someone preparing to pull up roots and leave Georgia. She also does not appear to have found a career direction since losing her teaching job, which is why her hairdresser friend Phaedra has suggested this guest appearance, and why Van keeps repeating the line about it being “an experience.” Van is emotionally healthier than she was in the Europe season, but she’s still drifting overall.
(**) Glover (who also directed this one), writer Janine Nabors, and the rest of the Atlanta creative team have a lot of fun inventing fake titles for various Chocolate World movies and shows, including Still Ain’t Crazy, Captain Kernel, and Nobody Can’t Tell Me What To Do 2. (They’re worthy of 30 Rock, where Glover worked for a while as a writer in his pre-Community days.) And the various stages on the lot are named after the likes of the late actor/wrestler Tiny Lister, the late comic actor John Witherspoon (like Lister, a co-star in the Friday films), and actor/filmmaker Mario Van Peebles.
It does not take Van very long to feel like her child has been abducted into a labyrinth from which she might never escape. Van gets some help from handyman Shamik and costumer Marcie, but her daughter is perpetually out of her reach. It’s only when she charges into Chocolate’s office — with assistance from a gun-toting Marcie — that she is able to finally get her daughter back, even if Lottie is upset to be denied the chance to star in six seasons of a children’s show that will make her financially stable until she’s 20.
The whole episode is ridiculous, as we see various Chocolate World employees struggling to serve the whims of their hidden employer. But it’s when Van finally confronts Chocolate that things go to a new comic height. It’s not just that Glover is a brilliant sketch performer who has mostly chosen to ignore that gift. It’s that Nabors’ script makes Chocolate so ridiculous that, like Teddy Perkins, he barely seems human anymore. We discover that he is able to churn out such an insane number of scripts through off-key banging away on a piano-typewriter hybrid (a “key-ano”) built for him by Steve Jobs. Like the fake D’Angelo’s room in “Born to Die,” the accommodations are otherwise modest, and Chocolate is preparing his own grits in between barking out impossible orders to his casts and crews. (“Have her say, ‘I’m pregnant,’” he demands of an actress on a kids show.) He tries suggesting that Chocolate World itself is in control of all of this, but Van calls him out as a con man who exploits the people he claims to be helping by casting them in these melodramatic, unrelatable stories.
Lottie’s a kid having fun, so she understandably doesn’t want to leave. Because Earn is doing so well for himself, Van has a financial cushion that is perhaps unavailable to the other stage mom she meets; the major hardship of walking away is that it upsets her kid. Throughout the series, Van has intersected with the celebrity world, whether it’s being friends with Paper Boi, having a dysfunctional romance with Alexander Skarsgård, or going to a party at Drake’s house. Things have not tended to end well for her in these situations. And whatever challenges she has faced as a mother — including the mental breakdown that led her to flee an ocean away from Lottie for a few weeks — she understands that Chocolate World is not a healthy place for anyone, let alone a young girl.
You could look at this as perhaps Atlanta taking a holier-than-thou position. The episode employs young Austin Elle Fisher to play Lottie, after all. And the script does concede that Chocolate provides jobs for a lot of people, in the same way that Tyler Perry got his Oscar and Emmy for keeping his casts and crews employed and working during the pandemic. But even most of the people Van meets on the backlot (other than perhaps Marcie) don’t seem to like the end product of that work.
Is this whole takedown fair? It depends, perhaps, on how much affection you have for the output that has made Perry a billionaire. Is it hilarious? Absolutely. If Atlanta weren’t so close to the end, and if the show as a whole weren’t so uninterested in repeating itself, I might root for a return appearance by Kirkwood Chocolate as Kirkwood Chocolate. But this one cameo will be more than enough.