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‘Atlanta’ Shows The Horror Of Black Childhood Trauma

The abusive cycle of making black kids “sacrifice” their childhood has dangerous ramifications in the long run.

We’re unsure of what to expect when Darius pulls up in a U-Haul truck out front the mansion pianist Benny Hope shares with his brother Teddy Perkins. Darius, played by Lakeith Stanfield, had driven to the home, tucked outside the city, to pick up a free piano that had rainbow-colored keys.

As he goes to knock on the door, it creaks open on its own — a typical horror movie trope meant to put viewers on edge and hint that Darius is in danger. He enters the foyer slowly, looking around him, calling out for anyone who may be home. Lurking in the shadows is Teddy, who creeps out of the nook by the staircase and questions a startled Darius about the Stevie Wonder song he was playing in the truck just before he entered the property.

From there, Teddy Perkins — the titular character in the latest installment of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” — drags Darius, and the rest of us, through a maze of horrific twists and turns uninterrupted by commercial breaks. It’s easy to write Teddy, a character bluntly based on Michael Jackson, off as weird or strange. But in reality he is a tormented, broken man who has experienced the worst incarnations of the childhood abuse and trauma often inflicted upon black children in the name of love. Every detail laced within the episode is carefully placed to make clear to viewers that the theme of the series’ second season, “Robbin’ Season,” is about much more than losing your possessions. Teddy represents the most malignant aspects of a generation of black people whose mental stability has been compromised in the name of success. Darius, on the other hand, symbolizes those who are next up and fighting to deconstruct old notions that the only way to keep black children on the right path is to beat it into them.

Taryn Finley and Julia Craven discuss this, how a number of black kids must sacrifice their childhood happiness for success, Sammy Sosa’s hat and more on this week’s “Run That Back.”

Warning: The spoilers below contain details about suicide.

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After using a red Sharpie to make a Confederate flag “Southern Made” hat read “U Mad,” Darius drives outside the city of Atlanta and into the countryside. He pulls up to the gate of a mansion and hits the buzzer. A high-pitched, eerie voice comes on the speaker and asks Darius why he’s there. He’s come all this way to pick up a pretty dope piano with rainbow-colored keys. And it’s free, in a sense. He walks to the front door, which opens on its own, and meets Teddy Perkins.

Taryn: This episode was high-key deep.

Julia: It was very deep, almost as deep as Sammy Sosa’s hat was blended into his skin tone.

Taryn: See. I’m not about to play with you. Lmao.

Julia: Aight, let’s start from the beginning and walk through this one, because it’s a doozy of an episode. And I still don’t get everything that went down, but I’m here and I’m trying to get past just how fucked up Donald Glover got me this morning.

Taryn: Chile. Wasn’t it a doozy? First and foremost, I love that Darius finally got his episode. And honestly, I think he’s the only one in this show who could survive an afternoon at Teddy Perkins’ house.

Julia: Yes! The episode was very Darius ― it was dark, it was weird, it was deep and intellectual just like he is. And it was truly created for him, because, like the episode’s subtitle said, “Y’all know I woulda been left.” (I HOPE Y’ALL KNOW EYE WOULD HAVE LEFT, TOO.)

I did love how he took a red Sharpie to a “Southern Made” hat ― with a complimentary Confederate flag ― and made it say “U Mad” though. I loved it and I loved the white woman staring him down afterward more. Very Darius.

Taryn: Girl. Darius and that Confederate “U Mad” hat had me HOWLING! For me, it’s more like I wouldn’t have been there in the first damn place, because I don’t frequent message boards looking for free shit at strangers’ homes. Darius can have that. I’m going to Target.

Julia: I love a good message board post but I am also black so I def ain’t renting a U-Haul, driving out into the woods ALONE to get a piano. (The piano was dope af though.)

Taryn: It was. I feel like only niggas like Darius would come up on some shit like that for free lol.

Julia: Listen, ONLY niggas like Darius. So we get to Teddy Perkins’ house. And Darius goes to knock on the door, but it opens and Teddy is standing off to the side, by the stairs, in the shadows. That’s when I knew that it was time for Darius to get tf outta there. The way they’re using horror as a trope this season is interesting and very well done. I was actually SHOOK after this episode!

Taryn: So, I was really caught off guard from jump because of that horror aspect. Like Darius is unpredictable but WHEW! And the fact that he’s interacting with Teddy ― a Michael Jackson-esque figure who’s easy to label as “weird” on the surface, but whose story is too multi-layered to really dismiss as that ― is a really good juxtaposition. Darius is easily seen as a lil out there when just engaging with Al and Earn, but seeing this episode really cemented how level-headed and valuable he really is.

Julia: Yes! Darius isn’t just the high friend, the weird black kid. He’s someone with sound judgement and rationale. He also has quite the emotional IQ, which just makes me wanna marry him tbh.

It seems like in this episode, the horror aspects were used to dig into black people’s mental health and how fraught it can be. And, tbh, the Jackson family is the perfect model for how a man who may have good intentions, who may want the best for his kids, can damage them because he uses “I want the best for you” as an excuse for the abuse he’s inflicting.

When Darius noted that Teddy “must be depressed” from sitting in the dark all day, his response, “It’s not easy but maybe one day we’ll get a good album out of it,” was telling us early on that this is someone who’s broken (like the ostrich egg) and who believes that pain leads to greatness.

And that is something that so many black kids are taught to believe.

Taryn: Mmmhm. And I know that egg STANK lol. But for real, this episode was so sad. When Darius was looking at Teddy’s old photos of his brother Benny Hope (who EVERYBODY was initially convinced was made up, especially after Teddy mentioned his rare skin condition), he was very black as far as physical features go. Kinky hair, Jackson 5 nostrils, full lips. We didn’t see Benny’s actual face, but it’s obvious that Teddy, too, was born with those features. It made me really sad seeing Teddy with all of this plastic surgery and skin-lightening. This house that Teddy and Benny live in is a representation of the trauma they’ve always lived in. They’re prisoners to their own pain.

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Darius has spent more time and energy learning about Teddy’s upbringing than he probably anticipated. Teddy shows Darius his in-home museum dedicated to Benny’s work. Behind the double doors of one room of the museum lies a tribute to the past abusive behavior that brought Teddy and Benny to this point: a fair-skinned, faceless mannequin of their father. Teddy tells Darius that he’s not mad at his dad for beating them, because it was intended to mold them into his vision of success. Teddy mentions that he wants to commemorate other great (read: abusive) fathers throughout modern history.

Julia: That pain became very evident when we got to the room he designated for his father. He called his father “the reason for all this” ― and he definitely was the reason for everything. His money, his pain, his loneliness, his flawed perspectives, everything. When Teddy laid out the “training” his father put him through, how getting beat was punishment for not excelling, how his father just “wanted the best” out of him and his siblings and that “great things come from great pain” ― it made me think about just how many black kids are sold that narrative. “I beat you because I love you.” “You have to be twice as good.” To prepare you for, like, “I’m going to deliver the licks early so that you aren’t killed, so that you’re successful.” And I’ve known for a while that we have to stop teaching our kids that, but this episode really drove that home. We cannot keep doing that shit to our kids.

“To make an omelet, you have to crack a few eggs” made me cringe. So many of us have heard something similar as a response to being whooped for something. I know me, I got whoopings for talking back and being mouthy. Do I know why my granny did that? Yeah. She didn’t want me to pop off at the wrong white person. And she wanted me to keep my mouth shut and work hard so that I could thrive. And, to an extent, those lessons helped me navigate Corporate America. But that doesn’t mean I agree with it or will perpetuate it with my children. It doesn’t mean I should. Beating black kids into submission ain’t the only way for them to succeed.

Taryn: It’s depressing, really. And unfair on a physical and emotional level. A lot of black kids grow up with these toxic lessons, because so many parents place survival above compassion. Lots of folks from older generations believe that whoopings are a rights of passage and the most effective means of teaching lessons to not only stay out of trouble but to succeed and escape the struggle. That mentality is why the replica of Teddy’s dad in his museum didn’t have a face. Like it was saying, “Why waste time emoting when there’s work to be done?”

Also, note the people that Teddy named when he said that he was turning the room into a hall of fame for great fathers: Joe Jackson, Marvin Gay Sr., Earl Woods (Tiger Woods’ dad), Richard Williams (Venus and Serena’s dad). These were all men who allegedly verbally, emotionally or physically abused their kids with intentions of turning them into the superstars they became known as. We talk about Joe Jackson’s abuse towards his kids, but we don’t always take the time to really dissect the real, long-lasting impact that had on his children, even as they became adults. Those kids, and so many other black kids whose names we don’t know, were hurting. And that pain begets real and serious trauma if we don’t heal from it.

On a second watch, this line from Teddy in reference to something another musician told him about Benny really got me: “He said, ‘Your brother plays pain better than anyone.’ Benny just played what he knew.”

If pain is all you know, pain will be how you see the world until real healing interferes.

Julia: Yeah, that stuck out to me, too. It was so real, so raw, so literal.

Taryn: You know what else I thought was telling? Teddy’s attitude towards hip-hop.

Julia: Do tell! Was it the respectability aspect of it or what?

Taryn: He low-key scoffed when Darius brought it up, said it hadn’t grown out of its adolescence. The essence of hip-hop is very anti-respectability and, though steeped in hypermasculinity, it is an amazing form of expressing emotions a lot of black people have been shamed for. Like, for instance, anger. It allows room for frustration and rebellion, something I’m sure Teddy and Benny’s dad frowned upon. It also creates a carefree space where we don’t HAVE to necessarily worry about the troubles of the world. It doesn’t have to be disciplined if it doesn’t want to be. Like Darius said, some people just want to listen to it and have a good time. Judging from their six-hour daily piano lessons, I’m sure their dad framed “having a good time” as something that lazy people do.

Julia: Wow, so what’s it like to be the smartest bitch alive?

Taryn: Shit, it’d be much better if I had a check to match.

Julia: I, too, am not playing with you today lmao.

Taryn: LMAO

Julia: Teddy’s thing about sacrifice was also telling.

Taryn: It really was!

Julia: Black kids are always told that we should sacrifice things we love doing in order to succeed. I think about the black kids who love art but major in chemistry and go to medical school because their parents won’t let them do what they love for a career. We see that with Teddy, and Darius makes note of it at the end when he asks him, “What if you had been good at something else?”

You see on Teddy’s face that he’s either never considered that or he hasn’t considered it in a really long time. He gives Darius a “what the fuck?” look. And there are so many successful people who are unhappy in their careers because it was never what they wanted to do. They were pushed into choosing it in order to buck the notion that all black people are poor, but we’re seeing now that we don’t have to sacrifice. Like Darius said, we can produce great things out of love. Sure, you have to labor for anything you want but it doesn’t have to be painful. It can be passion, it can be happiness, it can be love.

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Once Darius finally goes to take the piano to the U-Haul, the elevator he’s on skips the first floor and takes him to the basement. He steps out of the elevator to discover Benny, who instructs him to get the gun from the attic and kill both him and Teddy. A confused Darius leaves to take the piano to his truck but Teddy’s car is blocking his. Darius goes back inside the house to ask Teddy to move his car. Teddy then holds him at gunpoint, revealing his plan to frame Darius for Benny’s murder. Darius tells Teddy that he’s sorry for what happened to him and that he deserved an apology from his father. He explains that good things can come out of love, too — a notion Teddy shuns as he regurgitates more of what his father taught him. The elevator dings and Benny, who has risen from the basement, grabs the gun and shoots Teddy before killing himself.

Julia: Shit, back in 2010 Joe Jackson told Oprah that he beat Michael Jackson and didn’t regret it. “It kept them out of jail and kept them right,” he said.

When we don’t let black kids be kids, we fuck them up. The world is already going to snatch their childhood innocence from them. Our parents, our elders don’t have to do it first in some sick attempt to keep us headed down the “right” path.

Taryn: The adultification of black kids is truly an epidemic and it’s doing us all a great disservice. I completely understand where it comes from. I believe I had to grow the hell up and sacrifice on my own accord when my parents started struggling financially when I was young — not because of them, per se, but more so because of the pressures of the world, and I was very aware of what it means to be black and try to navigate through struggle.

Though I understand it, I’m fully aware of the unlearning and healing that we all have to do when it comes to the lessons we teach black kids and have healthy and productive conversations with them about race. Also, we need to kill that “twice as good” saying. We know the educational, economic gaps that exist. We can teach black kids about them without limiting them and making them feel small.

The world will try to do that anyway, so we need to make them feel as big as they’d like to be while we also, as Tyler the Creator so eloquently put it, “tell these black kids they can be who they are.”

**steps off of soapbox**

Julia: The episode’s ending, a dark fraternal murder-suicide, gave us a realistic glimpse of what can happen when we don’t address this kind of mental suffering. Teddy and Benny were pushed to this point their entire lives.

It was all they knew and they both, in their own ways, had decided to end the suffering. Only Teddy wanted to maintain his pride and Benny didn’t want someone innocent to get looped up in it all. And I’m pretty sure Teddy was further abusing Benny ― evident from the blood on the piano keys after we saw the wheelchair at the piano earlier.

But Darius hit the nail on the head when he said, “Your dad should have said sorry.” We all have had our traumatic childhood experiences, but when you grow up you MUST deconstruct those ways of thinking.

And I know we keep saying this but, my God, YOU DON’T HAVE TO BEAT BLACK KIDS INTO SUBMISSION!!!!!

I think this episode, in a surreal, dark way, gives up a glimpse at what can happen when you do. Sure, they’re successful. But they aren’t happy. They can’t handle their problems. They’re emotionally stunted because you never let them grow, you never let them be kids. You didn’t let them be who they wanted to be. And that’s unfair.

I felt for Teddy and Benny, even though I wasn’t sure Benny existed. Even if Benny wasn’t real, if he was some made-up character .... he was created by Teddy as an escape from his horrific life.

Taryn: YOOOOO! You literally just read my mind. Teddy was definitely beating Benny. Teddy became his father. He wasn’t mad at him because he idolized him, not only evident from the statue, but also from his obsession with Benny’s talent.

He was even studying the video of his dad verbally abusing Benny while he was practicing. The way his dad hit the piano in the tape is the same threatening way Teddy hit the piano when Darius rushed him to get the tax documents earlier in the episode. Back to that line you mentioned earlier, “It’s not easy, but maybe one day we’ll get a good album out of it.” He was whooping Benny’s ass in hopes of what he perceived as perfection.

Julia: That’s just a tragic way to live. And, last thing — when Teddy said, “I love this song,” I think that was a clear siren that the character was based on Michael Jackson. You know that GIF I’m talmbout.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.