“The dance that you’re doing is dumb… how they do it where you from?”
— Missy Elliot, “WTF (Where They From)”
In 2013, Donald Glover left NBC’s beloved cult classic sitcom Community, because after five seasons of playing naive, affable Troy Barnes, he was ready to show the world a different version of himself. He wanted to show the world where he’s from.
Three years later, he’s surfaced with the highly anticipated FX comedy Atlanta, which serves not only as a counterpoint to his previous persona but as an introduction to Glover as comedic filmmaker. In various interviews, he’s expressed a desire for his show to display a fuller portrait of African-American culture than what is typically seen on television, so it’s no surprise that his work ended up on FX, home of similar idiosyncratic comedies with three-dimensional characters helmed by comic auteurs, like Louie CK’s Louie and Pamela Adlon’s Better Things.
Because of its layered, methodical approach and high premium on atmosphere, Atlanta can be something of an acquired taste, especially compared to other broadcast network comedies helmed by black men. Unlike Kenya Barris’ black-ish or Jerrod Carmichael’s Carmichael Show, it’s not explicitly issue-driven. Issues are there, but they sort of drift in the background like thick Georgia summer air. In lieu of jokes, each episode of Atlanta offers a cascading series of situations that are alternately funny, shocking and poignant, sometimes simultaneously so. In this way, the show’s title is its understated mission statement, to provide a well-rounded characterization of the life and culture of a specific setting.
Which makes it similar in scope to another indie comedy series centered around a city and its people, IFC’s Portlandia. But where Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen traffic in caricatured sketches of white hipsters with nose rings, exotic lattes and recycled jewelry, Atlanta is a nuanced character study of a functionally homeless college dropout trying to manage his cousin’s fledgling rap career. It has mature themes, adult language (including copious uses of the n-word) and a dark, sometimes absurdist sensibility to it. Whether you’ll find it endearing, fascinating or off- putting will largely depend on either your level of familiarity with this particular subset of African-American culture, or your ability to dive deep into a cultural context that differs from your own.
In other words, if you not black or from Georgia, Atlanta is not about you. But if you choose to embrace it on its own terms, you might get a lot out of it.
This means it has a lot in common with the Bible.
I grew up as an evangelical, and one of the unfortunate side effects of that upbringing was that I had to re-train myself to read the Bible on its own terms. See, us evangelicals, we’ve become so intertwined with the broader American consumer culture around us that we tend to view the Bible as little more than the ultimate self-help resource. Years of overly simplistic worship songs, devotional calendars and folksy aphorisms (ever heard the Bible referred to as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”?) have trained us to view all Biblical content solely through the lens of “what can this do for me, or what can I get out of this?” rather than a more disciplined approach.
And don’t get me wrong; it’s obviously a very good and prudent thing to try to apply the Bible to your life. But I think it’s helpful to draw a figurative bright red line between the concepts of Biblical interpretation (“what is this text saying?”) and Biblical application (“what does this mean for my life?”), because when we blur them, we run the risk of reading our own context into the meaning of passages with ideas that were hatched in times and places very different from our own.
The book of Philemon is a great example because of how our concept of slavery is different than what Paul was writing about, but that’s one example of literally thousands of words and passages that follow certain forms and structures that are connected to a series of people groups and their history. So when we rush too quickly into applying it without taking inventory of its cultural context, we’re left to take away from the text only the things we read into it.
Or here’s another example. If you’re an athlete, you might interpret Philippians 4:13 as a meditation promising that Christ can empower us to excel at supernatural levels of athletic achievement. But in context, Paul is saying that Christ’s humility gave him (and therefore, gives us) the ability to adapt, whether resources are plentiful or scarce.
The truth is, accurately interpreting and applying Biblical truth requires a certain amount cultural exegesis, because the Bible was written over many thousands of years involving thousands of people from a variety of ethnic, national and historical backgrounds. And cultural exegesis is a difficult skill to master, because all of us are born into certain cultural contexts and it takes a certain measure of humility, intentionality and imagination to examine and overcome our own cultural lenses.
But the good news is that cultural exegesis can be practiced, and a great way to do that is to watch a television show with characters that come from a different background than you.
Like, perhaps, Atlanta.
I watch it because I find it delightfully interesting and wickedly funny, but perhaps you might choose to watch it as a cultural anthropologist might. So as you see Earn (Donald Glover) trying to maintain the good graces of his daughter’s mom Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) while attempting to eke out an income by managing the rap career of his cousin Alfred, a.k.a. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and pondering the sage wisdom of sidekick Darius (Keith Stanfield), you might ask a series of questions. Why do they behave in those ways? What seems to motivate these characters? How is Atlanta different than other TV shows I’ve seen? What messages, if any, are Donald Glover and his writing staff trying to convey?
And after you grapple with the interpretation, then begin to ask more personal questions of application. How are these characters similar to me or my friends? Would I or any of my people make similar choices in similar circumstances? How is Atlanta different from where I’m from, and do those differences make these situations seem more interesting, compelling or plausible? How are we to grapple with these issues as we encounter them? What Biblical truths am I missing that this show might help me to see more clearly?
My point here is not to elevate Atlanta to the same holy status as the Bible, but to offer it as an opportunity to practice cultural exegesis. It’s not something we evangelicals are particularly skilled at doing, and I’d hate for my white brothers and sisters in Christ to miss out on an interesting experience because they’re too distracted by its unfamiliar context or frustrated because they’re not allowed to say the n-word.
(In case that particular issue is vexing for you, here’s a potential solution.)
The places from where we hail have a profound impact on how we see the world. Just as the gospel is good news for a thousand different people groups, there are a thousand different ways that the gospel can resonate in the world. Our job is first to let it resonate in our own context, and in so doing, let it go through us and into the pathways of those around us, allowing God to move us into the spaces where we can be of most use in his kingdom, illustrating the maxim of the hip-hop lyricist Rakim:
“It ain’t where ya from; it’s where ya at.”