As a white person, I am well aware that while I can be an ally of black activist movements and sympathize with the racial struggles of an intrinsically racist society, I can never fully empathize because, *spoiler alert,* I am not black. I will never understand what it's like to be black because my ancestors were all savage, horned helmet wearing Vikings who believed in a god called Odin who rode a horse with eight legs. I will never understand what it's like to be black because as Atlanta's seventh Episode pointed out, I, like most white people, like to spend a lot of time talking about #GameOfThrones and pursuing craft beers.
Race politics have bubbled both under and well over the surface of every Episode of Atlanta, FX's breakout show, to date but none have done so with such a searingly cringeworthy finesse as last nights ninth Episode, 'Juneteenth.' As someone who frequently falls victim to what the Germans refer to as 'Fremdscham,' the feeling of crippling shame you absorb on behalf of someone who should feel embarrassed for their behavior, but doesn't, 'Junteenth' was a particularly difficult Episode to watch. This, for the most part, was due to the painfully on-point characterization of Craig, a wealthy optometrist, married to a black woman who was written as the human embodiment of white guilt, a real life walking, talking Drake Malfoy.
Nothing could prepare me for the combination of anger, embarrassment and hilarity that would ensue while watching Craig explain to Earn the thought process behind his Malcolm X inspired painting. Just as nothing could brace me for the battle not to bury my head into a pillow through his 'Jim Crow' beat poetry performance. But for all his many, many faults Craig, who was gasping for breath in a milky ocean of white guilt, made for some brilliantly intelligent television and for that reason, he deserves a closer look. Even if it is from behind your hands.
A Handshake Forged On Martin Re-Runs
- I've Seen Your Face Before
Upon welcoming Earn to his 'Juneteenth' Freedom Day party, Craig manages to make a stunning first impression. Certain the he's seen him before, he asks Earn if he is part of the "Cherokee," to which Earn replies "no, just black." Even though Craig was referring to a country club, this sets the tone for each interaction they share across the hopelessly cringeworthy Episode: Craig makes an naively racist comment, Earn responds with increasing sarcasm and disbelief.
- Fist Bump Meets Dab Meets Flat Out Pandemonium
Going on to state that maybe Craig has him confused with "some other black guy," Craig meets Earn's challenge head on and rhetorically asks him if he thinks he is incapable of telling African Americans apart. Refusing to give Earn the space to actually answer this loaded question, Craig proceeds to terminate their interaction with a handshake we can only presume was created after a lengthy binge of Martin re-runs. Hello nightmarish physical metaphor of cultural appropriation.
- Cringe Factor: 7/10
Make Mine A 'Plantation Master Poison'
- The Key To Understanding Craig Is In The Catering
When we take a look at the world in which Craig is operating, we are given several clues as to how such a human has come into being. Firstly, when Earn is presented with the party drinks menu he is given such delightful options as the 'Emancipation Eggnog,' the 'Frozen Freedom Margarita' and the 'Plantation Master Poison.' Opting for that latter, Earn is clearly bemused by the poor-taste cocktail names but that is nothing compared to when he and Van discover the miniature sushi slave ships in the next room.
- The Peril Of A Thoughtless Canapé
While this is undoubtedly largely the work of Mo, Craig's self-hating black wife and 'Juneteenth' party co-host, these small details reveal a context in which mocking black history is legitimized. While this is something which would horrify Craig, the fact that he can't grasp the insensitivity of a racially thoughtless platter of canapés shows us that his white guilt blinds him to the racist reality lurking right beneath his nose.
- Cringe Factor: 6.5/10
Malcolm X Fan Art And Academic Bull Sh*t
- The Plight Of The Black Man, As Art
Earn then walks into Craig's study and comes face to face with this visual atrocity. Speaking for us all his mutters: "What the f*ck!?" Positioning itself somewhere between classic '90s Nazi shooter "Wolfenstein" and the Book of Revelation, Craig explains that the motivation behind his painting is a quote by Malcolm X which states that no one is capable of giving anybody else their freedom, justice or equality. If you are a man, you take it. When Earn stresses that his artistic interpretation of the quote is "interesting" Craig tells him it is the only interpretation, as it "accurately depicts the plight of the contemporary black man." Says the aging, rich white man to the contemporary black man.
- Earn As A Subject Of Academic Study
White people referring to black people in sweeping academic statements is something that Glover already touched on as being racially preposterous in Episode Seven, but Craig takes it to the next level. Having indicated he knows what it means to be a contemporary black man more than Earn does, upon discovering that he works in the music business Craig refers to him as "brother" before telling him that "music is an integral part of African American culture." Although he may mean well, by flexing his academic prowess in this manner Craig insinuates he understands black culture better than Earn purely because he's read up on it, a belief that is at once radically wrong and condescendingly racist.
- Cringe Factor: 8.5/10
The Pilgrimage Of White Guilt
- The Crux Of Craig's Character
Being polite, Earn asks about the photo of Craig in Africa sitting on his bookcase. Immediately Craig leaps up and tells him that it was taken on his "pilgrimage" which was the result of him needing to "pay my respects" and "ask for forgiveness." Here lies the crux of Craig's conflict. He is so wracked with guilt for the terrible atrocities committed by whites against blacks that his entire being becomes some kind of twisted experiment in forgiveness crisis.
- 'That Spooky Little Thing Called Slavery'
While this comes from a good, well meaning place, Craig's inability to look at Earn and not project his identity as a hyper-woke non-racist on him inadvertently defines Earn as a black person in constant need of apology. It traps them both in this cycle of oppressor and the oppressed, a context in which true equality can never exist.
- Cringe Factor: 9/10
"Jim Crow, Is Haunting Me"
- Craig As The Second Coming
The apex of the evening ends with a performance of Craig's groveling beat poem in which he says that, like the little girl who is trapped in a TV set in the movie Poltergeist, he too is stuck as he is haunted by Jim Crow, a racist minstrel character created by Thomas D. Rice in the early eighteen hundreds. Oh, and he also manages to name drop Billie Holliday's 'Strange Fruit,' a song written in protest against the lynching of African Americans in the '30s. By taking on the colossal burden of every crime committed against black people both past and present, Craig transforms himself into a modern day (white) Christ, a martyr for the people, a channel for their sins, or a prophet that nobody asked for.
- 'Stop Being So Likable'
Following Craig's cringetastic poetry performance, Earn finally loses his cool and says what we've been urging him to say since the beginning of the Episode. Firstly, he tells Craig to stop "stunting on me about my culture," which essentially means Craig needs to stop showboating his knowledge about Africa, because he's not of African descent. Secondly he berates Craig for telling him he should go to Africa because his bourgeois perspective has failed to take into consideration the fact that Earn is too broke to pay his rent, let alone make a "pilgrimage" to his "motherland." Finally, an exasperated Earn tells Craig he needs to stop being so likable, and that he needs to stop saying he understands, because he can never understand what it's like to be black, because he's not black.
Craig's response? He thanks Earn for coming and sincerely hopes to see him again #ClassicCraig.
- Cringe Factor: 10/10