At first glance, “B.A.N.” is a radical departure from the rest of Atlanta’s first season. It’s formally unique, taking place entirely in the context of the broadcast of a fictional talk show, Montague, complete with commercials that range from 2 am infomercials, to Dodge Charger ads that are indistinguishable from real commercials—until they become satire. But it can also be placed in a trilogy with “The Streisand Effect” and “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” as episodes that examine the way outside forces create encoded narratives for people like Paper Boi.
I’ve previously written about how I have mixed feelings about this funhouse mirror portrayal of the media, and I’m still a bit uneasy with the unspoken dismissal of identity politics in this half-hour, but this is an innovative, hilarious piece of television that feels thrillingly specific. Here are five times that “B.A.N.” proved Atlanta is one of the smartest and most daring shows on television.
After a mock car commercial that gives a good indication of the tone—irreverent, fiery, exaggerated—the episode proper begins with an annoyed and uncomfortable Alfred sitting at a grand wooden table with the stuffy host Franklin Montague (Alano Miller) and Dr. Debra Holt, an advocate for trans issues. He’s on Montague, a talk show that discusses weighty cultural and political issues that’s broadcast on the fictional Black America Network.
Alfred’s on trial in the court of public opinion for a Twitter rant, namely a line about Caitlyn Jenner. As Montague repeats with a holier than thou earnestness, Alfred tweeted out, “Ya’ll the N-words who said I was weird for not wanting to f-word Caitlyn Jenner.”
Alfred’s not interested in being there in general, and Montague and Holt are just as disinterested in actually placing his words into context, or listening to his emphatic response. Instead, they’re trying to make him the origin of generalizations about black masculinity or a symptomatic transphobia.
It’s only more tiring for Alfred when it’s coming from a white woman who’s making assumptions about the lack of a father figure, or homoerotic themes in his lyrics. Alfred can’t just say that Caitlyn Jenner isn’t important to his life or that he doesn’t especially care about her, without becoming an opponent. It’s an echo to public conversations about whether Caitlyn was a hero or not for coming out.
But this episode is less about specifically exploring transphobia or tolerance than about discussing the ways that the wording in conversations can cloak true meaning and create a more divisive atmosphere.
All of the in-episode commercials are about the ways that advertisers market to black demographics and it’s a major achievement that they feel like bits from Chappelle’s Show and are also straight-faced enough to feel like totally real ads. They’re separated into two chunks, so I’ll talk about each one. My personal favorite of the first set has to be the Mickey’s commercial where the 40 oz is poured like champagne as a man at a masquerade party bobs and weaves through a crowded party to toast with a beautiful woman. It’s a perfect parody of the bravado of modern liquor commercials, where celebrities like Daniel Craig and P. Diddy sashay through lavish ballrooms and high-rise suites.
These commercials serve another purpose. They completely immerse the viewer in this constructed world, adding an extra layer to the experience of watching this faux show within a show.
The other part of the episode is devoted to an extension of Niles Stewart’s (@r3trosp3ctro) viral video about being transracial. Filmed with the same authenticity of a broadcast news story, and the tone of a classic Daily Show segment, it follows Antoine Smalls, a black man who believes that he’s a 35-year-old white man inside. It’s pretty incredible that the show invited him to do an extension of his own creation in general, but Stewart owns this short segment. I have to think that some big league comedy show will pick him up very soon.
There’s not a ton to it, but it’s still filled with funny bits, like Stewart practicing saying, “What IPA do you have on tap?” in the mirror, a good sight gag with a pair of cops, and a goof at the end that plays on the way some news stories end with the reporter and subject nodding at each other.
The second set of commercials has its own highlights too. Making a luxury commercial about Swisher Sweets is a great joke in itself, but after a spoken blurb about the purity of the tobacco—mocking the homegrown copy of organic food commercials—the rest of it is just a montage of people scraping the tobacco out of the cigarillo to make a blunt.
The other commercials include a return of the mysterious actor in the first episode (Emmett Hunter) as a mystic who answers all of life’s questions, and stands in front of awful, computer-generated backgrounds. That commercial in particular is frighteningly authentic in its awkward editing and stiff delivery.
But the biggest and potentially best one is an animated cereal commercial that becomes about police brutality with a group of kids who are taking video of a cop beating up the cereal mascot. It’s better seen than described, but it’s a stunningly brutal short, akin to something from Robot Chicken or The Boondocks at its best.
When the show finally gets back to the conversation between Alfred, Montague and Holt, things have become more tense. They’re still blaming Alfred for the national ills of the country, while he’s pointing out hypocrisies and contradictions left and right. As Alfred says, “I don’t have a problem with gay people, trans people, but where’s the tolerance for me?” Alfred sees a double standard. He just wants to be able to say what he feels. He’s not advocating taking away anybody’s rights.
And Holt can’t disagree. She sees a kinship here, and they’re coming together over their belief in the first amendment, before they can be a united front with Antoine. It turns out that the man who just wants tolerance about his identity hates same sex couples. It’s an ending that’s a bit neat in its resolution (that there’s only chaos in discourse), but the episode is so ambitious that it’s enough to let it slide.