There aren’t many shows that would attempt the other-dimensional horror of David Lynch while sending a damning message about success in a tightly-packaged parody. But Atlanta isn’t most shows. It’s certainly not most comedies. “Teddy Perkins” wrings out any fun you might get from the series and leaves us with a dry metaphor that demands work. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), who is driving a U-Haul to a pickup, learns that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free rainbow-keyed piano, as the case may be.
Set to Stevie Wonder bookends and replete with images like a Confederate flag trucker hat— quickly defaced to read “U Mad”—the episode sees Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) right-hand man and Atlanta’s resident philosopher venture into his own anecdotal reckoning with success, which the other crew members have already experienced so far in Robbin’ Season.
Paper Boi can’t get anyone to treat him like a normal person, and Earn can’t avoid being stunted on (even by his own self-absorption), but the only way to properly reach Darius is one as weird and profound as the character. “Teddy Perkins” aired with no commercial breaks for a reason. The 41-minute episode has plenty of humor—like the extended dismantling of a soft-boiled ostrich egg—but far more foreboding surrealism.
The episode, written by Donald Glover and directed by Hiro Murai, is edited like a horror movie, with dead, lingering frames on the ends of the shots rather than at the beginning, which builds dread—because wait, nothing’s happening and SHOULDN’T something be happening? When Darius arrives, he meets Teddy Perkins (Glover in a heinous get-up). The waxy white monster is Lynchian uncanniness jammed into a Scrooge McDuck bathrobe. His ethereal, too-high voice is just one component of his Michael Jackson-esque relationship between art and pain. In other words, Darius has gotten himself wrapped up in daddy issues. Lots of them.
Teddy had his childhood robbed by a demanding father, but his brother played alongside Stevie Wonder. He’s the embodiment of the worst case scenario of aspiration and hope. Darius trying to get a musical instrument from him is upstart talent facing off against the weirdo gatekeepers of success. Teddy doesn’t even like rap, saying that it stalled in its childhood. While this prompts Darius to ask about “Jay-Z, he’s like 65,” it also helps explain the creep leaving voice memos to himself to wash his hands immediately.
This strange alien creature rubbed shoulders with musical godhood—just as Darius may well soon enough—and his off-putting strangeness can be seen as an evolution of Darius’ own eccentricities. Only way scarier, and maybe a ghost. However, he’s also bitter because of age, fame that’s waned (or fame that never shined on him in the first place), and suppressed anger. He’s VH1’s Ghost of Behind the Music.
That mix of fear and humor is bolstered when Alfred and Earn have a Get Out moment with Darius as the former group goes through the drive-thru, give escape advice, and roast Sammy Sosa’s skin-bleach. (Google “Sammy Sosa hat.”) That said, the episode’s two biggest touchstones for me were Get Out (thanks to Lakeith Stanfield and the captivity of a black man) and Lost Highway (thanks to the general fucked-up-ness of everything that goes down and its white-faced antagonist). While Darius maintains his position because of a “two regret life limit pact,” there’s real terror all around him, threatening him with far more than regret.
The awful shadows and haunting images in this mansion/mausoleum/mad descent derive from both Murai’s mastery of visual tone and the audience’s expectations, which develops from the episode’s many contrasts. Light and dark, tranquility and mania, self-assuredness and self-doubt: These factors create unease that can be humorous in their most benign moments and nightmare-inducing in their worst. It’s an uneven split that focuses more on the horror; it even leaves the few moments of humor feeling almost inappropriate, considering the harrowing short-film that’s drawn us in.
There are even some Nightmare on Elm Street furnaces and steam in the basement along with another prisoner that could be Teddy’s brother Benny, his abusive father, or a random stranger. Apart from being creepy as all hell, Benny (what we’ll call him) and Teddy serve as a poignant metaphor for the music industry and its exploitative, soul-sucking nature. In Teddy’s case, looking at the expert makeup work applied to Glover’s face, that soul may have been sucked for real.
When Benny rolls up blasting a shotgun, there’s no closure. Only the quiet suffering of two people who once were close. It’s a terrifying omen and a tragedy of talent. All experienced in the pursuit of music. That fancy-looking piano might not have been worth the whimsy. If Paper Boi’s haircut was a personal Purgatory, this is Darius’ Hell. If he’s on a two-regret limit, this day probably pushed him closer than he’d like to his end. And, if this evil—as Stevie Wonder sings—is waiting for the crew at the peak of their musical and financial ambitions, Atlanta wants them to know full well what they’re getting into.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.