Liam Neeson Visits ‘Atlanta’ to Poke Fun at His Racism Controversy
The latest episode of the FX series sees Paper Boi meet actor Liam Neeson, who doesn’t seem too contrite about that time he roamed the streets trying to kill a Black person.
After a needless detour into some white Upper East Siders’ penthouse last week, we’re finally reunited with Paper Boi on tonight’s Atlanta, as he learns about master recordings from a wise-cracking stranger he meets in Amsterdam and comes face to face with actor and infamous sex-crime vigilante Liam Neeson.
More than halfway into a rather disjointed season, you can still feel the writers searching for a throughline in all the random vignettes and parodies they decided to tackle. It’s refreshing then, and maybe a good sign for the small remainder of the season, that “New Jazz,” written by Donald Glover and directed by Hiro Murai, is an attempt to recenter Alfred’s perspective as a newcomer to the music industry. That’s what made Seasons 1 and 2—especially 2—so excellent and allowed the show to pull off all its narrative excursions. Throughout Robbin’ Season, we watched the up-and-coming rapper experience the downsides of his own commodification and learn the difference between fame and wealth in the most humbling scenarios. Now that Al is doing well financially, he’s apparently lost focus of how that money is being managed or where he should be putting it.
He learns this lesson the hard way from a fellow American named Lorraine, who he meets in a museum after he takes a weed cookie with Darius and begins roaming around Amsterdam. The caustic Lorraine may or may not be a hallucination, as Al doesn’t read as high as he’s interacting with her. But the ending, where he’s literally shaking and crying and throwing up from the cookie, would suggest that his weird night chasing her through the Red Light District was all a fantasy. For the most part, this distinction doesn’t really matter, as she occupies the thankless role of a sassy oracle. Other women have existed in this capacity previously on Atlanta, like in season one’s “The Club” and last season’s “The Woods.” Unfortunately, “New Jazz” doesn’t provide the emotional payoff of the latter.
Notably, Lorraine, played by actress Ava Grey who you’ve probably seen on FX’s Pose, is a trans woman. Whether Glover sets out to or not—although, one can assume he’s knowledgeable of the critiques the show has garnered based on tweets and “interviews”—the episode is addressing or at least dredging up the show’s previous comedic endeavors regarding transness that were both praised and scrutinized in previous seasons. Specifically, in Season 1’s critically acclaimed episode “B.A.N.,” Paper Boi is accused of being transphobic by a white feminist on a talk show because of an unsavory lyric about Caitlyn Jenner in one of his songs. Like many a cishet Black man, Al protests that he doesn’t hate trans people but also isn’t necessarily concerned about their plight in conversation with his. Glover doesn’t force Al to have a more “inclusive,” socially-aware stance by the end of the interview, which feels reflective of the auteur’s approach to Atlanta.
Likewise, much of “New Jazz” rather boringly rests on the surprise element of watching this non-offensive, nonviolent exchange between two demographics that are often culturally at odds. At several points, you can feel the script drawing attention to the fact that Al, at least visibly, isn’t embarrassed or uncomfortable to be seen in public with a trans woman in a city where people instantly recognize him. Rather, he’s irritated by Lorraine because she’s willing to tell him things no one else will—like that his wide-brimmed hat looks stupid—and is a bit of an asshole in her delivery. The fact that Glover gives him a reason to be vexed by her is a choice, one could argue. But no matter how much Lorraine prods at him, Al never responds with anything problematic.
Overall, the conceit of the episode falls flat because, as much as Lorraine’s presence consumes the episode, Glover doesn’t make her particularly funny or memorable in the way most side characters are on this series—just mocking. In one scene, she calls a portly white woman posing in an exhibit “white Lizzo,” and then goes on to say that Lizzo already is the white Lizzo. It’s a rich joke coming from a musician who mostly courts white youth and didn’t receive any play on hip-hop radio until very recently, but I digress.
In general, Atlanta has a hard time understanding why Black women are actually funny, especially in comparison to all the nuances and humor the writers are able to mine from specific archetypes of Black men. The women who briefly pop up on this show are typically just obnoxious, loud and brutally honest in a very generic way. Even Van, who receives a more generous portrayal than the female guest actors, isn’t particularly funny unless she’s giving Earn shit.
Similarly, Lorraine primarily functions as a wake-up call for Al that he should probably be investing his Apple Music checks in the stock market, NFTs or whatever capitalist venture. “The thing about rappers is that y’all don’t have any clue where your money is or where it’s going,” she chides. She also asks him who owns his master recordings, which Al has never heard of nor does he know who owns them. At the end of the episode, Earn assures Al, after a curious, pregnant pause, that he negotiated for ownership of his masters in his recording contract. You can definitely feel Glover’s voice—a rapper who has never been known to stunt—jumping out during these brief memos on Black financial literacy.
After leaving the museum, Lorraine brings Al to a hidden nightclub where she introduces him to the bouncer as New Jazz. Lorraine eventually disappears and leaves Al to talk to her friends, who ask if they’re hooking up because she frequently dates rappers, to which Al insists no. Before Al and Lorraine leave the club, an emcee comes out onstage to present New Jazz. Lorraine suddenly appears to take him out of the club before the spotlight lands on him, telling him that they would’ve allowed him to say no if he didn’t want to perform. Whether this is some slight commentary on “woke” performativeness or the way Black people are literally demanded to perform labor, who knows.
Before their exit though, a pretty forgettable episode becomes unforgettably—and unforgivably—bad when Al sits down next to none other than Liam Neeson. As with the Chet Hanks guest appearance last week, you understand the gag before the Taken actor starts referencing “the incident.” Is this what happens when Ryan Gosling, a notably unproblematic, vocal fan of the show, can’t do a guest appearance because he’s shooting Barbie? Are these the sort of cameos we have to settle for? The conversation Neeson has with Al mainly feels like a PR favor, as he explains his actions but seems self-aware that they were, indeed, bad in retrospect. Al tells him that, despite it all, he still “fuck[s] with Taken” and that he’s glad he doesn’t “hate all Black people.” Neeson responds that he actually does hate all Black people because they tried to ruin his career. When Al says that he thought he learned his lesson from the controversy, Neeson ends his cameo saying that because he’s white he doesn’t have to learn a lesson.
In the same vein, you could say that, because Atlanta is a show that is primarily purported to be for Black audiences, we also don’t need these “rigorous” lessons on white privilege. Maybe this is just an elaborate way for Glover to tell Black people on the internet to stop being less outraged. Maybe he feels powerful enough in his career that he likes doing famous white people needless favors because he can. Either way, the humorless, shocking cameo doesn’t rescue a pretty underwhelming episode. It’s nice to revisit Paper Boi’s struggles navigating fame and new money, but Atlanta still feels distracted.