Urban Wyrd and Rural Weirder: Folklore and the Afrosurreal in Donald Glover’s Atlanta
By Eve Reid
Still from ‘Helen’, Atlanta, 2018, directed by Amy Seimetz.
In his 2023 essay, ‘Who Makes The Hood?: The City, Community and Contemporary Folk Horror in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman,’ Dr Kingsley Marshall outlines the potency of ‘folkloric ostension’ as it pertains to the Candyman horror franchise, a series of films produced since 1992 with a recent remake from Nia DaCosta in 2021. The mythical premise of the films is established through the story of Daniel Robitaille, a victim of racial violence in the nineteenth century whose spirit terrorises a Chicago housing project in the form of the supernatural killer, Candyman. Candyman is the embodiment of a local legend, appearing in mirrors and brutally slaughtering victims with his metal hook hand and ribcage full of bees. For Marshall, ‘folkloric ostension’ refers to the act of performing or re-enacting a folk belief or legend in real life. In the context of the Candyman, it describes the ritualistic act of summoning the Candyman by repeating his name five times in front of a mirror. This act of summoning serves as a form of folkloric practice, where the legend is brought to life through the actions of the characters. In the films, Candyman’s premise and mythology is specific to the legacy of slavery as it still affects the social and geographical landscape of the United States. The original film by Bernard Rose—notably a white director—is flawed in plot, confirming, rather than subverting, the racist stereotype of the predatory Black man making a white woman his ‘victim’ at the expense of the lives of the actual people living in the Cabrini Green projects. Despite this, the film does succeed in giving voice to the social concerns of African American communities living in urban environments in the 1990s—highlighting issues of redlining, societal neglect, and the spectre of slavery.
I would like to explore ‘folkloric ostension’ here as it pertains to the representation of African American trauma within the Afrosurrealism of Donald Glover’s television series Atlanta (2016-2022). The Afro-surreal is an artistic mode of production, explained by D. Scot Miller as seeking to restore the ‘cult of the past’ and reintroduce ‘madness’ through distortions of reality. This is combined in Candyman and Atlanta with the basic fear-inducing principles of the folk horror genre: being isolated in unfamiliar landscapes and encountering eerie, uncanny, or horrific manifestations of folklore. Throughout the first season of Atlanta, viewers are presented with a series of peculiar occurrences that defy conventional explanation. These occurrences include Darius' inexplicable sensations of déjà vu, the unexpected revelation of Justin Bieber as Black, and the unexplained presence of invisible cars. In the second season, more explicit examples of magic surrealism appear, especially in relation to the characters’ ventures outside of the suburbs. ‘Urban Wyrd,’ defined by Adam Scovell in 2015 as how folk horror can be represented in isolated urban landscapes, manifests in the topographical borders and peripheries of Atlanta and what lies beyond it. Yvelin Ducotey describes how in much of Glover’s show, social confinement is represented through staging and narrative effects. Life in the suburbs of Atlanta for the central characters Earn, Paper Boi and Darius becomes surreal or darkly marvellous because of these socio-spatial boundaries. Nylah Burton writes for Vox that the already-surreal experiences of Black people are played upon in the show; images of daily life are made more striking through the hyper-real, while not compromising on the brutalities of reality.
In an episode titled ‘Helen’ (S2E04), Earn and his ex-girlfriend Van, who is also the mother of his daughter Lottie, leave for the city of Helen in White County Georgia where Van grew up. Helen, a refabricated Bavarian Alpine town in the American South, is alarmingly Othering in both aesthetics and traditions. The couple visit to participate in Fastnacht, an Oktoberfest-style Alemannic carnival which involves dress up in traditional German outfits and participation in customary games. Van tells Earn “I just don’t think you’re going to like it up there” and later adds the caveat that it is customary for some of the attendees to be in Blackface as the “Moor character.” When the two arrive, Earn is the only one without costume and refuses to dress up until a woman mistakes his skin for being painted black. Earn reluctantly accepts a spare mask that Van’s friend happens to have in the trunk of his car: a terrifying Jason Vorhees style hockey mask. This does more to make Earn stand out amongst the crowd who are disguised as pagan-esque animals, his stark white facade eliciting Frantz Fanon’s notions of the fragmented Black identity in Black Skin White Masks. The people of Helen are more comfortable seeing Earn in the white mask than as himself, suggesting that his identity for them can only be conceived as a white person in a costume or a Black person who masks as white. Black people cannot exist as themselves in this rural town, and even Van is pressured into adopting whiteness so to fit in when her childhood friend tells her that she “chose to be Black” by having a Black partner, thereby refusing to assimilate.
Oppressive and Americanised European colonial ideals are epitomised in Helen’s traditions and pretences. Indeed, Earn is further Othered by Van when she speaks fluent German to the barman in the beer hall. They talk about him in front of his face, refusing to translate or include him in the conversation. This becomes entirely surreal when nonsensical games commence. Firstly, Earn is coxed into participating in ‘Hootz-Kutz,’ a fictional game with rules impossible to understand that entails passing a ball around a circle and then throwing it into a jar. The episode’s director, Amy Seimetz, stated in an article with Business Insider that the game was entirely conceived by Donald Glover to be “the whitest game that you could ever play [… so that] no one knows what is going on.” Hootz-Kutz finishes with Earn becoming frustrated and instead of passing the ball to someone else, dropping it immediately into the jar. Having unknowingly won the game, the party explodes into celebration as the locals are amazed at Earn’s proficiency at Hootz Kutz, leaving Earn further perplexed. We are also introduced to the demon of the festivities: the Schnappviecher (engl. snapping cattle), whose purpose is to cause havoc and steal an item of an unlucky partygoer’s possessions. The Schnappviecher, clad in a wooden mask reminiscent of a horse or a cow with a large mouth and sharp teeth, is seen throughout the episode trotting through the party, cackling, and babbling wildly. We find later that the demon steals Van’s phone and so the party hunts down the Schnappviecher as part of the ‘Rudeljagd’ (engl. pack hunting) to find the phone. The nonsensical torment that Earn and Van faces throughout the festivities is relentless, even Van becomes increasingly aware that they are the Subaltern within the festivities—they inhabit a literal space of difference. There is no space of privacy for Earn and Van at the party. When their frustrations result in an argument over a game of Tischtennis they believe that they’re alone however the camera pans to a man in a crying baby mask who has been watching their dispute in silence throughout the whole scene. During the hunt for Van’s phone, Van dips into an alleyway to urinate in private. The Schnappviecher then ominously looms out from the darkness from where Van is squatting, frightening her, and therefore receiving a punch in the face.
Atlanta complicates notions of ‘folkloric ostension’ in this episode as there is an artificial re-enactment of folk belief in Helen’s festivities. Glover and Seimetz write fake rituals and myths, inspired by a combination of several folkloric European practices, that are intended to appear ‘traditional’ or the people of Helen. A white community constructs myth and tradition for themselves in the form of spirits and supernatural entities as there is no immediate threat in which they must face. These are set in contrast with the ‘folkloric ostension’ that occurs in the urban environments of other episodes of Atlanta (and in Candyman) which are imbued with authenticity i.e. the folklore of Daniel Robitaille in Candyman. In the cities of Chicago and Atlanta, actual monsters haunt and real/surreal events take place. Racism is folk tradition for the people of Helen but for Earn and Van these ‘traditions’ are surreal examples of the legacies of colonial violence and thinly veiled re-enactments of rural European white supremacy. Glover wants the audience to feel as though Helen’s version of the ‘folk’, although constructed and falsified, is equally if not more dangerous than the surreal/real ‘Urban Wyrd’ that Van and Earn experience in the suburbs of the city.
Ducotey, Yvelin. “Atlanta (FX, Donald Glover, 2016-), Vers Une Transgression Générique des Frontières Géographiques et Sociales.” TV series (Le Havre) 18, no. 18 (2020).
Marshall, Kingsley (2023) Who Makes the Hood?: The City, Community and Contemporary Folk Horror in Nia Dacosta’s Candyman. In: Future Folk: Contemporary Anxieties and Possible Futures. Lexington Books Horror Studies. Lexington Books, Lanham, US.
Miller, D. Scot. “[Document] Afrosurreal Manifesto: Black Is the New Black—a 21st-Century Manifesto.” Black Camera 5, no. 1 (2013): 113–17.
Scovell, Adam. Folk Horror - Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire: Auteur Publishing, 2017.
Scovell, Adam. ‘The “Urban Wyrd” in Folk Horror’. In Celluloid Wickerman, 13 April 2015. https://celluloidwickerman.com/2015/04/13/the-urban-wyrd-in-folk-horror/