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One of 2016’s best shows and one of its best books both used surrealism to explore the black experience

Both Atlanta and The Underground Railroad aim to make the black American experience visceral.

Atlanta FX
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Early in “The Jacket,” the first-season finale of FX’s terrific new comedy Atlanta, protagonist Earn (Donald Glover) leaves the apartment he unexpectedly woke up in after a wild time the night before.

As he strolls down the sidewalk, blinking blearily in the sun, he’s suddenly passed by several people in cow costumes. It’s free chicken sandwich day, one of them proclaims, but Earn seems as if he could not be less fazed by the sight of people in cow costumes interrupting his morning.

If you think about this for a moment, it’s not hard to piece together — the series is likely making a reference to Chick Fil-A’s advertising campaign, which features cows begging people to eat more chicken — but what sells the oddness of the gag is just how little Earn seems to care. It’s just another surreal moment, in a surreal day, in a surreal life.

Glover has always had a knack for the oddball and off-the-wall, for moments that underline the absurdity of modern life. The best script he contributed to for 30 Rock, season three’s “The Funcooker,” featured Liz Lemon attempting to ditch jury duty by saying she believed she was Princess Leia, and his performance on Community gradually turned his character Troy from a stereotypical dumb jock into an oddball nerd in about half a season.

Yet the surrealism in Atlanta isn’t just about being weird. It has a larger purpose. And it shares that larger purpose with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, one of the year’s most acclaimed novels. Both works aim to make Glover and Whitehead’s expressions of the black American experience visceral, not through forcing the audience to look, but through forcing the audience to feel a discombobulation that often registers as unsettling, and sometimes just feels strange.

Atlanta uses surrealism to underline both the weirder and darker sides of its characters’ lives

When promoting Atlanta at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in August, Glover said he had hoped the series might convey some of what it feels like to be black.

The series tackles this theme in a number of ways. The most obvious is in the way in which Earn, an Ivy League graduate who is trying to make a go of it in managing his cousin’s rap career, has the expectations of just about everybody he meets placed upon him to do something with his life, when he’d really probably rather just be living it.

Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, and Keith Stanfield star in Atlanta.

Another method the series uses is the much-remarked-upon way that Earn and his friends’ adventures can, almost at random, be interrupted by violence visited upon them by authority figures. In the series’ second episode, for instance, a jailhouse conversation is suddenly interrupted by police beating someone, while others avoid drawing attention to themselves. The sequence — which plays out in the background of Earn’s story — captures how this abuse of authority, which we know from our own reality in incident after incident after incident, is at once horrifying and chillingly routine.

But this surrealism is also a tool in Glover’s arsenal. If Earn is forever caught between simply wanting to exist in peace and the — sometimes reasonable! — expectations others have for him, then a hint of the surreal is just the way to highlight how the character can seem as if he’s not in quite the right universe. Perhaps this is what Glover means by the show making viewers understand how it feels to be black — often hilarious absurdity lives right alongside terrible reality in every day and every moment.

What’s fascinating, too, is how Glover and his creative team capture the way that the level of surrealism rises and lowers depending on which character is in charge of the narrative.

When an entire episode follows Van, the mother of Earn’s child, for instance, the situations she encounters are more grounded and down-to-earth — since she’s more focused on the immediate future of her employment, she doesn’t have a lot of room to notice the weirdness happening to Earn and others.

In contrast, Earn’s cousin Alfred, better known as the rapper Paper Boi, goes on a talk show on the fictional “Black Action Network” in the series’ biggest flight of fancy. The episode parodies and satirizes everything from commercials aimed at black audiences to the ways cable discussion programs often turn into grueling deathmatch arguments at the drop of a hat (though in this case the guests eventually team up on the host). This episode is wilder and weirder, because Paper Boi’s celebrity, no matter how minor, has a tendency to skew everything away from the mundane.

These surreal moments also allow for most of the show’s best comedy — the BAN episode is a series highlight when it comes to humor — but also help non-black viewers more viscerally understand what Glover’s going for.

When Earn runs into a white guy who wants desperately to show how much he likes black people, a white guy who simply goes too far in how he appropriates other cultures and lectures Earn about how the young man must go to Africa, the show doesn’t need to turn to preachiness, because everything about the guy is ridiculous. In that sense, white viewers (like myself) will find it easier to truly understand both sides of this conflict — and cringe with recognition at times they tried too hard to prove they, too, were cool with people of other races.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad uses the surreal to explore black history

At first blush, The Underground Railroad, one of the most acclaimed books of the year, winner of the National Book Award, and a surefire future fixture in literature courses, would seem to have little in common with a TV comedy. But Colson Whitehead’s book uses off-the-wall situations to explore the darkest tragedies of black history in America.

The Underground Railroad Doubleday

Whitehead’s book begins in a place where it seems to be a straightforward novel about slaves escaping their plantation in pre-Civil War America. Filtered through the perspective of a woman named Cora, the book follows her as she heads toward the north, via the Underground Railroad.

The first indication that what Whitehead is doing here isn’t as straightforward as it seems comes when Cora first finds herself at a railroad station. Here, the author imagines the railroad as a literal one — with engines and boxcars and tunnels dug into the Earth. (“Who built it?” Cora asks. “Who builds everything in America?” she’s told in response.) This allows Whitehead to suggest a narrative undercurrent to the dominant one white Americans have told for centuries, one that crisscrosses underneath the Earth.

But his embrace of very light elements of genre fiction doesn’t stop there. As Cora and her traveling companion head from Georgia into each new state northward, they also subtly travel through time, confronting the dark legacy of slavery that existed well after the Civil War, via scenes meant to evoke Reconstruction, Jim Crow lynch mobs, and even the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

Whitehead never directly nods toward any of this — his book is always “set” in pre-Civil War America, and the encounters Cora has nicely tiptoe along the line between metaphor and reality — but this makes the effect of the slave hunters who want to recapture Cora all the more potent. Slavery isn’t a thing consigned to the past anymore. It can burst into the room at any moment and wrap its tendrils around black Americans. The legacy can never be eradicated entirely, but it only grows in strength when America refuses to look closely at it.

As in Atlanta, The Underground Railroad’s use of a dark, weird fiction allows both for moments of stark humor and horror, as well as a visceral quality that allows for greater empathy with Cora’s plight. It’s one thing to know that slavery’s legacy can never be eradicated; it’s quite another to have that deliberately portrayed in the form of a page-turning thriller.

That, then, might be what Whitehead and Glover have most in common. In smuggling consideration of what it means to be a black American in the present and past into two of our most venerable American art forms — the sitcom and the thriller — both automatically suggest the clash between a nation that claims to stand for freedom and those who most realize that claim is too often a lie.

We know what a sitcom or a thriller is supposed to look like, but when Atlanta or The Underground Railroad leave that safety behind, via the deliberate upending of surrealism, we start to glimpse even deeper truths and maybe we start to understand, if only a little bit.

Atlanta is available on FX Now. The Underground Railroad is for sale in bookstores.