In the wooded outskirts of Georgia, Darius, played by Lakeith Stanfield pulls up to a long and winding driveway hidden deep in a quiet residential neighborhood, with a large white mansion at the end of it.
He parks his moving truck, and steps up to the house. He’s there to pick up a piano he saw an advertisement for on craigslist.
The door creeks open, and Darius is greeted by the pale and ominous face of a man who introduces himself as “Teddy”.
What follows in this episode is a demonstration of Donald Glover’s mastery of profound and moving story telling.
Per usual, however, within all of the twists and turns of the narrative, there is a deep and valuable message.
As Darius walks through the mansion, he sees photos filled with black artists and performers. It soon becomes apparent to him that Teddy is the brother of character Benny Hope, who was a legendary pianist, turned recluse due to a skin condition.
The parallels in this episode are strikingly apparent.
Glover, who plays Teddy, is drawing on the tragic tale of Michael Jackson, who bleached his skin and delved into more and more absurd behavior as he aged. Towards the end of his life, he veiled himself and his children from paparazzi, hid himself in secluded homes, and refused to talk to the media. Teddy Hope’s skin is so far from what it once was that he looks like what Darius describes as “a ghoul”.
Glover pulls off the imitation nearly perfectly. His chin is almost too perfectly chiseled (the work of a great make up artist), his skin looks pale, and his voice has the same register as MJ’s.
Glover’s genius expands the purpose of this episode.
It’s not solely a parody on the tragic life of Michael Jackson. It’s a meditation on the role sacrifice plays in the creative process, and the sometimes tragic personal lives of the world’s most gifted entertainers.
Following along with the MJ narrative, Teddy walks Darius around the house, evidently trying to keep him there indefinitely. Together, they explore parts of the house, stumbling upon more old pictures and memorabilia. They even venture into a part of the house that Teddy has turned into a museum, where he sells products that memorialize the genius of his brother.
Finally, they get to a dimly lit room where a mannequin meets them. “This is my father,” Teddy says.
At this moment, Glover’s message in the episode becomes clear. Teddy goes on to explain that the room is meant to act as a monument for all of the great fathers in the world. “My father, Joe Jackson, Marvin Gaye Sr…”
All of these parents were notorious for their brutal style of raising their children. They relied on physical punishment as a form discipline, but above all, the idea that all great work comes from sacrifice.
The culmination of the episode occurs when Darius attempts to leave the house, but Teddy points a gun at him. His intention is to kill Darius as well as his brother, and frame the murders as a home invasion, then cash out on Benny’s estate.
The two engage in a dialogue, which is one of the greatest moments of the show thus far. Darius explains to Teddy that though he might be in pain, it’s not a cycle he has to continue, and that “not all great things come from great pain… Just look at Stevie [wonder],” he says.
“He was blind,” Responds Teddy.
“But he wasn’t blinded.” Retorts Darius.
By the end of the episode, Benny comes to the living room and shoots Teddy, then himself. Darius is left aghast, gasping for air on the couch.
The song, “evil” by Stevie Wonder plays as the episode ends. In extremely raw form, Stevie Wonder asks the world, “Evil, why have you engulfed so many hearts?”
As the police wheel out the bodies of the two Hope brothers, Darius is left to consider what he has seen, and he can only take with him one lesson.
The beauty of the series Atlanta is the enormous scope with which Glover examines the creative process. Keep in mind that the show is really about a rapper named Paper Boi, who is on his way to stardom following a break out hit. However, the rapper makes only one appearance on the episode in a phone call. This episode is meant to examine the scope of creativity — this time, it’s just from a piano player cursed by his own gifts.
The notion that all art must come from great pain is an “evil” one, and deeply flawed. Benny Hope is a proxy through which we examine Michael Jackson, and Glover concludes that Jackson’s bizarre behavior was a manifestation of the tragedy he endured while bringing the world such beautiful music.
Tragedy far too common for many artists, and ruins the initial goal of creating art, which is to bring joy to others. Benny Hope is just another lost soul whose creativity was impeded by evil.