This post contains spoilers about Atlanta Season 2, Episode 3.
In October 2016, a video of an angry Christian mother reciting the Vince Staples song “Norf Norf” went viral. In it, she says that she was driving with her young daughter and listening to the local radio station when the song, an explicit track about Staples’s rough youth in Long Beach, began playing, catching her off guard. “I couldn’t even believe the words I was listening to,” she fumes. Then she looks up the lyrics and dramatically reads them—n-word and all—occasionally pausing to sniffle and cry. All the while, one of her daughters is playing behind her, unaware that mommy is having a bit of a breakdown.
The video was instantly, mercilessly mocked online; an enterprising viewer even remixed her recitation, setting it to the actual “Norf Norf” beat. And though its cycle seemed to have come and gone, it’s now been resuscitated by a pitch-perfect parody in Season 2 of Donald Glover’s beautifully surreal Atlanta.
The episode, which premiered Thursday, opens with a near-identical take on the video, featuring a blonde woman freaking out over a song by Paper Boi (played by Brian Tyree Henry). Everything about the parody, from the way the woman oscillates between fury and sadness to her tiny daughter bopping around behind her, is perfectly staged. The idea for the parody came from Atlanta writer Jamal Olori, who dropped the original into the writing team’s group chat back in 2016—then watched as the controversy around it exploded throughout the day. The rest of the Atlanta team agreed; somehow, some way, they needed to incorporate this video into the show.
“It screamed ignorance,” Olori says of the original video. “He’s talking about what’s going on in his bubble, and to her, it’s just so jarring that she feels like she has to do something about it.”
FX executives, he notes, let them run with the idea to incorporate a parody into the show. “They just don’t know how people will take the things that we do,” he says with a laugh. “They let us do whatever we want to. . . . I don’t think they even realized that was a parody of another video.”
At the time, Staples responded to the original video by tweeting that the woman who made it was clearly “frightened” and “emotionally unstable,” but still had a right to express herself. “No person needs to be attacked for their opinion on what they see to be appropriate for their children,” he tweeted.
Still, there’s something inherently funny about the original video—its dramatic agita, her assumption that everyone agrees there is something evil about the lyrics. That bold assumption was also what drew Olori to the clip. “What she didn’t realize is just how unforgiving and dark a place the Internet is,” he says. “She wanted a reaction of people supporting her. What actually happened was the song itself got more popular, essentially.”
What the woman who made the video needed was a better understanding of the Internet at large—an understanding that Atlanta’s team has firmly grasped. The last two episodes of the series have also seamlessly woven in nods to bizarro aspects of online culture, from the subversion of the Florida Man meme to corny, toothless acoustic guitar covers of popular rap songs. There are few shows on air today that understand Internet culture quite like Atlanta does. Though shows like Silicon Valley and American Vandal grasp the business and social sides of the tech worlds, respectively, Atlanta understands its slippery underbelly—the nano-moments that become eternal memes, building a fabric that tethers people to the online world.
The writing team has been more intent on this material this season, Olori notes, dreaming up scenarios that feed into the show’s surreal nature. This episode, for example, ends with Earn racing a tuckered Michael Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback, in a strip-club parking lot. (Their original idea, says Olori, was to have Vick actually be a strip-club employee who races people in the lot as a side hustle; Vick nixed the idea.)
There’s also a quick scene in which Darius and Paper Boi are gifted Harriet Tubman dollars—“before they [the government] stopped making them,” one character notes. It’s a subtle nod to the alternate universe of Atlanta—one where Tubman dollars really happened, one where Justin Bieber is black. Olori says that the show almost included a similar joke in Season 1 about Beyoncé being married to Nas instead of Jay-Z, in the world of Atlanta—but it ended up feeling “too pointed.” When the writing team heard that Tubman dollars were going to be made, though, they instantly decided to incorporate them into the show—largely because they don’t think the real world will ever end up printing any.
“It’s one of those things that’s gonna get slipped under the rug and everyone’s gonna forget about,” Olori predicts. “But . . . in our world, our Atlanta, it’s an alternate universe of sorts. You’ve got black Justin Bieber. It’s almost like one weird thing happened in space and time that completely changed everything, but a lot of things are still very similar. We wanted the Harriet Tubman dollar to exist in our world, and also to remind everybody like, yeah, that was supposed to happen! We wanted to create a spark on the Internet.”
Since the show’s writers also didn’t want to make any overt Donald Trump jokes, this was their way of getting in a subtle jab at his administration. Because, even though they can poke fun at pop-cultural figures (and viral-video moms), it ultimately doesn’t matter who becomes president in Atlanta’s Atlanta: “Nothing changes,” Olori says. “Earn is still super broke, Alfred still has to sell drugs, [and] Darius is just in his own world, period.”
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Donald Glover Just Joined a Proud Golden Globes Tradition
Donald Glover — Atlanta (2017)
Photo: By the conventional wisdom, it should have been newcomer and HBO auteur Issa Rae joining the ranks of bright young female stars who have gotten their start at the Golden Globes. And we’d be tempted to slot The Crown star and freshly-minted winner Claire Foy in here, but her last big project, Wolf Hall, was a Globes winner in 2016 so she’s hardly a stranger to the HFPA. So it’s up to Atlanta creator and star, Donald Glover, to carry the 2017 banner for the fresh faces at the Golden Globes. Sure, Glover did his time on the excellent (though HFPA-overlooked) Community, but with a series win for Atlanta on top of Glover’s Best Actor win, this is really his coming out as a creative TV force in his own right.
Rachel Bloom — Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2016)
“What we do have is great faith in the show, great faith in the showrunners and the creators, Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom. We believe in the show. We stand by the show,” CW chief Mark Pedowitz said just hours before Bloom walked away with the award for Best Leading Actress in a comedy. Pedowitz got an enthusiastic shout out from Bloom as she grasped her award and took home the CW’s second consecutive actress win in a row. “We believe there is a place on our schedule today for a show like this and we’re going to give it a chance to get seen. You can’t beat quality like this,” Pedowitz said. With a Golden Globe in her pocket, odds are Bloom just got an even better chance at a second season.
Claire Danes — My So-Called Life (1995)
Danes was just 15 years old when she won for the cult-favorite drama My So-Called Life, beating out vets like Kathy Baker (Picket Fences), Angela Lansbury (Murder, She Wrote), Heather Locklear (Melrose Place), and Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman). Despite low ratings, My So-Called Life was a huge critical success, and Danes, in particular, was singled out for her emotional portrayal of Angela Chase. But Danes’s rising star combined with low ratings eventually spelled doom for My So-Called Life. Danes would return to the Globes several times, though, winning once for the TV movie Temple Grandin and twice for her work on Homeland.
Angelina Jolie — George Wallace (1998)
A 22-year-old Jolie collected her first piece of awards-season hardware for playing Cornelia Wallace opposite Gary Sinise in the pretty much forgotten TNT TV movie George Wallace. Newcomer Jolie beat out Joely Fisher (Ellen), Della Reese (Touched by an Angel), Gloria Reuben (ER), and her George Wallace co-star Mare Winningham. Jolie’s acting family legacy may have had something to do with her success—look no further than the ceremony’s Mr/Miss Golden Globe tradition to see the H.F.P.A.’s fascination with Hollywood royalty—but it was a canny, forward-looking choice nonetheless. The Globes would honor Jolie again in 1999 for the TV movie Gia and help seal the deal for her Oscar win in 2000 by awarding her for Girl, Interrupted. Jolie has been nominated three more times since, for A Mighty Heart, Changeling, and The Tourist.
Lena Dunham — Girls (2013)
Riding a wave of new-kid-on-the-block buzz, Girls creator and star Lena Dunham beat out that long-running TV-comedy trifecta of Tina Fey (30 Rock), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep), and Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) and well as fellow TV newcomer Zooey Deschanel (New Girl). Poehler—who was also hosting that year—accepted her defeat gracefully from George Clooney’s lap. Not a bad consolation prize. “I thought I was going to be a cooler customer if this ever happened, which I didn’t think it would,” a flustered Dunham said from the stage. She went on to thank her fellow nominees for getting her through “middle school” and “mono.” “Congratulations, Lena,” Fey and Poehler later joked from the stage, ”I’m glad we got you through middle school!” When Fey won a SAG Award later that month she added, “I’ve known [Amy] since [she] was pregnant with Lena Dunham.” Girls also won for best comedy in 2013, and Dunham would be nominated two more times for playing Hannah Horvath.
Calista Flockhart — Ally McBeal (1998)
With little more than The Birdcage as a credit to her name, Calista Flockhart, with her short-skirted power suits and C.G.I. baby, danced her way into the pop-culture zeitgeist with Ally McBeal. Flockhart beat out Kirstie Alley (Veronica’s Closet), Ellen DeGeneres (Ellen), Jenna Elfman (Dharma & Greg) Helen Hunt (Mad About You), and Brooke Shields (Suddenly Susan). Something tells me Hunt—who took home both a different Golden Globe and the Oscar that year for As Good as It Gets—was O.K. with losing this one. Flockhart called her win a “staggering surprise” but would go on to be nominated for Ally McBeal four more years in a row.
Gina Rodriguez — Jane the Virgin (2015)
Like Keri Russell before her, Gina Rodriguez is the only one to bring home a Golden Globe (so far!) for her network, the CW. Rodriguez beat out Lena Dunham (Girls), Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep), and Taylor Schilling (Orange Is the New Black), and gave an impassioned, tearful speech saying, “This award is so much more than myself, it represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.” Rodriguez was nominated again in 2016 for her work on Jane the Virgin but lost out to fellow CW star and even newer TV talent, Rachel Bloom of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.PreviousNext
Yohana DestaYohana Desta is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.