Whether you’re fan (or not) of Donald Glover, you have no doubt seen his meteoric rise to stardom from the beginning of this year.
His release of the “This is America” music video has been received to astounding acclaim, he’s hosted a hilarious SNL sketch, and has most recently made his debut as Lando Calrissian in the new Solo: A Star Wars Story film. But if none of these accolades ring a bell, then you must at least know about Atlanta—a show that has been widely and critically acclaimed since its inception. It won Donald Glover an Emmy last year and has placed Atlanta on the map as a cultural icon.
Atlanta is a show about two cousins: Alfred Miles “Paperboi” and Earnest “Earn” Miles trying to make it in the trap artist game—or at least it was. The second season of the show—titled Robbin’ Season—has just wrapped up, and Donald Glover has outdone himself once again. This season showed us that Atlanta was not to be taken lightly and simply on the surface. It was dark, it went there, and most notably, it stayed true to the season’s name: robbing each character of something crucial and essential to their being as the season progressed. If there was one episode that proved this—at least to me—it was Teddy Perkins.
This episode somewhat came out of left field for fans, and the television industry itself. The episode premiered without any commercials and came in at a little over 30 minutes, meaning it was slated to more of a short film than a self-contained episode. That in itself should have told us that this episode was going to be unique because it’s well known that for a network that runs based off sponsorship, allowing an episode like this to fly takes a huge gamble and a sense of trust. With that being said, Teddy Perkins delivered in its stunning visuals and hauntingly ingenious story.
One of the different and enjoyable aspects of this season is highlighting each character separately in an effort to get a broader glimpse into their daily lives, and themselves. Barbershop and Woods starred Paperboi, Champagne Papi starred Van, and—saving the best for last—is Darius in Teddy Perkins.
The episode truly starts once Darius arrives at what looks like a dilapidated mansion: secluded and haunting. Darius is arriving for one thing and one thing only: a piano with multicolored keys. It should be simple enough, but we should know by now that with Atlanta, it never is. Darius enters the house, and from the shadows, it appears…Teddy Perkins. From an analytical point of view, this immediately sets a sense of dread in one’s stomach, as similar situations suddenly bring themselves to the forefront of recollection.
How many times in our lives have we been poached like this? You go to run a simple errand, head to a kickback or set out on a new project. You arrive, like Darius, to begin said errand, and what rears its ugly head? Insecurity, doubt, defamation, haunting pasts…Teddy Perkins.
It poses you with seemingly innocent questions: “Is that Stevie?”
“Can you do this?”
Like Darius, you brush it off, and decide to further engage and see where the journey will take you.
And as the audience is introduced to Teddy, we learn about Darius from Teddy’s questioning. We realize that Darius has never studied or trained in music, yet he loves it and desires the piano with the colored keys. So it poses the question: why would someone like Darius, who has no formal training to play piano, want to do just that? Play the piano? From the analytical perspective, why would a person of color, who has no formal training or talent, embark on anything out of the ordinary, if there’s seemingly no hope to succeed?
The answer could lie in Teddy’s response when Darius discovers that the recluses’ brother was Benny Hope. Benny Hope was a renowned piano player who jammed with the very best and was hailed as the very best. But as Teddy mentions: “Benny just played what he knew…he played pain better than anyone.” The Teddy in us says the same thing—how else does an artist become a famous singer, painter, entertainer, actor? It takes skill, yes, and diligence…but normally they all essentially just “play what they know”.
As the episode progresses, Darius discovers several more interesting things about Teddy, and quickly concludes that there is, in fact, no Benny Hope. When speaking to Al “Paperboi” on the phone, Darius alludes to a “two regret life limit pact”, which he explains as a pact in which someone would have to kill him if he ever regrets more than two things in his life. This mindset eventually leads Darius back into the horror house to Teddy, despite the fact that nearly everything else was screaming at him to get out.
Similar to how we all may continuously put ourselves through painful experiences, self-sabotage, or go back to toxic relationships out of a yearning to gain something and have “no regrets”.
After Darius enters back into the house, were taken into the museum wing that Teddy proclaims will be a testament to “Great Fathers.” It is, in essence, a chamber of horrors. It is here that we discover the true heart of Teddy. We discover that he was born out of abuse from his father and that the pain and abuse stemming from that harnessed into something that allowed Teddy (Benny) to become something great.
Darius pleads with Teddy that perhaps the physical violence and abuse wasn’t necessary. He would use this same logic when pleading for his life once Teddy Perkins cuffs him to a chain with the intention to make him his “sacrifice”.
Before this, Darius had actually managed to retrieve the piano, and while carrying it throughout the house he encountered the real Benny Hope, a bandaged and wheel-chair bound man who warns him to get a gun hidden in the attic before Teddy does. But, yet again, no matter his dedication to leaving, Darius remains inevitably drawn back to the house. Two times to escape—two life regret pact. So many chances to defeat the negative spiral of thoughts—so many chances to give into Teddy Perkins and give up.
Until the point where Darius is finally staring down the barrel of a gun, Teddy Perkins’s thought process had seemed acceptable. Empathetic, almost. To become great and joyous, one must go through great sacrifice and pain. It’s a narrative that has plagued “mad geniuses”, “tortured artists” and “tragic heroes” time and time again. Any figure that has become an icon, a person of note, usually seems to have a story of great pain and heartache preceding their success.
So, why not give into that spiral of thought? Why not chop it up to what Teddy Perkins is thinking, and continue to suffer?
The answer is in Darius’s greatest line:
“Your father should have said sorry.”
This line does more than just soothe Teddy’s wounds, and invite itself into his pity party. It rings true in our hearts today. The battle in all of us calls for struggle against the pain of our pasts. The moments that we have relegated to the shadows of our deepest minds.
You chalk it up that maybe you did deserve those hurtful words, those painful experiences, that constant disappointment. You allow the Teddy Perkins into your head. You allow him to use these experiences against you, in spite of the efforts you’re taking to succeed past your weaknesses, and onto a path of greatness. You get sucked into the negative thoughts and shackle yourself to the pain.
Then that one thought occurs. The thought that the person that brought the pain against you should have apologized. Should have owned up to their abuse. And, most importantly—as Darius follows up—that you don’t have to continue the cycle of subjecting yourself to living out the same pain.
Eventually, there comes a time when you have to break the shackles. Have to break this line of thinking that says you deserved these painful experiences. Did they not shape us? Make us stronger? Did we not learn that we can endure it?
But we also have the power to kill that “Teddy Perkins” in us. To stop these thoughts in their tracks, and release ourselves from this emotional prison. After seeing Benny rise from the bowels of the mansion to shoot Teddy dead and then himself, Darius, in turn, would never forget this experience: his Teddy Perkins.
But he was freed from the horrors of Teddy, and he wasn’t brainwashed by the twisted persona of what Teddy felt. Remember, Darius mentions at some point that he himself had daddy issues, but he realized he didn’t have to continue that cycle—or let it define him. I doubt after seeing Teddy Perkins any of us would forget it, or our own personal Teddy.
But we can move forward and not let him come out from the shadows again.