What is Wrong With Everybody? (The Alienated Creative Hero in Metamodern Intersectional Television)

Greg Dember
WiM on Med
Published in
13 min readMay 14


This is a lightly edited transcript of a talk I presented at the Glocal Metamodernisms Conference, at the University of Jyväskylä, in Finland on April 28, 2023.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept “metamodernism” please take a look at this article I published on Medium in 2018.

If we consider metamodernism, as a period, to have begun somewhere around the turn of the millennium, it is not unreasonable to observe that during its first decade it overwhelmingly included cultural products generated by White creators, involving White characters and settings, perhaps largely catering to White audiences. In the last decade, however, within American television, more and more shows have emerged that evoke a metamodern aesthetic sensibility and are centered around characters from non-White ethnic subcultures, or from economically marginalized White subcultures. One particular subset of such shows are those that feature main characters who are what I will call alienated creative heroes.

These characters very typically find themselves in situations where they need to ask of the universe “what is wrong with everybody?” and yet, as the audience, we can see that they, themselves, have a sizable package of flaws. Although these protagonists and the storylines they inhabit do a great deal of work representing the marginalized communities they belong to, the protagonists also insist on expressing their own unique interiorities, thus evincing a sort of metamodern intersectionality of community-based identitarianism and individualist quirky-ism.

In this talk, I will focus on three such shows: Atlanta, Ramy and Shameless (the American, not British, version), each of which provides a kind of “guided tour” of a contemporary American subculture through the lens of characters who are as much out of alignment with their community as their community is from society at large.

Atlanta (2016–2022)

When I learned that the theme for this conference was Glocal Metamodernisms, I immediately thought of the television show Atlanta … for more than one reason. I understand it as a metamodern show — I’ll be saying more about that — and most obviously the show is named after the city Atlanta, which is in the Southern U.S. state of Georgia, and that city is an important feature of the show. If we are here to explore how the metamodern sensibility might manifest differently in different regions, then I, as an American might need focus on an area relatively close to home, and though I am not from The South, I do feel I have a general sense of our American regional cultural differences.

More importantly, however, Atlanta represents a different sort of localized metamodernism — localization along the ethnic/racial dimension. Atlanta is a very Black show. And its way of being a Black show, I will argue, is characteristically metamodern, just as its way of being metamodern is arguably Black.

Now, before I get much further into this talk, we need to consider: How can I, as a White American, hold forth on what makes “Black metamodernism”? I would say that in many cases, I’m not the best person to be addressing that subject, and yet.. I feel that the particular way that Donald Glover, the creator of Atlanta, approaches his show does something that frees viewers of all subgroups from that dilemma. And this too, is part of its metamodernism.

Donald Glover

In 2013, the African-American actor and writer Donald Glover announced that he was leaving the show Community, on which he played the very popular character Troy Barnes. Community is classic metamodern television — see, for example Joshua Schulze¹ — known for the way it combined intensely layered intertextual references with deep compassion for its characters. Striking out on his own, the multi-talented Glover took on two projects: building his rap career under the stage name Childish Gambino and developing his own television show, Atlanta. Unlike with Community, here Glover would have the opportunity to fully enact his own creative vision, as showrunner and star of the series, writing and/or directing many of the episodes, and picking the team of writers and directors who would work on the episodes he did not directly control.

Famously, Atlanta’s writer’s room was entirely Black. As Glover said, “I wanted to show White people, you don’t know everything about Black culture… There were some things so subtle and Black that people [would have] had no idea what we were talking about.”²

Wikipedia describes Atlanta as a comedy-drama, a hyphenated genre descriptor that I think is often a signal for a metamodern sensibility. It is a loosely arced series that follows a quartet of young adult friends, Earn (Glover), Al (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) and Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), as they go through their day-to-day lives.

More details: Al, whose stage name is Paper Boi, is an upcoming rapper and is Earn’s cousin. Earn, who has dropped out of Princeton University, is Paper Boi’s manager. Vanessa is Earn’s on-again, off-again girlfriend and mother of his daughter Lottie. Darius is Al’s right-hand man and everybody’s favorite weirdo, a sort of manic pixie dream stoner, who supplies the cosmic, metaphysical perspective often when it’s needed, sometimes when not. Not surprisingly, they all live in Atlanta, a city which has been called the cultural capital of Black America.³

Atlanta has been described as a Black version of Seinfeld, which famously has been lauded as a “show about nothing” for the way it reveals humor in the minutiae of every day life, while avoiding big themes or character development. Atlanta differs from the postmodern Seinfeld, however, in that it’s not ONLY a show about nothing. Braided with the quotidian — or one could say Seinfeldian — storylines, are deeper, more meaningful plot threads that reveal growth in the characters’ relationships with each other and with themselves; and that explore themes of Black oppression and alienation in the U.S.

Much of this is conveyed more by what is NOT said than by what IS said. For example, in the very first episode a gun is fired and someone had died or been injured. Al and Earn are processed through the legal system in relation to the incident, but it’s never made clear exactly who did what to whom, and what the courts decided about it. And then the whole thing seems to be behind them, and they continue with their lives. For me, at least, several episodes went by before I realized that from these characters’ perspectives, and from the show’s perspective, the shooting was just a thing that happened. Our protagonists still seem like decent, relatable people and they are treated as such by the community around them and by the writers. It is through the absence of any significant commentary on the possible manslaughter that kicks off the series that we realize that gun violence is so inescapable in the world of Atlanta that anybody, even those we identify with, can end up involved on either side of the trigger, without it defining their character.

There are also episodes that are explicit allegories for issues affecting the African-American community. In fact some of these episodes don’t even feature any of the regular characters, but rather function as standalone, anthology stories.

Season Three, Episode Four whose title is “The Big Payback” brings us a clear instance of speculative fiction contemplating racial reparations: The Black descendants of enslaved people are receiving compensation from individual White people whose ancestors had been enslavers. The protagonist is a white man who, as a result of of the new policy, loses status and many of the physical comforts he’d enjoyed in his life. The episode does not seem to take a strong stance in favor of reparations or against them, but rather is sympathetic to all points of view, while perhaps mainly forcing the viewer to at least think about the mess that has resulted from America’s history of slavery. Again, none of our familiar cast of main characters are part of this story.

“The Big Payback” is one among five similar standalone episodes in Seasons 3 and 4 that tackle social issues, reminiscent of the 2011 British anthology speculative fiction series Black Mirror, which itself recalls the early 1960s American series The Twilight Zone. If one were to map this aspect of Atlanta onto a metamodern oscillation between modernism and postmodernism, I would say that, on the one hand, the content and intention of these standalone episodes can be described as modernist — they use allegory and symbolism to unironically broach important topics. On the other hand, the choice to mix some of these standalone, themed episodes into a series that has set up an expectation for being about a given set of characters and circumstances could be thought of as a de-stabilizing, genre-challenging, postmodern move.

The main oscillation I want to discuss today, however, as mentioned, is the one in which sometimes Atlanta is a show about Blackness on a collective level, and sometimes it is a show about individuals (who happen to be Black) claiming their uniqueness both within their community and within humanity at large.

Although Earn enters the chronology of the series rather down and out… kicked out of college, living in his storage unit, not trusted by his parents, on thin ice with his ex-girlfriend/baby-mama… as soon as Al takes a chance on him and gives him the job of managing his Rap career, Earn begins to gain the respect of those around him, and before too long he is commonly finding himself the most responsible, grounded person in any given situation.

At any given moment he is likely to be either handling Al’s professional responsibilities so that Al can live care-free as a creative artist, or attempting to make sense of Darius’s cosmic freaky observations and pronouncements.

But Earn is not a square. Although he has taken on the responsibilities of being an artist’s business manager, he himself also has the soul of an artist. I’m not sure there is any singular scene or bit of dialog that establishes this on its own. You have to get a feeling for him across time. But, also, one might say it’s really the show’s creator Donald Glover himself who has the soul of an artist, and he expresses this in his show through a blend of all of his characters.

As Vikram Murti writes in the magazine The Nation:

“It would be inaccurate to describe Atlanta as ‘about’ racism or capitalism or systemic oppression or any other capital-T theme, despite all those ideas being present in the story’s framework. Rather, the show depicted the marginal moments in a life lived between the margins and the mainstream, mirroring Glover’s own experience as an artist.”⁴

Each of the main characters expresses a facet of Donald Glover’s artistic outsider self.

  • Al, AKA Paper Boi, is the one actually making art, making music, but he doesn’t appear to have any self-conscious story about it. It’s just a thing he does.
  • Earn does not create art himself, but he is the visionary in terms of making a story around Al’s art and bringing it into the world. Earn is attempting to decorate the world with Al’s music.
  • Darius lives as art. He is stubbornly intuitive and contemplative.
  • Van seeks a life for herself and for her and Earn’s daughter Lottie that is appealing, aesthetically.

As a viewer who identifies as an artist and a bit of an oddball myself, I strongly relate to all of these characters. However, for these characters, unlike me, their status as artists intersects with their status as Black folks living in the dominant White American culture.

As D. Scot Miller said, in distinguishing AFRO-surrealism from general surrealism:

“The Way that (White) Surrealists used to do their thing was automatic writing, seances, drugs… in order to get above reality, these people used to have to use techniques. [However] if you’re dealing with an absurd fiction every day of your life, something that you know is not real that you have to treat as if it’s real, you’re already in a surreal situation without having to do anything.”⁵

Here, Earn expresses this sentiment, when stuck in the awkward predicament of negotiating a party thrown by a wealthy White benefactor who idolizes Black culture and his Black wife who is attempting to distance herself from the culture.

The central characters in Atlanta, and especially Earn, live in a constant state of having to ask the question “What is wrong with everybody?”

And “Everybody” is not just White people, but other Black people as well.

Here, Earn is befuddled by his friend’s glib willingness to shoplift, by the absurdity of the store policy that allows it, and by the store clerk’s ineffectual manner.

Not that Earn himself is a flawless normie by any stretch of the imagination. He frequently makes choices that prove unwise, and his victories are often victories by quirky standards. But, given the people he finds himself encountering, it is fair to say that much of the time, wherever he goes, he is the least weird weirdo.

I believe that this “least weird weirdo” is a type of metamodern hero. One who insists on walking life’s stranger pathways in order to find reflections of his or her own interiority, yet strives to bring as much coherence as possible to the collection of oddities that they encounter.

I promised in the abstract that I would discuss three shows: Not only Atlanta, but also Ramy and Shameless. As seems to often be the case, I’m finding that time does not permit me to go into full depth on all three, but I’d like to at least briefly address these other two shows in terms of some of the conceptualizations I’ve brought to understanding Atlanta.

Ramy is an autofiction television series, in the sense that the title of the show and the first name of the main character are the same as the first name of the show’s creator and lead actor, Ramy Youssef. The real Ramy and the fictional Ramy are both millennials born in the U.S. to Egyptian parents. As Atlanta is a metamodern comedy-drama about Black subculture in the city of Atlanta, Ramy is a metamodern comedy-drama about Muslim-American subculture in Northern New Jersey (an area located South of New York City.). Just as Donald Glover is multi-talented, the real Ramy is a stand-up comedian, writer, director and actor.

Where Atlanta is centered around Earn and his chosen set of friends, with his birth family appearing only occasionally as “guest characters”, in Ramy, the friend group and the birth family (mother, father and sister) are equally important. Similar to Atlanta’s Earn, Ramy is a creative alienated hero, frequently seeming to be asking himself the question “what is wrong with everybody?” as the least weird weirdo in the room.

Much of the show involves Rami seeking to build his own relationship with Islam, the religion he was born into, while also embodying his own interiority as an American millennial with contemporary cultural interests. Throughout most of the series he fails miserably — and often mortifyingly — at upholding any sort of respectable religious values, just as he fails at being a decent man in his attempts at romantic relationships, with both Islamic and non-Islamic women. Nevertheless, it’s clear that he is always guided by some sort of an inner star of truth, and by the end of the series he appears to have broken through to a new level of maturity. Similar to Atlanta, it is through Ramy’s flaws and eccentricity that that show manages to transcend being simply a show about an ethnic subculture, while also very much being about the Muslim American Subculture.

The American version of Shameless depicts a large Irish-American poor family, the Gallaghers, scraping by in the South Side of Chicago, an area known for its pockets of poverty but also for its active politics and local pride with pockets of artistic fluorishing. Compared to Ramy and Atlanta, the characters are even more flawed — often appearing, well, SHAMELESS — particularly the most central character, the father, Frank, played by William H. Macy. Frank Gallagher is an unrepentent alocholic deadbeat who will often swindle his own children. By stripping away all expectations of ethical behavior in its characters, however, the show finds its way into revealing the true, unforced essence of the human companionate drive. How do people unencumbered by ethics show love for each other? Quite a metamodern premise I would argue, and one that, similar to the other shows I’ve discussed, allows a raw, unpreachy tour of the lives of economically disadvantage people. While quite often appearing as an immoral fool, the father Frank stubbornly clings to his own sense of self and occasionally shines as the alienated creative hero, as do his various children each in their own ways.

Admittedly, this talk has been a bit all over the map (which I mean in several ways) but I hope that I’ve drawn the outlines of a loose metamodern category in television, wherein ethnic or socio-economic subgroups are given a new kind of attention through the lens of characters who are alienated from society at large not only through their belonging to a marginalized identity group but also by their own individual quirkiness, allowing access to their interiority to viewers from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.

If you enjoyed this article, please support me by Clapping (up to 50 claps!), following me, and/or forwarding this article to others who may be interested.


  1. Joshua Schulze, “Community’s Human Laugh Track: Neurodiversity in a Metamodern Sitcom.” In Autism in Film and Television, edited by Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer. 2022. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  2. https://colorlines.com/article/donald-glover-why-atlanta-has-all-black-writing-staff/
  3. https://travelnoire.com/atlanta-black-history-capital-u-s
  4. Vikram Murti, The Nation, January 12, 2023
  5. https://youtu.be/8rOU9wrEsoo?t=339 (Video Essay by Thomas Flight)



Greg Dember
WiM on Med

Human-centric ontological adventures! (a little bit of heart, a little bit of brain) (topics will vary) gregdember.com