When "Atlanta" met the Northman: producer on exploring whiteness and that surprise finale cameo

Stefani Robinson spoke to Salon about whiteness as a curse and how racism is often more surreal than horrific

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 21, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Zazie Beetz as Van in "Atlanta" (Roger Do Minh/FX)
Zazie Beetz as Van in "Atlanta" (Roger Do Minh/FX)

The following contains spoilers from Season 3 of "Atlanta," including the finale.

Midway through both Season 3 of "Atlanta"  and Earn, Alfred and Darius' frequently vexing European tour, the crew's fourth member, Van (Zazie Beetz) disappears without warning . . . only to resurface in Paris as different woman. She sports an "Amélie"-inspired bob, fakes a French accent and has swooned into an amorous relationship with a Parisian chef. It seems like Van's living the dream, except one in which Van clearly isn't herself.

Soon enough, we find out she's also turned into a criminal enforcer fond of beating men senseless with petrified baguettes. Van is not Van but a fearsome figure referred to as Tarrare, a name taken from that of a Frenchman whose insatiable appetite made him a mythical figure. History's Tarrare is rumored to have eaten human flesh. This version of Van devours danger to the point of attracting some very exclusive admirers with their own strange, vile habits.

RELATED: On "Atlanta," Van partied for every Black woman exhausted with being overlooked

This refers to a surprise cameo from a highly in-demand Scandinavian star Donald Glover brought in to close a season of "Atlanta" that interrogates whiteness.

Executive producer Stefani Robinson wrote that finale,  also called "Tarrare," with an eye on looking at Van's self-concept in relationship to Glover's Earn, with whom Van shares a young daughter, Lottie. But while Earn is free to roam the globe managing his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), better known as the hip-hop star Paper Boi, Van has been strapped with raising their kid. This season sees her break free of that role, but the finale makes her, and us, wonder who she really is.

Van's subplot is one of several ways that "Atlanta" shatters form this season, with 10 episodes divided evenly between standalone examinations of American whiteness and episodes chronicling Earn's, Alfred's and Darius' (LaKeith Stanfield) European misadventures. Van lingers somewhere between, taking a vacation from her life, and herself, until she's confronted with the reality that she can never completely leave Atlanta.

Robinson, a multiple Emmy nominee for her work on this acclaimed series and "What We Do in the Shadows," chatted with Salon about the significance of Van's transformation, that memorable guest star surprise and the third season's awful accidental new relevance in the wake of the horrifying racist mass shooting in Buffalo, NY.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I wrote a little bit about Van's transformation, particularly with "The Old Man and The Tree" episode. And then we see that drastic change in her come to fruition with the finale. Can you talk about your plan for that?

The origin of it was just based on story and trying to figure out or trying to find a way that felt organic as to why Van was in Europe. Obviously she's such a critical part of this show, and it would not be "Atlanta" without her. So to have her in Europe with everybody else, and to be showcased this season, it was important for us to have her interacting with the characters that we know in a way that just didn't feel convenient, you know what I mean? That maybe there was a reason that she was there that actually felt more organic and didn't feel like we were just sort of lumping her into a group of other characters for [the scenario's] sake.

. . .We really wanted to be thoughtful about why she was going to Europe in a way that honored the character, but also was interesting and gave her a bit more agency. Because it is a pretty drastic thing to completely leave your child in the care of someone else and come to Europe. And I also just thought about, what are the reasons that she wouldn't feel comfortable doing that? Or, did she feel uncomfortable leaving her life and leaving her child in the care of someone else?

And there's sort of a gender conversation to be had about that. Should it be weird that a woman travels without her child? Can't she just, you know, go out and be?

"We were sort of stumbling upon this idea ... that whiteness is a curse as well."

It all informed the approach to where she is in her life and ultimately this feeling of a lack of identity as a young single mother who really hasn't had time or the opportunity to fully become someone else, become anybody else except for this thing. I think Van's identity is sort of shoved on her . . . and that informs the mental episode that she's going through.

There's a lot about this season that is very steeped in the horror genre, whether in terms of cinematic style or in terms of the themes. There are the episodes that don't feature anybody from the core foursome that are entirely horror movie-tinged. What was behind  the decision make this comedy more like a horror movie this season?

In terms of the conversations in the writers room, we were sort of stumbling upon the idea – and Donald, more specifically – this idea that whiteness is a curse as well. And it's not only the burden of Black people in America to feel Black. It's sort of like this gross, hideous thing that touches everybody. We're all tainted by the horrors of it, and the horror of what it is to be Black sometimes.

AtlantaDonald Glover as Earn Marks in "Atlanta" (Oliver Upton/FX)

It isn't just straight horror. I think it's more surrealism that is baked in there as well, and how it is surreal sometimes to experience racism, whether in America and elsewhere . . . and how it does feel horrific and absurd. And I think that was probably the most conscious approach, that idea of whiteness being a curse, as well as that we're all sort of locked into this thing together, unfortunately.

With that in mind, I think a lot of the episodes, or at least specifically those standalone episodes, all have more of that flavor to them.

This whole season is so obviously about whiteness, and the episodes in Europe seem to be exploring the idea that there's a different version there that's seen as kind strange and old fashioned, almost benign, but it isn't. And standalones relate to the American version of that in different ways. What was the thinking behind that split, and how they relate to each other?

You're sort of spot on with everything as the exploration of whiteness. There's whiteness in America, but then the whiteness abroad is a different flavor. Specifically as it pertains to our core cast, when they do go to Europe, they are sort of confronted with a different type of racism. But it's almost like they're taking Atlanta with them. I always think that Atlanta is more like a spirit or a character, not necessarily just a place where our characters reside. It is like a type of being and a type of way of seeing the world, and you can't really shed that.

But in terms of like those, those standalone episodes, yeah, it's just it's another shading of the experience. To me, it's more of . . . a metaphorical way of just approaching that idea leaving home or breaking form. We literally have our cast going somewhere different that isn't Atlanta, and we quite literally do that ourselves in terms of the form of the show. Those standalone episodes play into that theme of departing and experiencing something different.

And then obviously, there's the ending with the suitcase that has sort of a nice finality to it, in terms of bringing in what seems like the abstract. Because to me, the standalone episodes feel a bit like parables or tales that leave you sort of wondering, "Should we think those are real?  We start out alluding to the fact that this is a dream, and end up being like, "Well, it's not really a dream, it's real." You can interpret it however you want to, which is sort of the beauty of it. 

Now, I've got to ask you about the cameo in the finale, because I'm sure a lot of people are going to be talking about that.

Please do!

How did it happen? I'm not saying that I'm amazed. But I mean, in the context of this season,  white people do not come off very well, intentionally so. And there's Alexander Skarsgård playing this version of himself that is fetishizing Black women. How did you get that to happen?

We always knew we wanted someone like him, if not him. And it was just sort of amazing that it happened. I can't speak for like the actual conversation that went down because I was not a part of it, but from what I understand Donald did say, "OK I'm gonna call Alex."  And he was in it. It just seemed like they were able to work it out. He read it, he understood it, and he was very enthusiastic. And I think, like pretty much everything that you see him doing is in the script. Like he just sort of jumped in all the way and didn't seem to have any hesitations.

It was just one of those things that was really important in terms of selling this idea that that Van has a very interesting life at this point, and sort of touching upon the fact that she's in very deep. It was more of a comedy thing than anything else and less of a philosophical assessment of white people. To your point, yeah, they probably don't come off so great for the entire season. But I think he's one of my favorite moments in the entire thing, because there is something very weird and lovable about him. And to your point about the fetishization and the fact that he likes to be emasculated a little bit, I think the thing that really motivated us what that we thought it was funny. And he did make it very funny.

" I always think that Atlanta is more like a spirit or a character, not necessarily just a place where our characters reside."

This may be an odd segue off of this. But I've got to say, in previous seasons of "Atlanta," I've heard a lot of white people talking about a lot of very enthusiastically. It seems that the conversation around it this season has been a little more muted in comparison. And I don't think it has anything to do in terms of quality. Here's anecdote: I watched an episode with a white male friend of mine, and I thought it was hilarious. He said, "This is horrifying." His eyes were wide as saucers the entire time. Have you heard anything similar to that conversation, that reaction? And is that something that you guys were going for in this season, where it's like, "Let's make y'all uncomfortable"?

The fact that maybe I haven't heard from some white friends about the season probably is an answer in and of itself. But I mean, intentional? Sure. 

I think what you're sort of responding to is us not caring. You know what I mean? I think that there's a lot of that in our approach with making the show. We do feel, I mean, like, we just don't give a f**k. And if people don't understand or have a problem with it, it's not really up to us. You know what I mean? It's out of our hands at that point.

Stefani RobinsonStefani Robinson (Maarten De Boer/TCFFC)But I think what you're talking about the exact reaction that all of our writers hope for a little bit, is someone just wide-eyed in horror saying, "I don't understand this. How could they do this?" and someone else who finds it completely funny. That's just the drama of life, isn't it? 

Yeah,  I don't know if it was a matter of not understanding. I think it was more a matter of that distance that one could have at watching something like, "Oh, this is about the Black experience.  I can watch this and empathize." And then having a similar vision applied to the group that that you're identified with can be . . . sobering.

Yes. that's a great word. And yes, you're right. I think there is a complete understanding sometimes what we're doing. But exactly as he said, it's a sobering reminder, you know of something that you feel like you're in. You're in those shoes. And I've heard shades of that. In Season 1, I wrote the "Juneteenth" episode where we have Craig, who was this white husband who is completely in love with Black culture, but is so reverent of it.

And there's sort of that question of, "Should I be mad at this guy? Should I not?" And I remember then hearing from a couple of white friends who were like, "Well I mean, the guy, he was just like, kind of a dick. But I don't know why he was a dick. And I'm kind of like that, you know?"  It was a completely different reaction, I think from a different group of people. The sort of blurred lines when you see yourself represented maybe in different ways, yeah, I completely understand it. But what you're talking about is very funny.

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Also, I feel like this season is going to take on some new meaning, sadly. I did not intend to talk to you and talk about the mass shooting that happened in Buffalo, NY. But I do think that whenever you have that proximity to something that is in the headlines, that something like this – that was written a long time ago, and could not predict anything in the news – is going to take on new meaning.

Excellent point. And something that I go back and forth with in my mind a lot as a Black writer is this ideas of, does everything that we have to write as Black people . . . I wouldn't even say every Black person, just myself . . . does it have to be about race? Do we have to have these conversations? Is it more powerful sometimes to just write stories for Black people that have nothing to do with how we're oppressed racially and just show the joyous parts of us in ways that we are just being? It's so hard, isn't it? Because I feel that way sometimes, and I'm excited to write things that don't have to maybe take on the heaviness of some of these conversations that we're having.

But this entire season is about whiteness, and race, which are at the heart of the conversations we're having right now.

Exactly. I guess that's my point, like how I would answer: it never goes away, these conversations.

I don't want to speak too much about Buffalo because it's incredibly hard and traumatizing, and all these other feelings. I hate that we're having these conversations, I guess. I don't have a good answer, other than it does make me sad that we wrote a show about whiteness, and are exposing these kinds of things. I've seen people online who are like, "Oh, God, this show is so heavy-handed with the race stuff," you know what I mean? "It's so on the nose," like, "Oh God, blah, blah, blah, the race stuff again." And then something like Buffalo happens. And it's like, no, we're not speaking out of pocket when we're talking about these things that we're observing. It's real, and it's built into the fabric of America.

The entire third season of "Atlanta" is currently streaming on Hulu.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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