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The Sky’s The Limit For ‘Atlanta’ Writer Stefani Robinson

Culture
Photos by Ibra Ake; Styled by Jessica Willis; Makeup by Sydney Milan

“She can probably get any job she wants right now”

Donald Glover says he didn’t realize black people actually live in Marietta, Georgia until recently. After all, Marietta has long had a heavily white majority—though that's rapidly changing. 

But while Marietta and the rest of Cobb County is expected to become “majority minority” in about four years, when 25-year-old Atlanta writer Stefani Robinson moved there from Hong Kong at around eight years old, the area wasn’t regularly associated with black people.

“I enjoyed growing up there,” Robinson says now. “It was a very safe area. It was a nice place to grow up—but it was predominately white, so I definitely felt a bit uncomfortable as a person of color [living] there.”

Robinson channels this experience in the writing room for Glover’s hit FX series Atlanta. Currently in its second season, the "Robbin Season," the show focuses on cousins Earn and Alfred (portrayed by Glover and Brian Tyree Henry) as they attempt to escape poverty and break into the music industry, and is acclaimed for its genre-bending approach, which features hyperreal scenes about the black experience in Atlanta.

“I had a completely different upbringing than what you see on the show. I spent most of my time in white spaces,” Robinson says. “Atlanta is very big and broad and it means a lot of different things to different people.”

When Glover was searching for writers for the series, he says he was interested in Robinson’s perspective. “She just had a real point of view which is hard to have when you’re as young as Stefani,” he says. “It’s hard to find people like that. I hired her on the spot.”

Robinson is the only woman on the writing team, but Glover says he tries to make sure she’s not just there to provide a perspective for Van (Zazie Beetz), the only featured female character on Atlanta. (Beetz recently said one of her goals for season two was to see her character developed outside of her relationship to the men on the show.)

“She’s the only woman in the room so I try not to just be like, ‘What do you think Van would think?'” Glover says. “We try to have just honest conversation about perspectives, gendered or not. But she [also] does a really good job of giving the [gendered] perspective.”

Glover says one of his favorite examples of Robinson’s work aired in season one. Robinson wrote an episode, “Juneteenth,” where Earn and Van attend a party for the holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S., hosted by an elitist black woman and her wealthy white husband—who is constantly trying to showcase his love and knowledge of black culture. The episode was inspired by Robinson’s own experience with Juneteenth celebrations in Marietta, which her mom sometimes volunteered for.

“[Juneteenth is] such a massive thing for such a specific group of people,” she says. “I still find it incredibly fascinating.” 

So far in season two, Robinson has expertly captured the black salon experience in “Barbershop,” when Alfred spends the entire day just trying to get a haircut by his jack-of-all-trades barber. Before cutting Paper Boi’s hair, the Barber visits his girlfriend, offers Paper Boi reheated Zaxbys, steals lumber from a construction site, lectures his son for skipping school, and commits a hit and run. In the final scene, Alfred revisits the barber shop to get his hair cut by someone new, only to realize it's worth it to deal with his old barber’s antics, because the barber knows just how to cut his hair. Robinson’s portrayal of this is insightful. Black hair is a source of pride, and so having it done correctly is worth a few inconveniences.

Even when she’s not credited with writing a specific episode, Robinson is contributing ideas behind the scenes. An idea for a season two episode (“Helen”) that takes place in Helen, Georgia, a touristy mountain city designed to look like a Bavarian alpine town, was formed when Robinson mentioned attending a yearbook camp there. In the episode, the tension and eventual breakup of Earn and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Van is heightened by the fact that they’re in a predominately white space that is unfamiliar to Earn.

“I never thought that me going to yearbook camp was going to be helpful in any kind of way,” Robinson says.

With the goal of becoming a writer, Robinson left Marietta to attend Emerson College and study screenwriting in Boston. After college, she moved Los Angeles with the hopes of landing a writing gig but took a job as an assistant at a talent agency in the meantime.

Around this time, Glover had created Atlanta and was looking to add a woman to the writing team. Robinson had only been in writers' rooms briefly, including as an intern for Comedy Central for a few months during college, but she submitted an original pilot to FX and it somehow got into Glover’s hands.

“I [had] no experience. I was barely out of college,” Robinson says. “I was just sort of happy that FX and Donald Glover were going to read anything that I’d done.”

Since Atlanta, Robinson has signed a production deal with FX to develop additional shows.

Despite her success, she says she’s still having trouble accepting her new reality. Like many successful women, she says she suffers from imposter syndrome, and often feels like she’s tricking people into thinking she’s talented and experienced.  

But Glover says he’s always been “super impressed” with Robinson. In addition to Atlanta, the two were working together on Deadpool before FX cancelled the animated series in March. (“We’re probably legally not allowed to talk about it,” Glover says.)

“I’ll probably always want to work with her,” he continues. “I think she’s in high demand in Hollywood because she has a perspective no one else has and she’s really good at a young age. She can probably get whatever job she wants right now, but what’s cool about her is she focuses on the quality of the project.”

Robinson says she can’t elaborate just yet on what future projects might look like, but she says she’s interested in making art that is “multifaceted” and tells the stories of people who aren’t often represented on screen.

“I’m passionate about telling stories that feel classic but also specific,” she says.

For that, Atlanta has been a great launching pad. The sky's the limit for what's next.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.