Sisyphus is well-known for being forced to push a perpetually falling rock up a mountain for all eternity. He’s been widely interpreted as cunning, deceitful, self-aggrandizing, but it’s the famous absurdist Albert Camus who classified the fallen king as a hero…an absurd hero. In his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus takes a look not at the moments when Sisyphus is pushing the rock up the mountain nor when the rock habitually rolls back down, instead he focuses on the brief pause before Sisyphus returns to the bottom of the mountain only to repeat the same process.
“That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness”
Camus imagines Sisyphus conscious of the futility of his fate in this moment before he returns to the fallen rock. He acknowledges the meaningless of his actions and the fact that they will persist to be such. This consciousness is what makes Sisyphus tragic, but is what also makes him triumphant. “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn,” Camus states, one has the ability to resist one’s fate. Sisyphus, though resigned to the meaningless task of rolling a rock up a mountain, is cognizant of such futility of his fate, but is not resigned to rescinding his right to search for a purpose to his existence; “his fate belongs to him.”
Sisyphus is a metaphor for the “workman,” the proletariat, the blue-collar worker who “works everyday in his life at the same tasks” thus his fate is “no less absurd” than that of Sisyphus’. Who can better relate to Sisyphus than the characters of Atlanta, Earnest (Earn) Marks in particular. Earn is poor and “homeless” working a commission-based job and virtually unhappy. His life seems to be without meaning, purpose, or direction. He is simply repeating the same fruitless tasks everyday just to barely survive.
That all seems to have to ability to change when he discovers that his cousin, Alfred, is a local rapper creating some industry buzz. Earn’s attempts to become Alfred’s manager is not solely because he believes in his cousin’s talent, it’s a chance to bring value to his life and the life of his loved ones—even if just monetary.
But most importantly it allows Earn the opportunity to surmount his fate, to be scornful of the fact that he should be resigned to whatever meaningless, oppressive, invisible existence ascribed to him and poor, black, men and women alike. It is this scorn of fate that we see throughout the season especially as it comes to race. It is done hilariously through episodes like “B.A.N,” where a young black boy proclaims to be a 35 year old white man; “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” where Justin Bieber is actually a black boy and Earn goes along with being mistaken for an agent who happens to be the man that tried to blackball another agent; and “Value,” where, once again, Vanessa is confronted with having to assess her worth and the direction of her life.
Each of these characters turn a scornful eye toward the fate, the stereotypes, the patterned reality threatening to consume them. That scorn comes with a consciousness felt by Sisyphus who understood the terrible truth that would be his fate. But “crushing truths perish from being acknowledged,” the ability of Sisyphus and Earn to acknowledge life’s truth also frees them because in spite of such crushing truths, Sisyphus and the characters of “Atlanta” continue to go forward with life on their terms thus creating their own value. In spite of Earn being told repeatedly that the music industry is dead and there is neither value nor money in managing his cousin, he persists.
It’s all absurd, to understand life’s seeming meaninglessness and yet insist on discovering meaning for one’s life on one’s own terms.
“The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing…he knows himself to be the master of his days,” states Camus, and throughout the first nine episodes of Atlanta we watch sometimes hilariously, sometimes tragically, as Earn, the absurd man, persists with an unceasing force to be the master of his days. He tries managing his cousin’s career, he tries to impress his ex-girlfriend/baby-mama/pretend-wife, he tries to secure payment from a shifty club owner, he tries to provide for his child. And by the end of each episode we watch as the rock rolls back down the hill and he’s confronted with the futility of his efforts: he’s unable to afford the expensive meal for Vanessa, he aids in his cousin, yet again, being hunted down by police, he’s accused of trying to sabotage a woman’s career, he ends up in jail. And yet it is neither the moment of Earn rolling his rock up the mountain nor watching it fall back down that is of interest. It is that “hour of consciousness” before he descends the mountain only to repeat the process that is both tragic and triumphant.
Atlanta’s absurdism has warmed its way into the hearts of a wide-ranging audience and it’s no surprise. It’s been praised for its ability to walk the tightrope of surrealism and comedy , make a story about working-class folk interesting , accurately capture internet culture , etc. But what stands out is Earn’s and the characters’ of Atlanta’s relatability. Earn is Sisyphus and we are Earn, Van, Darius, Paper Boi (Albert). We all have our rock that we are tasked with rolling up the mountain of life whether it’s raising a child, trying to figure out the status of your relationship, or just trying to stretch a dollar into the next week. And we’ve all watched as the rock we just laboriously pushed up the mountain tumbles back down again. But it is that moment, before we go fetch after the rock and begin the process again, where we are conscious of life’s crushing blows and continue, in spite of such blows, to persist with living on our terms that makes us both tragic and triumphant. Atlanta gives us that full picture of life, humanity, and all of its absurdities. We are neither bound by our fate or our circumstances, no matter how many times Earn & co. find themselves confronted with “the night” we see them continuing on. It is a reminder to us all that “…all is not, has not been, exhausted,” and that is what keeps us tuned into Atlanta just as we are in tune with our own lives: we can do it, we just have to do it our own way.
It has been one hell of a ride getting to know and love and question the characters of Atlanta during this premiere season. Though we’re gearing up for the season finale, Atlanta has only just begun and I can’t wait to see how Earn and his posse continue exploring the absurdity of life in season 2.