The characters of FX’s Atlanta are preoccupied with authenticity, with representing themselves as islands of “real” in a sea of fake. Pretending -- or frontin’ -- is usually the enemy in Atlanta (think of the characters Zan, Bibby the Barber, and even Teddy Perkins). As Alfred and his team navigate the embryonic stages of their celebrity and success, they are often being pulled away from what they view as their core identity. Alfred, specifically, is focused on “keeping it real”; however, this places him at creative cross-purposes with the writers’ interests in exploring the unreal.
In S1E8, “The Woods,” Alfred argues with Ciera at the nail salon because she is focusing too much attention on presenting herself as a brand. “I ain’t into all that weird-ass fake shit,” he says when she takes a picture of them to post on Instagram. In the next moment, he is storming out to walk home because she insists that his commitment to “being real” is immature, simplistic, and harmful to his career. “You on the radio, and you makin money. You been not real,” she observes.
Yet, the moment that Alfred is most focused on being real is also the moment that the episode takes a turn for the unreal. He soon finds himself alone in the woods, lost, injured, and followed by a trickster figure. Alfred’s departure into the wilderness has an “intentional otherworldliness,” according to the episode’s writer Stefani Robinson (interviewed by Frazier Tharpe at Complex). It’s possible to read Al’s journey in more specific terms: as an allusion to the experience of runaway slaves in the American South and the narratives they published about those experiences. The figure who pursues Alfred through the woods works on several levels: as a guide, a motivation, and a threat. The character leads Alfred on a circular path, produces objects from thin air, and knows far too many details about Alfred’s life to be an actual person. Like so many characters and situations in Atlanta (the ghostly MARTA rider, the dog “with the Texas on him”, the invisible car, Drake, Justin Bieber, or Alfred’s acid trip in Amsterdam), Alfred’s pursuer in the woods is vaguely magic and definitely unreal.
When Alfred emerges tired and afraid from the woods and poses for a fan picture at the convenience store, the effect of his trip is obvious. He has accepted some aspects of his status as an artist and adopted a softer approach to being recognized. But he has blood in his mouth from the earlier altercation. He is grudgingly navigating an experience away from his roots and toward the more symbolic, brand-oriented, avatar-like existence of a celebrity. Arguably, Alfred becomes “less real” in each subsequent season. In order to achieve success, he must accept performance and inauthenticity while increasingly projecting the image of “keeping it real”. FX’s Atlanta complicates the concept of “being real” throughout its four seasons and revels in that complication in its conclusion.