A review of this week’s Atlanta, “The Goof Who Sat By the Door,” coming up just as soon as I draw a pair of gloves dapping over 5,000 times…
Late in the first season of Atlanta, we got “B.A.N.,” an episode that — excuse me, I have something in my throat—
Sorry. Can’t promise it won’t happen again, but “The Goof Who Sat By the Door” was just that ridiculous, just that audacious, just that wonderful. Now, where were we?
Oh, yes. Late in the first season of Atlanta, we got “B.A.N.,” an episode that presented itself as an installment of Montague, a fake talk show on the fake Black American Network. Paper Boi appeared intermittently, as an exasperated Montague guest, but most of the episode was taken up by fake commercials (“The price is on the can, though!”) and fake news segments, like one about a Black teen who identified as a middle-aged white man. To that point, it was the furthest that Atlanta had stretched its tone and structure, going pure sketch comedy for a half-hour.
B.A.N. returns for the series’ antepenultimate episode, which is less Key & Peele than Documentary Now! After seven back-to-basic episodes suggesting the series’ interest in anthology stories was complete, none of the regular characters appear here at all. Instead, we get a fake documentary with an alt-universe premise that comes in two parts:
1) In the early Nineties, a young Black animator named Thomas Washington (Eric Berryman) accidentally became CEO of The Walt Disney Company;
2) The 1995 film A Goofy Movie was born from Thomas Washington’s desire to make “the Blackest movie of all time.”
Yes. That A Goofy Movie.
It is an impeccable recreation of a certain brand of sociologically-conscious Hollywood biography, blending real-life footage of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising with photographs and video clips of Washington and his family, along with talking-head footage from journalist Jenna Wortham, R&B star Brian McKnight, comedian-actor Sinbad, and a group of actors playing important figures in Thomas Washington’s improbable rise and tragic fall. Stylistically, it hits all its marks.
It’s the substance, though, that makes “The Goof Who Sat By the Door” spectacular.
As the mockumentary moves through Washington’s early life, we see a clip of a student film he made: The Lil’ Prince, drawn in the style of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic children’s novella The Little Prince, only with the singer of “Raspberry Beret” as its title character, staring wistfully at the cosmos as we hear Ernie from Sesame Street warble “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon.” A talking head suggests that, depending on who saw the cartoon and when they saw it, it was either the funniest or saddest thing they had ever seen. That duality — as palpable to the Atlanta audience as to any of Washington’s SCAD classmates — turns out to be the mission statement for the entire episode.
On the one hand, the story revolves around a concept that is — dare we say it? — pretty goddamn goofy. Here we have a young Black man, living through that particular crucible of race relations in America, who decides to make his grand artistic and political statement via a lighthearted kids movie that a Variety reviewer once described as “brightly drawn, fast-moving and mercifully short.” It’s a big, fat, utterly absurd joke, and one that the episode builds up to with a lot of silliness along the way.
In addition to Lil’ Prince, we see some of Washington’s other college art projects, like a series of cartoon portraits dubbed Goofy, Please, in which his favorite Disney character sports various Black fashions and hairstyles of the period. We discover that Washington ascended to the top job at Disney entirely by mistake, as all the stodgy old white men on the board of directors thought they were voting for one of their own, not realizing that the businessman they know as Tom Washington had the full first name of Thompson, not Thomas. (The episode returns several times to the notion that once the board members made a handshake agreement with Thomas, they could not easily find a way out of it.)
Even though Washington’s affection for the character of Goofy has been well-established by this point, it is still explosively funny to learn that A Goofy Movie was his dream project, and to hear director Frank Rolls (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) explain — accompanied by a montage of ugly images of Black and white tensions in America at the time, scored to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” — that Washington “wanted to show the systemic factors that Goofy was dealing with.” Later, Rolls and Washington’s son Maxwell (Maurice P. Kerry) — who became the inspiration for Goofy’s teenage son Max in the film — go even further into the movie’s deeper meaning, including the idea that Goofy and Max’s fishing trip was supposed to evoke both the Freedom Riders and the Green Book. Again and again, the episode keeps finding new kinds and levels of comedy within this premise.
And yet, like Lil’ Prince, there is something undeniably poignant and tragic lingering just beneath that ludicrous surface conceit. Somehow, the episode — written by Francesca Sloane and Karen Joseph Adcock, and directed by Donald Glover — not only demands that you at least ponder the notion of Goofy as an avatar of the Black experience(*), but that you genuinely feel for Thomas Washington. We get his mother Evelyn (Ann Nebsy) and cousin Phillip (Jay Devon Johnson) discussing his childhood at length, and framing him as a smart, sweet, anxious kid, who once wished that the anime hero Astro Boy would come to save them. From what, Phillip wondered, to which Thomas apparently replied, “Everything.” We hear of his great promise as an artist, learn of the harsh emotional impact of the death of his father when Thomas was in his first year at art school, hear his wife Anna (Sherry Richards) discuss him as a husband and father, see wedding videos, family photos, and on and on.
(*) Every kid at some point in their life has asked why, if Goofy and Pluto are both dogs, Goofy wears clothes and talks, while Pluto acts like a pet. Thomas Washington takes this further, asking one of his white animators, “Why is [Goofy] letting Mickey do that to one of his own?”
The show treats him like a real person, and his Goofy fixation as understandable on some level, rather than just presenting him as a figure to be laughed at. It even manages to reconcile Washington’s artistic ambitions with the relative flimsiness of the actual A Goofy Movie, explaining that much of the version we know was a result of the Disney board re-editing the movie behind his back. The crucial sequence of Goofy and Max finding Huey Newton’s Rattan throne in the back of a thrift store, for instance, is replaced by the two of them being menaced by Bigfoot, who winds up with a pair of Goofy’s underpants stuck to his head.
All these changes, we are told, did a number on Washington’s already fragile psyche. We see a video recording of Washington at home, drinking, crying, and telling his audience (presumably Maxwell, who as an adult has still not gotten over it), “I’m doing this for you. I’m doing this for all of us.” And then right when the pathos is in danger of overwhelming the humor, the episode completely inverts things. At the site where Washington apparently drove his car into a lake — the same one that he and Maxwell went to on their fishing trips — we see evidence tags near a pair of dirty, oversized, Goofy-shaped shoes and a filthy white Goofy-style glove. It is hysterical and horrifying and tragic and delightful all within the space of a few frames.
The Atlanta creative team shares at least some of Thomas Washington’s affection for Goofy. Last season’s “New Jazz,” you may recall, featured half the people in Amsterdam (including, eventually, Paper Boi) sporting Goofy hats, after all. Any fans still unhappy that so many episodes from the spring did not focus on Al and Earn may not be pleased that, so close to the series finale, we are again going into anthology mode. But after seven straight bangers that have given us so many great moments involving the main cast — including last week’s gorgeous declaration of love from Earn to Van — the series has more than earned the right to make one more detour, especially when it’s one as brilliant as this.
I do not know if Thomas Washington’s original vision for A Goofy Movie would have been a masterpiece. But I know that this episode about his fictional quest sure was. I can’t wait to see what—
Sorry. Good night, everybody! And please, be goofy to each other.