Darius Gets a Brutal Awakening in This Chilling Chapter of Atlanta
Atlanta has brought us many things in its first and second seasons. Comedy. Drama. Heartbreak. And yet, despite the wide range of emotions and topics that the show has covered, Atlanta continues to reinvent itself—this time with “Teddy Perkins.”
“Teddy Perkins” masks itself as something we’d expect from Atlanta: humorous, twisted, and perhaps even a bit reflective of real-world America. While all that holds true for the episode, “Teddy Perkins” separates itself from the pack with its surprising horror roots and shockingly morbid resolution. The result is one of the most unique episodes of Atlanta since “B.A.N.” from season one.
Driving Mr. Wonder
Like “Helen” and “Barbershop” before it, “Teddy Perkins” is a character episode. Whereas the prior episodes focused on Earn and Al, respectively, “Teddy Perkins” stars Darius in his quest to pick up a used piano. Having perused the “biohacking message board” (not exactly Craigslist, but then again, Darius isn’t one to do things the normal way), Darius discovered that someone was looking to get rid of a beautiful multicolored-key piano. After an opening sequence that sees Darius “being Darius” and turning a MAGA-esque confederate flag hat into his own fashion symbol, he hops into a U-Haul truck and drives off to the music of Stevie Wonder’s “Sweet Little Girl” as he heads for the pickup destination.
This opening holds a subtle clue for what’s to come during the episode’s extended, commercial-free, 35-minute run-time. Like how “Helen” cleverly lured us into a false sense of security before tearing down the illusion, “Teddy Perkins” sets itself up as a straightforward, probably wacky, adventure for the ever bizarre Darius. The fan favorite character has always played a sort of “comic relief” role in Atlanta, leaving more of the drama to Earn, Van, and Al. And yet, as the Atlanta title card pops up and we hear Stevie singing the chorus, “Sweet little girl / You know your baby loves you / Your love is driving me crazy, crazy, crazy / Sweet little girl,” this couldn’t be any farther from the truth.
Meet Michael Jack– Er… Teddy Perkins
The second Darius arrives at the estate housing his piano, we know something’s up. From the ominous frame of the U-Haul pulling up outside the house, to the front door cracking open before Darius has the chance to knock, “Teddy Perkins” evokes many of the tropes of classic horror movies.
As Darius peeks around to find the owner of the place, we get a fantastically disturbing welcome from a pale man in a Hugh Hefner-like robe: “Was that Mr. Wonder?… In the car?” As the painfully cringey delivery gives way to an equally awkward pause, we start thinking two things: 1) How did this guy know Darius was listening to Stevie Wonder?, and 2) What the hell is wrong with his face?
The man, as it turns out, goes by Teddy Perkins (played, if you can believe it, by Donald Glover) and is the brother of the famed pianist (in the Atlanta universe, at least) Benny Hope. While Darius doesn’t recognize the name, he does recognize some of Benny’s peers: Keith Jarrett, Al Jarreau, Ahmad Jamal, and (wouldn’t you know it!) Stevie Wonder. While Benny had been an acclaimed musician in his heyday, a rare skin condition has kept him confined to the darkness of his estate. Since then, Teddy has looked after him, although… well from the looks of things, it doesn’t seem like Teddy is in such good shape himself. Seriously—what’s up with him?
Of course, we the audience are in on the reference by now. Teddy Perkins shares a lot in common with the late Michael Jackson, from his bleached skin to his musical background to his abusive father. As Darius grapples with the possible insanity of Teddy (“Oh, I don’t have a butler. I just use this to remember things.”), he makes the reasonable assumption that Teddy and Benny are the same person. As he explains over the phone to Al in a Get Out-like moment of respite, “I feel like Benny created Teddy to make up for the fact that he made himself look like a ghoul.”
This makes plenty of sense at the time. Knowing that Teddy suffered such anguish and pressure at the hands of his father, it stands to reason that he’d no longer feel comfortable in his own skin—resulting in both the skin bleaching and the creation of this phony Teddy Perkins persona. While Atlanta would ultimately throw us a curve ball (more on this later), the show’s juxtaposition of Teddy Perkins and MJ’s life is a fantastic conduit for some chilling scares, frighteningly good humor, and decidedly serious introspection.
A Musician’s Curse
Throughout “Teddy Perkins,” the character of Teddy makes frequent reference to the idea of suffering being a necessary aspect of creative genius. He explains to Darius that Ahmad Jamal had once told him, “Your brother plays pain better than anyone.” He then gives Darius a tour of an in-progress wing of his family museum, praising his father for the rigorous upbringing he gave him and his brother. He continues by ominously stating, “We were his sacrifice,” and that his father would tell him that “Great things come from great pain.”
Of all the elements on display in “Teddy Perkins,” horror is the one that comes as the least expected. While Atlanta is known to pepper in its fair share of drama and tension between its moments of levity, “Teddy Perkins” takes this several degrees further. Whereas I had assumed at the beginning of the episode that Darius would make it out of the house unscathed (perhaps just having a weird encounter, à la Al with Bibby in “Barbershop”), “Teddy Perkins” had no intention of letting Darius and viewers off so easily.
Near the end of the episode, Darius makes an unexpected trip to the home’s cellar where he encounters a masked figure in a wheelchair—presumably Teddy pretending to be Benny and asking Darius to end his suffering. While Darius plays along in an effort to get his piano out the door, he finds himself blocked in by Teddy’s car. Going back upstairs to confront Teddy, we finally see the illusion of the comedic curtain fall. Teddy pulls out a massive hunting rifle, and suddenly we realize that “Teddy Perkins” had been building up to this nightmare scenario all along (despite a hilarious text from Al in a previous scene asking, “U dead yet?”). Teddy explains that Darius will be his sacrifice, just as he was for his father.
As Teddy has Darius handcuff himself to a chair in the entryway, we start to ask ourselves if Darius is perhaps in serious trouble. While he is a central character, nothing in Atlanta should be taken for granted, which made the build up to the episode’s final moments all the more excruciating.
Here, we see a surprising moment of sincerity and maturity from Darius as he pleads with Teddy, saying, “Not all great things come from great pain. Sometimes it’s love.” He uses Stevie Wonder as his primary example, explaining how even in blindness, the world renowned artist has been able to see through his music. It’s a moment of truth that speaks volumes in today’s society; the United States has an ongoing issue with hate and bigotry spawning more hate. Now more than ever, it’s important to find and spread the good in the world.
While the presence of the gun was certainly a shock, the episode had one more punch to give us. As it turns out, Darius’ theory was bogus, and Teddy and Barry are in fact two distinct brothers. Just when it seems like Teddy was going to execute Darius, Barry emerges from the mansion’s elevator, grabs the (currently unattended) rifle, and shoots Teddy through the stomach before turning it on himself. In the aftermath, Darius sits in shock, still handcuffed to his seat, as he waits for the authorities to arrive.
There’s a lot to unpack here. While there had been a possibility that Barry had assumed the persona of Teddy to provoke Darius to end his suffering, it would seem as if Teddy was after his brother Barry all along. An eagle’s eye during this scene reveals that Barry had been bloodied (presumably from a chest wound) prior to shooting his brother. Re-watching the prior scene, it becomes clear that Teddy had planned to frame Darius for the murder of Barry under the pretense of a home invasion.
This speaks, again, to the notion of artists like Michael Jackson struggling with their internal demons. Atlanta might have personified this by having Teddy and Barry be separate characters, but the two are very much two sides of the same coin: one side adored by the world, the other rejected and misunderstood. With Teddy’s failure to eliminate his other half (“Benny… you’re alive!”), he’s forced to come to terms with (by way of a gruesome death) the importance of his repressed self. It’s a wonderful allegory that, while a bit too tricky to decipher in a single viewing, adds some important commentary while delivering a truly harrowing climax to an already hair-raising episode.
I have to briefly mention the fantastic side-bit that takes place midway through the episode. Whereas “Helen” and “Barbershop” chose to focus entirely on their respective characters, “Teddy Perkins” elects to give viewers a glimpse of what Al, Earn, and Tracy are up to back in the city: getting some fast food.
While the scene is short (and arguably unnecessary, as it in a way breaks the illusion of Darius’ vulnerability), it’s certainly entertaining. As always, Al is dealing with everyone recognizing him wherever he goes, with fans trying to be nice in order to gain favor with him (“I put some extra fries in there.” “…Take ’em out.” “Just don’t eat ’em, damn.”). Tracy also gets a rare humorous line, lecturing the window cashier about Al’s luxury when paying extra to have explicitly no fries (“That’s rich n***a shit, man. You don’t know nothing about that.”).
But of course, the best part comes from Darius comparing Teddy over the phone to “Sammy Sosa in the dryer.” A quick Google Image search of “Sammy Sosa hat” leads to a priceless reaction by Al and the gang, as audience members not in on the joke are left trying to imagine what they just saw. For reference, this is the picture of Sosa that went viral back in 2017. Suddenly, their reaction makes perfect sense.
As “Teddy Perkins” comes to an end, it’s perfectly book-ended by Stevie Wonder’s “Evil,” a beautiful song in which Wonder laments the presence of evil in the world. We look on as Darius watches from the U-Haul as the police clear into the estate, clearly a changed man.
There’s an unfortunate irony at play here. Darius had earlier explained to Al that he needed to get this piano, otherwise he’d be adding a regret to his “two regret life limit pact.” While he certainly stuck through this until the end, it’s safe to say that Darius found a new regret in place of his old one, as he’ll forever have to live with what he saw.
It’s up in the air as to whether these events will affect Darius moving forward in the season—my gut says no, given the importance Atlanta gives towards individual episodes being independent of one another. Even still, “Teddy Perkins” remains an episode that gave birth to a truly unique side of Darius’ character, all while delivering a creepy and disturbing thrill ride that won’t be topped for some time.