In Atlanta, wonders can strike out of nowhere

In Atlanta, the invisible-car gag is partly an old-school tutorial in how comedy works. Surprise is key - when the joke comes back around at the end of the episode, you've long forgotten about that silly Instagram scene and it hits you like an invisi
In Atlanta, the invisible-car gag is partly an old-school tutorial in how comedy works. Surprise is key - when the joke comes back around at the end of the episode, you've long forgotten about that silly Instagram scene and it hits you like an invisible wrecking ball.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Television's best sight gag of the year comes near the end of The Club, the eighth episode of FX series Atlanta. It begins with gunfire and ends with people being run over by a car, and it is one of those rare, delightful moments when you see a great new comedy open up its possibilities before your eyes.

A group of characters is hanging out in a nightclub parking lot, laughing and making plans to get food, when shots ring out. People scatter and dive for their cars. You hear screams and a squeal of tires.

Suddenly, in the background - out of focus, unnoticed by the foreground characters - a man zips through the air in a seated position, a couple of feet off the ground, as pedestrians are upended in front of him, as if struck by the force of an unseen vehicle. That's the punch line. The set-up comes in the episode's first act. Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), is a mid-tier rapper making a paid appearance at a club arranged by his cousin and manager, Earn (Donald Glover).

But his visit is overshadowed by that of a bigger celebrity, Marcus Miles (Jason Simon), who is hanging out in a better section of the club, surrounded by women and accompanied by his pet peacock in a leather jacket.

Alfred is jealous and irritated. But his friend Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) tells him: "Marcus Miles is pretty cool. He's got that invisible car."

Darius pulls up Marcus' Instagram feed, which has photos of Marcus pointing his thumb at an empty space and leaning on thin air. "That ain't real, man!" Alfred scoffs, throwing in an expletive.

The invisible car is a variant on something called a brick joke - actually a pair of jokes in which the first sets up an unresolved element that returns as the punch line of the second, ideally after the listener has forgotten about it.

(In a common example, the first joke ends, puzzlingly, with a man tossing a brick into the air. The second joke ends with a dog on the wing of an airplane - it's a long story - catching the brick in its mouth.)

In Atlanta, the invisible-car gag is partly an old-school tutorial in how comedy works. Surprise is key - when the joke comes back around at the end of the episode, you've long forgotten about that silly Instagram scene and it hits you like an invisible wrecking ball.

Beyond that, a brick joke, like all good comedy, is a collaboration between the entertainer and audience. The comic gives you pieces of the joke and you assemble them in your head. That act of putting together - wait, what is that? The invisible car! It's real! - is where the comedy really happens. (This is also why explaining a joke, as I just have, tends to ruin it. You're welcome.)

This particular gag, too, is a delight because it captures the sense of play and abandon that made the first season of Atlanta special.

Atlanta is not a science-fiction series. It is, instead, a music-business comedy marinated in specificity and local flavour, set in a real place with realistic people trying to get by.

One episode takes place almost entirely during processing at a police station, after Earn and Alfred have a run-in with the law. Another involves Van (Zazie Beetz), Earn's sometime girlfriend, who is trying to pass a workplace drug test after smoking a badly timed joint.

But Atlanta also proved, with dry understatement, that it was a comedy in which anything could happen without warning.

One episode took place at a charity basketball game whose star player is Justin Bieber - who happens to be played by a black actor (Austin Crute). No one comments on it; it is just a little buckle in the fabric of reality that calls attention to Bieber's status as a white star trading in R&B music.

Atlanta does not glamorise the music business. But it recognises that rolling the dice on a rap career requires - like Darius' belief that the car is real - embracing the idea that you can make something amazing out of thin air.

The joke is funny because - well, how can an invisible car knocking people over like bowling pins not be funny? But it's joyous because it tells you that this Atlanta is a place where random wonders can strike you from out of nowhere.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2016, with the headline 'In Atlanta, wonders can strike out of nowhere'. Print Edition | Subscribe