Episode Review: How “Teddy Perkins” Uses Southern Gothic To Explore Trauma *spoilers*
In a season focused on theft, Atlanta has effectively used the Southern Gothic literary tradition to get at the heart of loss. Emphasizing the grotesque, absurd, and bizarre, the Southern Gothic uses extremes to interrogate the horrors of ordinary life. Uniquely situated in the American South and often dealing with post-bellum existence such as the legacy of slavery and Reconstruction, the Southern Gothic branched off from the American Gothic tradition in the early 19th century. At the heart of each Southern Gothic story is the terrible truth that family and society are the real horrors and that familial trauma never dies. Instead, trauma repeats itself, with each generation carrying the burden of the past, likely to continue burdening future generations.
One of the writers most associated with the Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor, also theorized on the genre’s larger implications. In particular, she recognized how the Southern Gothic was specially suited for examining “otherness” and forcing the reader to confront their capacity for compassion: “In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life,” she notes. “[…] He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves — whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not.”
This is what happens in “Teddy Perkins.” In his contemporary take on the Southern Gothic, Donald Glover writes a story about the horrors of child abuse — but flips the script by positioning Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) as a character who might be able to break the cycle of trauma by having compassion for himself as well as Teddy Perkins.
In the episode, Darius, who is one of the more sensitive characters on Atlanta, has arranged to pick up a piano with rainbow keys owned by once famous and now reclusive musician Teddy Perkins. There is something joyful about a piano colored in such a way by a child or for a child, but the piano quickly comes to represent something much darker about child abuse and trauma.
The moment Darius steps inside Teddy Perkins’ run-down mansion, it feels like we’re not in Atlanta anymore. We’ve left the barber shops, music studios, and drive-thrus and have entered what feels like an alternate reality. But Teddy Perkins’ mansion — and the dysfunction it conceals — is very much a part of Atlanta and Atlanta’s landscape.
On his quest to acquire the piano, Darius must face both the legacy of trauma as well as its symbolic manifestation. The haunted house, a well-recognized trope of the Southern Gothic, is used to great effect here. From the darkness and bleakness of the mansion — Teddy literally refuses to let the light in — to the old photographs of famous musicians, the space feels like a time capsule. Popular cultural references to everything from the opulent decay of Sunset Boulevard to the perseverance of Stevie Wonder are layered throughout, building a kind of internal, historical narrative about fame, dysfunction, and the possibility of healing.
And then there’s Teddy Perkins himself. Played by Donald Glover in heavy, pale makeup and prosthetics, Teddy is a disquieting presence clearly meant to evoke Michael Jackson. Teddy’s face has been cosmetically altered a great deal, and his unblinking doll eyes rattle the soul. It feels like Darius is interacting with the husk of a man who has forgotten — or perhaps never learned — how to communicate with others. Teddy’s mannerisms are affected, his questions are aggressive, and he lacks boundaries.
However, Teddy is not just an eccentric, fallen celebrity; a real veneer of menace colors his conversations with Darius. In one of the more strained exchanges, Teddy tells Darius about his and his brother Benny’s music careers. It’s clear that Teddy resents any music he perceives as lacking depth, including rap: “I found it never quite grew out of its adolescence…don’t you find it insufficient as an art form?” Darius defends the genre by suggesting that music can be about having a good time; it doesn’t always have to be about suffering. Darius’ emphasis on how music can simply bring joy establishes a crucial philosophical difference between the two men and introduces an uneasy, combative dynamic.
Presumably, Teddy’s perspective on music as born from suffering and sacrifice was fostered by his abusive father. As we learn more about both Teddy’s and Benny’s relationship with their father, we understand he was a cruel perfectionist who beat his children to make them better musicians. Teddy had no one to help him deal with his trauma, and so he is also trapped — he is literally turning his house into a museum dedicated to the past, complete with gift shop. He is frozen, living the trauma of abuse over and over again, unable to heal.
“This is my favorite part of the museum,” Teddy tells Darius as they walk into the dark heart of the house. Here, in a room similar to Mother’s room in Psycho, is an exhibit dedicated to Teddy and Benny’s father. In the center of it all, under an enormous spotlight, is a stuffed dummy wearing a suit — an inanimate father substitute. As Teddy talks about being grateful for his father’s abuse, Darius asks a poignant question: “Are you not mad at your dad?”
Teddy says he is not mad at his dad, but his rage is barely concealed. The abuse has so shattered Teddy’s sense of self that he might not know where he begins and where his brother ends. It’s worth pointing out that there is so much slippage between Teddy and Benny that the viewer doesn’t even know whether Benny is alive or not, whether Teddy has taken on parts of Benny’s identity, or whether Teddy is actually Benny. His hatred of his father is his hatred of Benny — and of himself. When Darius discovers the man in the basement, presumably Benny, it becomes apparent that Teddy has continued the cycle of abuse by keeping his brother trapped in the mansion and hurting him.
In the Southern Gothic, there is often a confrontation between older and younger generations. This confrontation usually revolves around dark family secrets or legacies of abuse. It’s up to the younger generation to interrogate and confront the wrongs of the past, potentially liberating themselves. What’s left for the reader to decide is if the confrontation has been sufficient enough to cause actual change.
It’s clear in “Teddy Perkins” that Teddy has been unable to break the cycle.
However, Darius seems more self-aware than Teddy, and his compassion for others and himself is presented as an alternative to Teddy’s self-loathing. When Darius extends sympathy to Teddy by saying he can imagine how difficult it is to live with a devastating medical condition, Teddy shrieks “No you can’t! You have no idea!” and completely shuts down. Later, when he is handcuffed to a chair as Teddy threatens him with a gun, Darius again extends compassion: “Your dad should have said sorry. I’m sorry…shit, I went through daddy shit myself. When you’re young you try to just make it be okay and say everything is going to be fine, and that you don’t know the difference. That don’t give you an excuse to grow up and repeat the same shit over and over.” Darius’ sympathy for Teddy, his willingness to share his own experience of abuse, and his suggestion that it’s up to the next generation to avoid making the mistakes of past generations is a crucial turning point. However, Teddy’s trauma is so deep that he is unable to receive kindness.
At the end of the episode, Benny, wheelchair bound and covered in blood, kills Teddy and himself, ending their particular family drama. Darius is denied the piano, as the object goes into evidence. If the piano symbolizes the legacy of childhood trauma destroying young lives, it’s no longer available to the next generation. Donald Glover leaves us with something perhaps more uplifting than initially presented — Darius, with his self-insight and compassion, has the power to break the cycle of child abuse and trauma.
Trish is a New York City-based freelance writer, editor, and former college Professor. She received her PhD in English Literature in 2016. She is currently an Associate Editor at Ravishly and a contributing writer and editor at Luna Luna. Her work has appeared in Salon, Vice, Bitch, The Rumpus, Bustle, The Establishment, and elsewhere. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Tragedy Queens (Clash Books). She is passionate about pit bull rescue, cursed objects, horror movies, and designer sunglasses.