Donald Glover sits in a car on the set of Atlanta, smoking a prop joint next to a reporter for the New Yorker. “This isn’t real”. The words slip from his mouth, effortless, impossibly cool. Donald Glover is extremely cool. Donald Glover wants you to know that he is very cool, and that he has always been very cool.
Though Donald doesn’t know it, as he speaks these words, I am sitting in my parents’ basement, on a cardboard box that sags under my weight. “I know,” I mutter, staring at the wall, following the red thread crisscrossing across grainy print-outs of Donald’s face. “I know.” The bare bulb above my head flickers out, then turns back on, brighter than before. “This isn’t real.”
The images on my wall – pap snaps, screenshots from TV performances and music videos, professional photoshoots – the articles, the song lyrics, the transcripts of interviews, they are all impossibly, devastatingly recent. Donald Glover’s story, as we all know, begins in September of 2016, when he came into being the very second the first episode of Atlanta aired. Following this miraculous appearance, Glover took his impossibly crisp hairline and perfect facial hair to Joshua Tree, where he howled the story of his newfound fatherhood into the desert sky, a few months before releasing his very first album, Awaken, My Love. No one knows where Donald Glover came from, or how we know, despite the very recent commencement of his life, that he most definitely got laid in high school, and at university. I ponder this briefly, before I behold again an image of Glover at the Met Gala 2017 and feel his smirk like purple velvet against the surface of my very soul. I smile. I know again. I know now. A draft insinuates itself into the basement, and I shiver. I shake my head, and remind myself: “This isn’t real.”
Some whisper of before. Of a time before 2016. Some draw numbers on the back of their hands, ciphers whose exact meanings remain elusive to me, even after two years of research – 30, they write, next to a drawing of what looks like a skyscraper, or perhaps a rock. 3005, others scribble. The bravest of them draw a pitchfork, and next to it, 1.6. Not even they know what those numbers mean, only that they are of paramount importance, that they prove, somehow, that Donald Glover existed before.
I shift on the cardboard box, looking back up at the wall, the shower curtain pulled to one side of it. On the rare occasions anyone comes to visit, I pull it over the board. I can no longer live with the shocked expressions. The headshaking. The explanations that Atlanta is a brilliant, one-of-a-kind show, the best thing on television, better than Seinfeld, that “This Is America” is a more radically creative take on racial politics than anything else happening in the music industry right now, and who even is Janelle Monáe? Donald Glover burst, fully-fledged, tuxedoed, onto the scene in 2016. He did not exist before. Images of blanket forts bubble before my eyes. In my mind’s eye, I watch Donald Glover scream LeVar Burton’s name. A voice in my head whispers “I like to date the Black girls of every culture”. Another responds, “I got a girl on my arm, dude, show respect / Something crazy and Asian, Virginia Tech”. A white man bursts into my basement and hands me a print-out of his thinkpiece about how Donald Glover is a genius. He leaves without a second glance at my wall. My phone dings. He has also sent me a link.
Over the years, I have travelled the world, looking for others like me. I have interviewed them, chased some from bars after they let slip a drunken tell, only caught them when they hit a dead end, pardon, Culdesac. I have participated in strange rituals, waiting until midnight to enter my name into Wu-Tang Clan name generators and refreshing the page over and over to the same result: DONALD GLOVER. Following strange compulsions, I have stolen blocks of post-it notes from every Residence Inn I walked past. I have watched the star of NBC’s Community, Danny Pudi, rap in Spanish next to a strange, man-shaped blot of static that seems to follow him throughout the entire series, or at least until episode 5 of season 5. I have worn a flap hat in the middle of August. I have stood next to cardiac surgeons as they whispered into the gaping chests of their patients, “I wanted you to know / that I am ready to go”. I have stepped into Home Depots, studiously ignoring the door knobs, and stared into the depths of model toilets, unsure of what I was searching for.
Donald Glover is very cool. I know that he is very cool. I know that he has always has a consistent artistic vision, that he has always been someone who intones “I feel like Jesus. I do feel chosen” without a shred of irony, or anyone to challenge him. I know that his voice has always been gentle and forget-me-not blue, that it was never “hitche[d] in a pubescent squeak”. Donald Glover smokes fake joints on real TV show sets and says “my struggle is to use my humanity to create a classic work—but I don’t know if humanity is worth it, or if we’re going to make it. I don’t know if there’s much time left,” and he is very cool.
Donald Glover has never made an album so riddled with corny punchlines that you could use it to starch a shirt. He would never self-finance and tour an hour of comedy titled Weirdo. Donald Glover is cool. “This isn’t real,” Donald Glover is saying in his car on the set of Atlanta. “I used to dream every night / Now I never dream at all / I hope it’s ‘cause I’m living everything I want,” his voice cracks in my head. At a party somewhere, Glover lounges, impossibly cool, understated, buzzed, and somehow existential. In my basement, I whisper “drop it like the NASDAQ”. On a talkshow, Glover dances, his movements smooth as ice. In the basement, I writhe as someone inside my skull screams “me llamo T-Bone, la araña discoteca”. Monotonously, in a back room, Glover quotes Wittgenstein on poetic language. As the lightbulb flickers again, my brain is grated over the words “e.e. cummin’ on her face, now that’s poetry in motion”. On the wall, Glover sports a lilac blazer, too bored to look reproachful. On the floor, I am contorted over the remains of the cardboard box, the words DERRICK COMEDY shooting like lightning bolts down my spine. I remember. I remember.
The concrete floor presses itself into the small of my back like a helping hand, and I manage a smirk back up at the Donalds Glovers on the wall, before my eyes well up. Tears trickle awkwardly down my temples. I remember every time he pulled up his jeans during the recording of Weirdo. I remember every time his voice rose half an octave on Community. I remember all 8 minutes and 20 seconds of Bro Rape. Unfortunately, I even remember Camp. I remember when he was uncool in a way that felt like a weapon, like an exposed nerve, like my worst memory of high school (where I, in my striking similarity to Glover, spent years not getting laid). For a long time, I now remember, Donald Glover was worse than uncool: he was mean, and petty, and gross, fetishising and demeaning Black and Asian women at every turn, and he was so goddamn corny about it. Somewhere, Donald Glover tells a reporter that he is not anyone’s woke bae, revealing that he is “fucked up, too—and that’s where the good shit comes from”. Right here, the bulb flickers, unreally, one last time, as the lyrics to “You See Me” flash before my eyes, and I wish I had a real joint to light up.