In the premiere of Atlanta’s second season, Katt Williams makes his first appearance on television in more than 10 years, appearing as Uncle Willy, or rather, the “Alligator Man.” When Earn (played by series creator Donald Glover) arrives at Uncle Willy’s house, the man we see is a far cry from the persona of Williams’ stand-up sets in the early 2000s, bouncing around the stage in flamboyant, brightly colored suits, his permed hair dripping in sweat, advising black people how to deal with their white friends and other essential bits of wisdom.
No, the Williams we meet on Atlanta is an angry man in a bathrobe with a cigarette in hand, arguing with his girlfriend, who he has trapped in their bedroom. As absurd as it sounds, Williams delivers a performance here that is as touching as it is bizarre, leaning into his comedic strengths to portray a man burdened by his own big ego, whose erratic behavior has pushed away his loved ones. (Did I mention he has a pet alligator, earning him the name?) It’s clear the character’s life took a path he didn’t expect, serving as a cautionary tale to Earn. The performance garnered Williams some rightful praise and, as of Thursday, his first Emmy nomination.
But on a closer look, there are some uncomfortable parallels between Uncle Willy and the actor who played him. In 2016, a young actress sued Williams for allegedly orchestrating a physical assault on her, a claim eventually settled out of court, just one of a string of violent incidents that Williams has been associated with. That same year, he got in a fight with a teenage boy, which was caught on a video that made the rounds online, and surveillance footage of him slapping a Target employee also surfaced. Williams was arrested for throwing a salt shaker at a restaurant employee in Atlanta and arrested again on suspicion of battery for allegedly attacking a female employee of a restaurant in California.
The #MeToo movement has forced the industry to take another look at the powerful men who receive accolades even as they exercise that power by abusing the people—mostly the women—around them. And the resounding cry from some of the biggest names in Hollywood is that a change is needed. Williams is far from an industry heavy-hitter, but a role on a popular show like Atlanta brings him back into the cultural conversation in a different way, and the Emmy nomination is evidence of that. Does a strong performance earn an actor a pass from having to explain past bad behavior? I thought we had already answered that question with Kevin Spacey, who was dropped from House of Cards after Anthony Rapp and others accused him of sexual misconduct, but apparently we have not.
So in the case of Williams and his Emmy nomination, who bears the responsibility for giving a man with such a troubled history a platform for acclaim? Is it on the Television Academy for actually giving him that recognition? Is it on the studio executives that put him up for consideration for the award? (Notably, CBS did not submit the Kevin Spacey-hosted Tony Awards for consideration, for obvious reasons.) Or is it on Atlanta’s creators and the casting directors, who chose someone with a history like Williams’ for the role in the first place?
There have been a lot of moves to hold men accountable in Hollywood, some symbolic, like the stars wearing all black in protest at the Golden Globes, and other more material ones, like the Time’s Up legal defense fund, which helps women who have experienced abuse, harassment, or retaliation in the workplace pay for legal representation. But not every man being accused is as powerful as someone like Harvey Weinstein, and not every alleged victim works in the industry. Where do we draw the line?