It’s a familiar trope of the auteurist TV dramedy: Take an aging stand-up comic with a troubled past and let him reinvent himself with a surprisingly moving performance.
Long before his own demons were fully exposed, Louis C.K. cast comedian Doug Stanhope as a suicidal drunk on a 2011 episode of his FX show Louie. On Zach Galifianakis’ Baskets, Louie Anderson transformed from ’80s relic to fully realized matriarch and won an Emmy in the process. And on Pete Holmes’ HBO show Crashing, Artie Lange portrays himself as more than just a drug addict.
Now, it’s Katt Williams’ turn.
In the season two premiere of Donald Glover’s Atlanta (subtitle: Robbin’ Season), airing March 1 on FX, Williams is practically unrecognizable as Earn’s Uncle Willy. When we meet the character, he’s wearing a flannel bathrobe and smoking a cigarette as he argues with his girlfriend Yvonne, who he has padlocked in the bedroom.
Williams delivers an eccentric and oddly touching performance as a tragic version of himself. Willy seems like the man Williams would be if he didn’t have decades of stand-up success behind him. But watching it all unfold, it’s hard not wonder whether Williams really deserves this sort of redemptive treatment given his dark and disturbing past.
Whereas comics like Stanhope and Lange have been largely self-destructive, Williams’ real-life transgressions targeted a host of others. On Atlanta, he’s playing a man who is verbally and perhaps physically abusive to the women in his life. That behavior mirrors Williams’ own to an alarming degree.
Williams’ myriad arrests have almost become their own punchline at this point. In 2016 alone, he was arrested for sucker-punching a teenage boy during a pickup soccer game, throwing a saltshaker at a restaurant manager’s head, and “criminal damage to property” for breaking a man’s cellphone.
But there really is nothing funny about Williams’ transgressions—especially the numerous times he has allegedly assaulted women. Also in 2016, he was accused of pointing a gun at and then attacking a group of women who were trying to take his picture, and then later arrested for battery against a female employee of the Sportsman’s Lodge in L.A.’s Studio City.
For that last incident, Williams pleaded no contest and was sentenced to three years probation, but received no jail time. He got another three years probation last April after pleading no contest to a second-degree robbery charge for stealing a press photographer’s camera with Suge Knight in 2014.
However, the most troubling allegation against Williams stems from a 2014 incident in which he is said to have brutally tortured actress Jamila Majesty for more than three hours at his Malibu, California, home.
In an interview with Page Six, Majesty says she was attacked by Williams and a group of scantily clad women for using his master bathroom without permission. “I was beat in the face, taking every single blow. I did not throw one punch or kick, ever,” she said. Williams allegedly burned her on the face with cigarettes as he ranted about God and asked her again and again, “Are you a Michael Jackson fan?”
Williams carries all of this baggage into his role on Atlanta, in which we are clearly meant to feel sympathy for a man whose life didn’t turn out the way he had hoped.
Over the course of the episode, we start to see Willy as a cautionary tale of sorts for Glover’s character. Like his uncle, Earn has become dependent on his cousin Alfred, whose rap career as Paper Boi is starting to take off. As Earn tells Willy at the episode’s climax, “What I’m scared of is being you. You know, somebody everybody knew was smart but ended up being a know-it-all, fuck up Jay that just lets shit happen to him.”
“If you don’t want to end up like me, get rid of that chip-on-the-shoulder shit,” Willy tells Earn later. “It’s not worth the time.” With that piece of sage wisdom, we’re meant to believe that he has learned from his mistakes and doesn’t want to see his nephew make the same ones.
But where’s the evidence that Williams himself has changed or even wants to? Just this past year, he has reportedly tried to use his own celebrity to get out of having to appear for a deposition in the Jamila Majesty case.
The Atlanta cameo follows a comeback stand-up special called Great America on Netflix in which Williams made plenty of jokes about Trump’s America but spent far less time examining his own troubled past beyond some cracks about his plethora of mug shot photos.
In interviews promoting that special, Williams seemed to suggest that the fact that he’s “still out there” is proof that he’s not as guilty as everyone makes him out to be.
“Most of things that they say about the guy we happen to know are not factual because of those comedy specials that he keeps putting out,” Williams told Splitsider, speaking about himself in the third person. “If we listen to them we would be thinking that there’s no reason to see this guy because he’s a crazy crackhead. But we’ve been seeing him in seven comedy specials, so we know that can’t possibly be the case.”
Williams may feel persecuted, but he can’t claim that his many violent transgressions never happened. Until he deals with his own history in a more honest and straightforward fashion, his Atlanta redemption feels unearned, regardless of how impressive the performance might be.