What We Do in the Shadows and Atlanta Writer Stefani Robinson Knows Vampires, Barbershops, and Everything In-Between

Stefani Robinson’s career is already the stuff of showbiz legend. As a brand-new college graduate, she was working as an assistant at a talent agency when one of its agents got her spec script to Donald Glover and Paul Simms. One meeting later, she was staffed on the first season of FX’s Atlanta. An instant critical sensation when it debuted in 2016, Atlanta also stars Glover as Earn, a 20-something working—aimlessly at first, but eventually with more determination and success—to manage the career of his rapper cousin Alfred/Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry).

“I am so lucky that Atlanta was my first job,” Robinson says. “I still pinch myself. Donald was very clear from the beginning that he just wanted to make a show that we were proud of, and he wasn’t so much concerned about what the audiences would think, or what a network would think—it was: ‘What do we want to say? And what do we want to do? And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.’”

Robinson’s first Emmy nomination came in 2018 for writing “Barbershop” in Atlanta’s second season, but that was not her last. Robinson and Simms went on to work together again on FX’s What We Do in the Shadows. Spun off from the feature film of the same name co-written and co-directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, the show features four vampires sharing a decrepit Staten Island mansion with their long-suffering human familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), who puts up with their abuse in the hopes that his master, Nandor (Kayvan Novak), will eventually turn him into a vampire too. What We Do in the Shadows got its second nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series this year, and Robinson got her second writing nomination for the show for the third season episode “The Wellness Center.”

When Vanity Fair spoke to Robinson last week, the Emmy ceremony was still several weeks off, but her anticipation was already starting to build: “I love going. I’m just excited to be in a room with people who I admire. I’m never really thinking about myself, I’m just sneaking pictures of everybody that I admire and then texting my mom, ‘Guess who I saw.’” We also discussed the construction of her three nominated episodes; how much of their look, feel, and motion she determines on the page; and what it’s like switching between these two wildly different shows: “They’re very different shows, Atlanta and What We Do in the Shadows, and I always say that I feel like they exercise very different muscles in my brain. They require me to access different parts, shut one off, and dive into another.”

Atlanta Season 2, Episode 5: “Barbershop”

The premise of the episode is kind of a stressful hostage situation between Alfred, played by Brian Tyree Henry—a rapper who just wants to get his hair cut—and his barber, Bibby [Robert Powell III]. It’s a really panicky episode where this guy just can’t get his hair cut because he is, for better or worse, handcuffed to this maniac who carts him all over town.

When I was writing it, I wanted the barbershop location to feel like it was really specific, such that the people who were watching it would be able to connect with it immediately. The barbershop—obviously being a touchstone in American Black culture—is a space that I think a lot of Black people, in particular, are familiar with. So little set design details were super important. When I wrote in the poster with all the different haircut options, I think at one point I put in someone who looked exactly like a younger version of Barack Obama who had posed for the picture 30 years before, which I’m not sure we ended up doing.

I think Jamal Olori—Swank is what we called him; he is one of the writers—had stumbled upon Robert in an HBO special or something. He brought it in, and this guy’s energy was something that felt right—not even, specifically, for that episode, but just for the show in general. And as we broke down the barbershop episode and who Bibby was as a character, it just became clear that we couldn’t think of anybody else.

In terms of improvisation, he probably threw some things in there, but Atlanta isn’t a very improvisation-heavy show. I work on some shows, like What We Do in the Shadows, where it’s the complete opposite. I think that Robert did try some improvisation and probably slipped in a few of his own jokes, which is great and encouraged, but I think for the most part, those scripts are pretty tight and locked in. And so much of that episode has, I don’t know, kind of a farcical vibe to it, where there is a method to the back-and-forth and the ping-pong-y nature of those two characters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *