Book You Need to Read in 2021 by Harper’s Bazaar
“Darkly funny and glitteringly satirical, The Atmospherians unforgettably takes aim at wokeness, wellness, and toxic masculinity.” —Esquire
This “edgy, addictive” (Kirkus Reviews, starred) satire about two best friends who form The Atmosphere—a cult designed to reform problematic men—is “a book to be devoured” (Vanity Fair).
Sasha Marcus was once the epitome of contemporary success: an internet sensation, social media darling, and a creator of a high-profile wellness brand for women. But a confrontation with an abusive troll has taken a horrifying turn, and now she’s at rock bottom: canceled and doxxed online, isolated in her apartment while men’s rights protestors rage outside.
Sasha confides in her oldest childhood friend, Dyson—a failed actor with a history of body issues—who hatches a plan for her to restore her reputation by becoming the face of his new business venture, The Atmosphere: a rehabilitation community for men. Based in an abandoned summer camp and billed as a workshop for job training, it is actually a rigorous program designed to rid men of their toxic masculinity. Sasha has little choice but to accept. But what horrors await her as the resident female leader of a crew of washed up, desperate men? And what exactly does Dyson want?
Explosive, dazzling, and wickedly funny, The Atmospherians is “a book written with this exact cultural moment in mind” (Oprah Daily).
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One THE MEN WERE outside my building: Four of them, ruddy, dressed in camouflage shorts. Hooded sweatshirts bulging over their bellies. They were hairy and amphibian-eyed, their skin Styrofoam white, banana-thick fingers waving homemade signs. On one was a pixelated printout of my face centered inside the crosshairs of a rifle. JUSTICE FOR LUCAS DEVRY and REGISTER HER in wet red paint—hopefully paint—were smeared across the others.
The death threats had begun two weeks ago—emails and phone calls and scissor-snipped letters. These men, though, were the first to show up in person. I blanched at the first sight of them. Instead of making myself available to them, I should have stayed inside. That was the right thing to do. The safe thing to do. But a night drinking vodka alone on my couch had buried a spike in my skull, and the next morning I needed a coffee. It was February in Hoboken; winter had sunk its fingers deep into the month. I left the building in my bulkiest clothes—black parka and jeans, no makeup, sunglasses, hair bullied inside a beanie—hoping the men wouldn’t recognize me.
Of course they swarmed me on the sidewalk, shouting Murderer, Nazi, Misandrist, Hag—and Fancy Lady, which hovered uncomfortably close to a compliment. I sprinted across the street without looking and was nearly flattened by a mail truck. The men trailed me into the nearest coffee shop. They huddled at the door, pointing me out to the entering customers: “See that woman? In black? Dark brown hair? She’s the woman who murdered Lucas Devry.”
The cashier said: “He was a pastor.”
The cashier said: “A father of three.”
The cashier said: “A man of goodness and God.”
I said: nothing.
The cashier wouldn’t serve me. The men chased me back to my building but paused at the entrance like dogs barking at the edge of a cliff. I collapsed onto my couch. My phone buzzed in my parka pocket. Another threat, I figured, but my boss’s name showed on the screen.
“We love you, Sasha,” she said. “You’re a model employee. You exceeded every expectation we had for you. But the restaurant cannot employ a killer.”
“You can’t fire someone for their personal choices. That’s discrimination.”
“Half the staff has threatened to quit. I had to unplug the phone—we’re getting thousands of false reservations. I’m getting death threats, ultimatums.”
“You think I’m not getting death threats?”
“They know the names of my children.”
On the sidewalk, the men chanted: Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!
“So you’re abandoning me? Tossing me overboard to the sharks?” I made grotesque sucking and biting sounds. “Do you hear that? That’s the sound of the sharks eating me whole.”
“You’ve been like a daughter to me,” she said.
“That’s terrifying.” I hung up.
I hosted at an elite midwestern fusion restaurant in Lower Manhattan called Gravee. Our customers were posh Wall Street executives looking to clog their arteries with elegant revisions of cheese curds and funnel cakes. Fair fare for the 1 percent. My job was more model than host: I presented an image of beauty and health to contrast the consequences of eating our food. The work was demoralizing, deflating, and yes, I should have quit months ago.
But the pay cushioned my actual job: an online skin-care and wellness regimen called ABANDON. Six years of work had gone into the program. Two weeks ago, at my peak, I had nearly 1 million followers; 25,217 paying subscribers. After overhead costs, this amounted to a dollar a subscriber, too little money to live on and no sponsorships to supplement my income. For, unlike my peers, I was anti-sponsorship. My program helped clients eliminate products that damaged not only their skin but their psyche. I taught refusal, relaxation, and patience: there was power in doing nothing; nothing required discipline, clarity, love. This resonated with people tired of being told what to buy, what they needed to do, how many times to apply something every morning and night. I appeared on a major morning show. Managers and publicists exhausted my inbox, desperate to work for me. My message was simple—and spreading.
That is until Lucas Devry clawed into my life. He tagged me in his live-streamed suicide. “Here is the world you wanted,” he said, tapping the gun on his chin. He sat at his kitchen table. Family portraits hung askew on the blue-wallpapered wall at his back. I had responded sharply to one of his comments; he took this to mean I wanted him dead. “You’re a murderer, Sasha,” he said. “You made me do this.”
And people believed him. First, right-wingers and Men’s Rights Activists and Republican politicians—men hunting for cases of misandrist violence—then other influencers, my friends, my boyfriend, my clients, paying subscribers: they fell from me like clumps of hair from a scalp.
Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!
“I didn’t do anything to you!” I shouted at my window. I flipped them off through the glass. They hooted and whooped, pleased by my displeasure.
I called Cassandra Hanson—my former business partner, my best friend in the industry—hoping she might answer out of pity. She declined midway through the third ring. I tried my ex, Blake Dayes, and made it all the way to his voicemail. Before I could leave a message, his publicist texted: Please respect Blake’s privacy during this difficult time.
Difficult?! I texted Blake. This can’t be difficult for you.
Go bug Dyson, he answered. He always put up with your shit.
Go exploit our relationship to boost your career, I texted. Followed by three middle-finger emojis.
Dyson: my oldest and steadiest friend. He of unconditional love, he who would assure me that everything was fine, he who would tell my boss and Blake and Cassandra and the men on the sidewalk all to go jump off a cliff. But it seemed like cheating to call him—I wanted to earn encouragement, for someone who no longer liked me to lift me out of the dirt. Once it became clear that no such person would emerge, I dialed Dyson’s number. He didn’t answer. I called him again and again and again and again and again and again.
Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!
That afternoon, four new protestors relieved the men and stood near my window. I watched this afternoon crew watching me, and I hoped that they might show signs of exhaustion or boredom. But they chanted with the vigor of the rested.
When not watching them I watched myself: I tracked my follower count. I had plummeted to the high hundreds over two weeks; with every refresh, twenty more followers would vanish. “Good riddance,” I said, as if they were stowaways heaved off a boat, as if I wouldn’t have begged them to come back.
I texted Dyson. I emailed him. I DMed him. I tagged him. I called his childhood home, but a new family’s child picked up. “Why won’t he answer my calls?” I asked the child. The child handed the phone to his parents.
Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!
The thought of fleeing my apartment flitted into my head and then out. There was nowhere to go. My parents were out of my life. I had no siblings. So I stayed put. Peering out my windows, buzzing in deliverymen who left my food in the stairwell—as I’d instructed—burning through savings, watching daytime TV, waiting for the world to forget me, for the men outside to disperse.
Late one morning in April, two months after the first men had arrived, an eviction notice was slid under my door. My presence was causing undue stress to the other tenants. They had grown tired of the protestors. The restraining orders I filed never bore out—because I didn’t even know the men’s names. The super called the police, but the protestors knew their rights: the sidewalks were public; the men never obstructed pedestrian traffic. And they knew the police. In fact, some of them probably were police, trading shifts at the precinct for shifts at my building, badges tucked in their jeans.
My neighbors’ distress didn’t surprise me. This was New Jersey, after all, home to the insecure and impressionable. Jersey was a land of lacking, the slow-footed little sibling to Manhattan: always never enough. My neighbors were tame, small-hearted gentrifiers who cared deeply about property value. Middle-aged men protesting their building eroded the image they had sought to cultivate and present. I was lucky I’d been able to stay as long as I had.
Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!
“You won!” I yelled at my window.
Say it loud! Say it clear! Sasha is not welcome here!
Someone knocked on my door. I tightened my arms over my chest. “Who is it?” I asked, too softly for the knocker to hear. Another knock: faster, heavier. I imagined thick-wristed movers lugging my stuff to a dumpster. Or worse: the protestors had entered the building, and now they would drag me by my feet through the halls. The knocking intensified to pounding, then unbearable beating.
I flung open the door. “Take everything! I don’t deserve any of it!” After two months alone, resentment and fear had made me prone to exclamations of woe.
On the other side of the door was a flame, and beneath it a single pink candle, beneath the candle a carnival cupcake, and beneath the cupcake two cupped hands. It was Dyson.
“Happy Twenty-Ninth,” he said. More than a year had passed since we’d seen each other—dinner, two Christmases ago—and his slenderness startled me. Veins terrained his arms. His neck was like a delicate branch. Under his familiar freckles, his cheeks appeared melon-balled, milky. Between his teeth pistoned peppermint gum so potent it made my nose tingle. His brown hair was buzzed to the scalp—so unlike the precisely styled, expensive haircuts he had worn in L.A.—which gave him a farm-boyish beauty, haunted, naïve. He wore a thick white T-shirt, dark jeans, no belt, and black Pumas—a picture of contrived effortlessness.
He was the last person I wanted to see, and the only person I wanted to see.
I licked my fingers, then snuffed the flame of the candle with them. “You’re two days late.”
“So you’re not inviting me in.”
I hammered a fist on his chest. “I’ll invite you in when you answer my calls.”
“Let me in and I’ll explain.”
“Explain what? That you’re done with me? Like everyone else? I already know that, Dyson. You’ve made that perfectly clear.”
He set the cupcake down in the hallway, laid his hands on my shoulders. “Oh, Sasha,” he said. It had been months since I’d heard my name spoken with tenderness. His hands slipped from my shoulders to my back and I wrapped my arms around him, ran a finger up the mountain range of his spine. The last person I had hugged was Cassandra—a good-bye hug before I taped an interview—and I’d spent the intervening months despondent over her refusal to see me. As I held Dyson and was held by him, my animosity loosened and fell like a towel to the floor.
I tidied the apartment: gathering clamshell to-go boxes stacked into a tower, dusty clusters of hair, sticky forks strewn over the floor. There was a smell, too, though I couldn’t smell it. Dyson described it as socky. Later, he told me he had nearly buckled from sadness upon seeing my situation. Perhaps he expected me to greet him how I began my ABANDON videos: perched in front of a blank white wall, hands clasped on a cedar table, wearing leggings and a racerback tank, my cheeks pillowy, hair straightened, my smile bright and unstainable: Welcome back. But isolation had made me shaky and foul. My hair, naturally straight, stretched to just under my clavicle and shined from going unwashed. Loose, food-splattered clothes—a torn Disney T-shirt and pajama bottoms—hung from my quivering frame. My nostrils were encrusted. My arms were splotchy and pale after two sunless months. I was embarrassed by myself. Dyson warned me he couldn’t stay here much longer.
“We need to get going,” he said.
“I sent you an email.”
“You didn’t.” I refreshed my email hundreds of times a day, hoping someone I’d once been important to—Cassandra or Blake or Dyson—would reach out to tell me they loved me, were thinking of me, and maybe offer me work. But my inbox never held anything but knives. Harassers had begun veiling their death threats in subjects like Employment Opportunity and Wonderful Kittens and Ca$h 4 U Now.
Dyson said, “When you didn’t respond, I was convinced you hated me. But I thought: If you answer the door at eleven AM on a Tuesday, then it’s fated. And here you are. Think of everything you could’ve been doing.”
“Crying,” I said. “Watching reruns of game shows.”
“But you were home,” he said, as if no one had ever been home. “That means something. More than our little minds can truly comprehend.”
His speech reminded me of Cassandra’s meditations scripts: cheerfully empty, mindlessly mindful. “I’m done with mindful people,” I told him.
“Me, too,” he said. “Mindfulness is the swamp of aspiring quacks. Where I am—where you’re gonna be—is so far beyond mindfulness it’s a crime to even compare them.”
“Is it a crime to explain to me what you mean?”
“Long explanation or short explanation?” he asked.
“Some explanation.” I pinched my fingers together. “Even this much.”
“Promise you’ll come with me.”
“Just tell me.”
The men sang We don’t want no / Sasha Marcus to the tune of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”
“Good,” he said. “Because me and you: we’re starting a cult.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Atmospherians includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Alex McElroy. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Sasha Marcus was once the epitome of contemporary success: an internet sensation, social media darling, and a creator of a high-profile wellness brand for women. But a confrontation with an abusive troll has taken a horrifying turn, and now she’s at rock bottom: canceled and doxed online, isolated in her apartment while men’s rights protestors rage outside.
Sasha confides in her oldest childhood friend, Dyson—a failed actor with a history of body issues—who hatches a plan for her to restore her reputation by becoming the face of his new business venture, The Atmosphere: a rehabilitation community for men. Based in an abandoned summer camp and billed as a workshop for job training, it is actually a rigorous program designed to rid men of their toxic masculinity. Sasha has little choice but to accept. But what horrors await her as the resident female leader of a crew of washed-up, desperate men? And what exactly does Dyson want?
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Upon meeting Sasha, we discover she is a disgraced social media personality, blamed for the death of Lucas Devry. Do you believe Sasha was rightfully or wrongfully accused? How responsible are we for the words we say or post online? Are we responsible for intent or impact?
2. Sasha shares a tenuous relationship with Cassandra that constantly straddles the line between friend and enemy. Yet Sasha never entirely cuts her off, despite Cassandra’s constant attempts to undermine her. What prevents them from building a genuine connection? Do you have relationships that mirror their complicated dynamic?
3. Both Sasha and Dyson have jobs that require major audience and media attention in order to attain success. How does that attention shape their perceptions of themselves before, during, and after their experience with The Atmospherians?
4. Sasha and Dyson’s strong friendship comes into question in part because of Dyson’s belief that Sasha “stole” his story to create her lifestyle brand. Was Sasha wrong to speak about him while promoting ABANDON? How does this compare to the credit she ends up receiving for The Atmospherians later on?
5. Dyson outlines twelve types of problematic men who need rehabilitation in order to better help society. Do Dyson’s archetypes accurately capture the dangers of masculinity? Rank the twelve types of horrible men on order of how urgently you think they need to be reformed.
6. On p. 43 Dyson says, “I’m doing this . . . for men like my father. For men so depleted by shit luck and terrible jobs and depression they can't stay awake on the road.” Yet, on p. 172 Sasha thinks “The men ran faster, enamored of Dyson. This is, perhaps, what he wanted all along.” What do you believe were Dyson’s true intentions for starting The Atmosphere?
7. In the novel, man hordes, groups of men suddenly possessed to perform tasks together, are a terrifying epidemic sweeping the nation. What about this concept stuck out most to you?
8. While in the woods, Dyson isolates the men from Sasha and has them perform their deepest insecurities in front of each other. Each is then denied the forgiveness or healing he is looking for. Why do you think shame is a tool in Dyson’s work? Is his method effective? Would it work as effectively among women?
9. On p. 93 Sasha thinks “These men didn’t know desperation. They knew inconvenience, annoyance, frustration.” How does Sasha’s perspective on the men and their suffering change throughout the book? Were you able to empathize with the men?
10. Much of this story occurs on the grounds of an abandoned summer camp, with no authority overseeing Sasha and Dyson’s project. How does privacy and isolation play a role in the way Sasha, Dyson, and The Atmospherians behave? And how does their private behavior contrast with the public perception of the Atmospherians in the end?
11. On p. 218 Roger says of DAM, “It’s the future of life in America. People need to come together. I hate how fractured we all are, always at each other’s throats. The problem is not that we hate each other—and I truly believe, deep down, it’s impossible to hate someone once you understand them—the problem is communication. No one communicates.” Do you agree with Roger’s assessment of society?
12. The word cult usually has a negative connotation. The Atmospherians has several types of “cult” followings: Sasha’s and Cassandra’s online followings, The Atmospherians project, and DAM’s housing. Which of these most align with your conceptions of a cult? Did you view any of the aforementioned groups as cults? Why or why not?
13. Despite unsafe conditions and bouts of violence, The Atmospherians ultimately proves to be a success, with Sasha taking the reins at the end. Why do you think it is successful? What do you think the men find in The Atmosphere that they cannot find in the real world?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The definition of masculinity has evolved much over time. Have everyone in your group write down their own definition of toxic masculinity. Share them, and note which aspects of your definitions are similar and which are different. Next, try to come up with a definition the whole group agrees on.
2. Sasha, Cassandra, and Dyson’s relationship with the idea of celebrity is deeply contrasted by the isolation and harassment Sasha faces after her encounter with Lucas Devry. What is your relationship to the idea of celebrity? Is it something you desired growing up? How have you reacted to celebrities in the face of their public reckonings?
3. Mat Johnson, author of Pym, called The Atmospherians “Fight Club for the millennial generation”. Read the article that Alex McElroy wrote for The Cut, “Fight Club Spoke to Me: Twenty-Five Years Later, a Novel That Shouldn’t Have Resonated Still Does,” about the book. What elements of Fight Club do you recognize in The Atmospherians? What other pop culture references did Alex McElroy’s book conjure up for you?
A Conversation with Alex McElroy
Q: As this book is all about a cult, I’d love to know what cults you got inspiration from to write it. Real-life cults, tv cults? Also, would you consider yourself a cult fan of anything?
A: There were so many cults on my mind when I was writing The Atmospherians. I read The Road to Jonestown while drafting, and that book—and the Peoples Temple—was a huge influence for my book. I even read books like When Prophecy Fails and the early pages of Dianetics to get a read on how cults in the past formed. Many cult documentaries fascinated me during the writing process, but especially Wild Wild Country and Holy Hell. And I can’t recommend the work of Jennings Brown enough—he’s a podcaster who has done two long-form podcast series about cults, both of which are amazing.
As for cult fan, does a podcast count? I’m a huge fan of StriaghtioLab, which I find hilarious and loved listening to during the long days of the pandemic.
Q : Sasha struggles with a love-hate relationship with social media, which many of us share. On one hand, she’s found success and support in her brand, ABANDON, but on the other she faces criticism and harassment after her encounter with Lucas Devry. What has your relationship with social media been like? Has it evolved since you wrote this book?
A: I wish I could tell you that I have completely sworn off social media—but the truth is that writing and publishing a book has only deepened my relationship with it. I rely on social media a lot to promote my book, and it has been really wonderful to connect with readers and other writers online. I have been fortunate that the only things I’ve really lost due to social media are countless productive writing hours. And for me, the benefits of meeting new friends and connecting with readers has outweighed negative aspects.
Q: A large part of what Dyson struggles with is that he enjoys the attention, but not the negative consequences, brought on by his actions. Why does he continue to seek attention for his work with The Atmospherians despite the harm it causes him personally?
A: Dyson is someone who has a very hard time recognizing when he is actually hurting. He grew up in an environment where his concerns were minimized, and because of that, he can’t tell how running The Atmosphere is harming him. So, he focuses on what he believes will make him feel better: gaining attention. It made sense to me that Dyson, someone who was neglected as a child, would assume attention would fix everything wrong in his life. But even if attention feels good, it’s a shortcut for healing.
Q: It seems that everybody in this book—from Sasha to Dyson to Roger—desperately wants credit and attention, and it is quite frightening how far many of these characters are willing to go to get it. Why does the need for attention distract them from their original well-intentioned goals?
A: It’s true that these characters are all well-meaning, even if they aren’t always likeable. But they live in a world where what is popular is often conflated with what is good. They believe that if they receive the most attention for their actions, then that means their actions were worthy of accolades. For me, this is how it often feels to be online. Ideas seem good because they receive a lot of attention (social media likes and shares), and in my own life, I often need to decide whether I believe in something because I think it’s true or because a lot of other people believe in it. I’m pretty susceptible. So this is an ongoing work in progress for me.
Q: Between when you started writing this book in 2014 and its debut in 2021 so many cultural shifts that this story touches upon have occurred. The Atmospherians captures many of the anxieties of our cultural moment—including social media addiction and the #MeToo movement’s holding harmful men to account. Do you have any hopes for how this book will play a role in conversations around these topics in the future?
A: My hope is that The Atmospherians will serve as a cautionary tale for what might happen if these issues persist—the man hordes, for example, take the phenomenon of toxic groupthink and carry it to its most dangerous extreme. The novel engages with serious topics but in an absurd manner. I don’t agree with how Sasha and Dyson go about trying to reform men, but the desperation they bring to the project is proof, to me, that something needs to be done, and I hope the book might spur conversations toward a middle ground between their actions and doing nothing.
Q: The man hordes are an interesting and scary concept, because despite performing “helpful” tasks, they’re still dangerous to the community. Why did you decide to make them helpful, and did that helpfulness connect to the idea of “good” men?
A: Rage is often terrifying because it is unpredictable. That the man hordes might be innocuous or helpful makes them even more terrifying, in my mind, because when they form, you don’t know what to expect from them. You might tense up, preparing for an attack, and then feel like you overreacted when they merely take out your trash. Similarly, I think just about all men are capable of both good and bad actions, and bad men are just as likely to horde up to do good things as good men might horde to do bad things.
Q: How much of this story did you take from your own life?
A: I can’t break the novelist’s code and reveal this! Though I will say that I did grow up in New Jersey.
Q: Dyson and Sasha’s platonic intimacy is such a beautiful aspect of this book. Why did you choose to ground their relationship in friendship rather than romance?
A: While writing the book, I felt inundated with stories about friends who eventually become romantic partners—in books, TV shows, movies. But that was just never the case in my life and the lives of so many people I know. And I was curious whether I could capture what is interesting about platonic relationships, which are vital for so many reasons—chiefly, one of the oldest toxic-men traits is that they can’t accept being friends with a woman. By writing about platonic friendship, I was writing about a dynamic that is both common and overlooked. We already know what happens when friends fall in love. But we rarely get to experience friends who remain friends while maintaining their unique sense of intimacy.
Q: The Atmospherians is both serious in tone and subject and also absolutely hilarious. How did you strike the balance of humor and earnestness? What made you choose satire as the best vehicle for this story?
A: I am naturally drawn to satire as a reader and as a person. Some of my first experiences of storytelling came from watching stand-up comedians when I was a kid, and I always admired the comics who could talk about serious subjects before unveiling a punch line. Satire is also a classic vehicle for cautionary-tale-style literature—think of Catch-22 or “A Modest Proposal.” These texts imagine everyday life through a lens of absurdity and help show us things about the world we might not otherwise see. Sometimes we need to laugh at an issue in order to understand how serious it is.
Q: The ending of The Atmospherians is quite surprising, as it changes the way we perceive everything we’ve been told. Can we trust Sasha’s report of events? Do you?
A: Sasha is an expert at crafting narratives. I can’t say whether or not I trust her—I worry that would give something away! But I will say that at the end of the book, the reader has to decide what is more important to them: the truth or a good story