Like joining a regularly scheduled program already in progress, a conversation with humorist and writer R. Eric Thomas kicks off briskly on the topic of eloquent gents like Prince and Muhammad Ali “writing music with words,” as Thomas puts it.
“That’s exactly what Muhammad Ali did, that’s what Baldwin did. There’s this great series, I think. Or it might just be one interview with Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, and they’re sitting in this darkened TV studio chain-smoking, just dropping knowledge, and I’m just like, ‘How are people this smart and this interesting?’ We lost something. I’m in DMs like, ‘Hey, what are you doing tonight?'”
To read any of Thomas’ brilliantly observed work, from his best-selling book Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America to his buzzy pop culture bulletin Previously On…, or to see his plays, or hear him speaking, is to discover the clarion voice of a genuine wit.
For years, with his must-read Eric Reads the News column at www.Elle.com, he dispensed laugh-out-loud funny takes on any and every absurd aspect of current events. And in 2020, he brought his wit to politics, co-writing with Helena Andrews-Dyer the biography Reclaiming Her Time: The Power of Maxine Waters, named the Best Political Book of the Year by The Atlantic.
The Baltimore-born eldest of three sons, also now a TV writer on acclaimed comedies Dickinson and Better Things, can seem like that pop-culture-obsessed, preternaturally informed friend who’s able to talk about anything. Potentially, being that guy could be liberating, or could also feel really isolating.
“I do feel like the impression is that I watch everything, I read everything, I know everything,” says Thomas. “And so, part of it makes me panic a little bit, because there are definitely gaps in my knowledge, and I feel like a big old dumb-dumb a lot of the time. I do a lot of research, I do a lot of thinking, but yeah. There are things that I deeply care about and that I want to talk about all the time.”
In his new play, Crying on Television, beginning previews on Tuesday, May 31, at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, Thomas is talking about TV, and the ways the flickering screen can bring people together or add to their sense of isolation. In his new YA novel Kings of B’More, he’s talking about growing up Black and gay in Baltimore, via the story of two queer best friends who “aren’t defined by their otherness.”
Thomas doesn’t want to be defined by talking about, or knowing about, any single subject, either, be it pop culture, queerness, or politics.
“I think it really goes back to this idea of the art of conversation,” he says. “And I think one of the things that Eric Reads the News and Here For It allowed me to do was to have what is kind of my ideal brunch conversation, where we all don’t have to be talking about the same thing, but we all should be curious, and we all should be searching for a kind of delight in being alive. That’s what I’m always here for.”
METRO WEEKLY: You’re a week out from the opening of Crying On Television. How are you feeling?
ERIC THOMAS: I feel amazing. This isn’t even promo talking. Some plays are hard to do. Emotionally hard or just sort of hard to put together, and this play has been a delight from day one, and it was surprising to me.
I thought that this would be my hardest process, because there are a lot of technical elements to the play that, when you walk into the theater, you’re not going to expect. There’s a lot of technical stuff happening here, because it’s a pretty simple premise. It’s basically four Black residents of an apartment building trying to make friends, so it’s kind of Living Single, Friends, in that world, but set in contemporary times, and as a play. And it’s about isolation. It’s about the isolation of being a person alive today, it’s about the isolation of being a Black person in an environment that’s not predominantly Black, it’s about the isolation of being a progressive person of faith, it’s about the isolation of being a queer person.
But there’s moments of huge farce. It’s a silly play. And so I thought, “Oh, this is just going to be so hard to get all the technical elements together,” because comedy is so precise. You turn the wrong way, it’s not funny. You turn the right way, it’s hilarious. That’s what we know about watching TV, and this feels like a TV sitcom, and the actors and the director and the stage management team and creative staff have just made everything so smooth. It’s a delight. It’s a delight to come to work and watch these four lonely people get pummeled by the universe and eventually find each other. Oh God, I love it. I never want to leave. I never want to leave this room.
MW: You mentioned the isolation. Reading the play, I related wholeheartedly to the discussion of how difficult it is, as a grownup, to make new friends. Have you experienced that? Did you ever do anything, specifically, like join something or go to an event to try to make new friends?
THOMAS: Everything in my life for the last 15, 20 years has been me trying to make friends. And it’s weird, because people are like, “Oh, you must be so popular. You’re so crazy on the internet.” And I’m like, “Okay, honey, it doesn’t translate.”
Maybe I’m a weirdo, I don’t know. But this play is really born from my desire to be in a community, and the difficulty that I’ve had sometimes making friends as an adult, because it’s hard. It’s not like college where you’re in a dorm with people for a year, and you’re like, “I guess we’re friends now.” Now it’s like, “Do you want to get dinner?” “Oh, absolutely. I love you. I think you’re great.” “Do you have time in three months?” “I think I do. Maybe. Let me see if I can get a babysitter.”
I get it. And I don’t work in an office. I’ve worked from home for the last seven years, so I haven’t had free cake in so long. You understand how hard that is for me, personally, to not be able to walk into a break room and hear some gossip and get some cake I don’t want? Oh, it’s torture. So I joined the softball league, which I wrote about in Here for It, and they wanted me to actually play softball and I was like, “I’m just here to make friends, girl.”
I’ve joined church communities to make friends, I have done a lot of volunteer work at nonprofits to make friends, been on boards — and board service is not about making friends. It’s about donating your money and governing an organization, and I’m like, “But does anyone want to get coffee?” I’ve taken on side jobs to make friends. I don’t know. I do interviews to make friends. [Laughs.]
MW: I don’t know how grown-ups make friends. It’s hard. Especially if you move around. Are you based in Baltimore?
THOMAS: I’m splitting my time right now between Baltimore and Philly. My husband has a job in Philly, so we’re sort of splitting our time. I’m calling you from Philly, right now, but I’m staying in Baltimore. My parents have a home there, so I’m staying with them. And yeah, moving around even between these two cities that are two hours apart, I think people like proximity. I think the ideal for me is like the Cheers model, where you walk into a bar and people are, “Norm!” This is your thing. But my thing that I’ll get scared about is, what if I’m just not the right person for this Cheers? What if my neighborhood bar is not for me? Then do I move?
MW: I don’t have a neighborhood bar. I have no idea how to make these things happen. So, I actually have planned a bunch of just random questions to ask you. For example, this is not a Crying On Television question. Who do you think is the biggest loss to SNL: Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Kyle Mooney, or Pete Davidson?
THOMAS: Oh, that’s a hard question. I am a huge Aidy Bryant fan, and I think that Kate McKinnon has done such incredible work. But I don’t think it’s a loss for SNL, because she’s done everything, so she’s run her course. Aidy Bryant, I think that there was more that she could have been used for in her time there. But it also means that she gets to do other things like Shrill, which was amazing. So I’m excited for her, but I didn’t realize she’d been on for a decade. Being on a show for a decade, that’s crazy!
MW: It’s amazing. And I agree with you, that Aidy Bryant has more left to do. Kyle Mooney, I think, probably also has done what he set out to do, and I don’t know what else he was doing, honestly. And Pete, whatever.
THOMAS: Yeah. God bless, good luck.
MW: So, in a great TV tradition, Crying On Television has not just one, not two, but three good unseen characters — Zachary, Meredith, and Kenley. Who’s your favorite all-time unseen character?
THOMAS: Oh, that’s a great question. I love that you picked that out. I think Maris on Frasier. She’s the ultimate. I always assumed we would see her, and I thought she was going to be played by Cheri Oteri or Calista Flockhart. The way they describe her, I was like, “I think this is this person.” I guess it’s better that you don’t see her, but yeah, I love an unseen neighbor. I love even the neighbor from Home Improvement where you can only see the top of his face.
THOMAS: Yeah. Wilson. I think that’s such a great conceit.
MW: I don’t know if that was a TV trope you were going for. Were there TV tropes you were going for in Crying on Television?
THOMAS: Yeah, I think a lot of the sort of foundational tropes, like late eighties, early nineties. So I was going for group of friends just hanging out. I see the four characters as all side characters, sidekicks, but they all get the main character treatment. There’s a little bit where they talk about Phoebe from Friends, and Phoebe’s kind of a side character. In fact, she and Chandler weren’t even supposed to be regulars on Friends, originally. And I was like, “Well, what happens if the side characters — the Kramers, the Phoebes, the whoevers — get center stage?” So that was the sort of trope I was looking at. I wanted to explore Will and Grace-type relationships, that kind of banter. What else is in there? Oh, Law & Order has a little bit in there, so the trope of the helpful witness.
MW: Are you guys using a Law & Order “Dun-Dun?”
THOMAS: Yes, we get the “Dun-Dun.” And then, it’s not really a trope, but because the play focuses on three Black women, I also wanted to look at the way that we see and love Black women on television, and in ways that are hopefully useful and helpful. So looking at sitcom characters, but also looking at Oprah a little bit, and so Kenley functions as this kind of Oprah character, but then, not to spoil it, toward the end, another character really becomes the Oprah of the group. And, of course, there’s questions around all the portrayals. I was really just looking at what are the good parts of this trope and how do we explore it?
MW: There’s a great, subtle joke in Crying On Television when Chris is describing not going to church in person, and not going to the church website, either, and so watching it on television, he says, is “the happy medium,” which is just a beautiful little joke. How stressed do you get, as a playwright, about directors and actors finding the jokes?
THOMAS: I guess the answer is not very, because I think there’s this sort of baseline in the construction. If you’re in the flow of the music of the text, you understand, the jokes kind of present themselves, and sometimes you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that was funny, but people are laughing when I said it. Okay.”
And then there’s small things, little wordplay, like “happy medium,” that kind of stuff. I’m like, “If you see it, you see it. If you don’t, you don’t.” And a lot of these things, it’s really just about density as opposed to… Sometimes you want the flow of a scene to go Delivery, information, laugh, delivery, information, laugh. So you sort of plot that way, and so sometimes in delivering information, there’s funny stuff, but as an audience member, you’re not laughing because you want to hear and that’s fine. That’s great for me. The other thing that’s great is, I think when people are in the groove, they start to find their own jokes in there, and that’s what’s really happened with this cast. I watched a run the other day, and I hadn’t seen it in a couple days, and I was cracking up. I was like, “This is hilarious.”
MW: “Who wrote this?”
THOMAS: Right? It wasn’t just my writing, it was the way they’re saying things, and intonation, and looks, and I think this is a thing that doesn’t happen a lot for Black actors, where they get to be fully formed human beings, but they also get to play big comedy, and not sort of “Chitlin’ Circuit” comedy. They’re not shucking and jiving, and so they’re using really the sort of basic comedic muscles, the vaudeville muscles that television was built on, but they’re fully formed specifically Black characters, and as they have sunk into that, you see, “Oh, these are very talented actors and they have never been asked to give a big comedic performance before.” And they are knocking it out of the park. It’s really extraordinary to see.
And it’s really frustrating, because you look at a show like Abbott Elementary, and those actors are giving extremely well-calibrated comedic performances that are big, but from fully formed characters. They’re not cheap. And you think how many people, how many actors are out there trying to get an Abbott Elementary, and not being able to do it on stage or on screen. And that’s the thing I’m always trying to do is create a vessel where people can exercise that muscle, because we can do it, but there’s fewer Black actors getting cast in Noises Off, and those plays. And so I’m like, “Well then I just have to write it myself, I guess.”
MW: Let’s talk about the Kings of B’more. How much did you have to do with the timing of the play opening at the exact same time that the book is being released?
THOMAS: None. I don’t know which came first. I think the book publication date was set maybe a year ago, and then the play… I don’t know. It was probably around the same time and I was just like, “Oh, this is going to get awkward.” And I didn’t think about it anymore, because I didn’t have any choice. So yeah, I didn’t have anything to do with it.
MW: The book, I know it’s YA fiction. Is it, in any sense, a memoir?
THOMAS: No. There’s small aspects that are similar to what I’ve lived — the main character, Harrison, goes to a school that’s very similar to my school, Park School, but we don’t see the school very much. And I imagine that the main character, Linus, lives in a neighborhood like where my parents live, but beyond that, it’s totally original and I was just really interested in, again, similar to Crying On Television, creating these fully formed Black, queer characters who aren’t defined by their otherness, who are able to go on a caper, who are able to explore being loving, in a platonic way, with your best friend.
And seeing a side of Baltimore that I don’t think we get to see a lot, and DC a little bit, too. I don’t have a problem with the phrase “Black joy,” but I don’t use it, because I don’t quite understand what we’re talking about here, but I wanted to create a scenario where the book was angling toward joyfulness and toward hope, and didn’t make apologies for the fact that these characters weren’t white or weren’t straight.
MW: Something I find very hopeful about it is the fact that they’re queer teens. They’re out in some form or another. I was not an out teen. This concept of kids these days being an out 12 or 13-year-old, I just really can’t even fathom. Were you out as a teen? And did you have queer friends at that age?
THOMAS: No. There was one classmate at school who I think my senior year, maybe, or senior, junior year, he was coming out to himself, and so we were friends, and then there were other people who came out later, I guess, but no, I wasn’t out. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even really out to myself until I saw the Ricky Martin performance on the Grammy Awards. I was like, “I think something has happened. I think there’s an emergency.”
MW: I totally believe that.
THOMAS: It’s true. It was like in Back to the Future, when Michael J. Fox is playing the guitar and Chuck Berry’s cousin is like, “Chuck, you got to listen to this!” My gay friend from school called me and was like, “You gotta turn on the TV, something is happening!” And I was like, “Whuh?” It was ridiculous.
So, no, I wasn’t out, and it took me a long time. It took me a long time to come out to my parents. It took me a long time to come out to myself, and it’s just the times and who I am. People were out younger, but I was not. And in Kings of B’more, these kids are out, they’re out to their parents, their parents have worked through whatever they need to work through, if they had anything to work through, and it’s not an issue in any way. And I didn’t do that for wish fulfillment, I did it because it happens.
All my friends have either worked through whatever they needed to work through, or didn’t have anything that needed to be worked through. So if you’re raising a teenager right now, it wouldn’t be, [concerned] “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.” And you see that sometimes with white parents in these YA novels and TV shows, where they’re like, “I’m just cool. I accept everybody. I’m a PFlag parent.” You’re harder pressed to see Black parents like that. And I was like, “Well, here’s four.” And that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. They are overprotective, they follow the boys around on a location app, and one mother has a very strained relationship with her son, but none of that’s about their queerness, and that was very important to me.
MW: That sounds really sweet. Assuming that the city of Baltimore is a character in the story, how would you describe that character?
THOMAS: Oh, I see it as ultimately magical, as a city of absolute promise, of vibrant color, both in terms of people and in terms of the physical surroundings, and just sort of a deeply saturated city. I see Baltimore as a city of bubbles, and sometimes those bubbles feel like they keep us apart from each other, and in this book, the bubbles still are there, but they’re smashed together, and so the boys go through a bunch of different adventures.
They’re in all these different kinds of environments, they go to Pride on Charles Street in Baltimore, they go to the public pool, they go to this tea-dance house party in a place that I’ve invented. But if the book does well, I’ll start it. And they go to a bunch of different places. Downtown, the Harbor, different neighborhoods, we end on North Avenue, and everything’s just so rich. So it’s a city that feels warm and rich and magical.
MW: Was your first Pride experience at Baltimore Pride?
THOMAS: Was it? I think so. I don’t remember.
MW: Do you not remember your first Pride experience?
THOMAS: I think I remember wandering around, but I was so shy and I was nervous about being discovered, and I was living at home. I think I remember my first “I’m going to Pride, I’m going to do the whole thing,” and I think that was in Philly. And that felt really amazing. Yeah. But the first one was Baltimore. I kind of walked around and I was like, “Okay.”
MW: Have you experienced Black Pride anywhere? This issue will be out the weekend of Black Pride here in D.C.
THOMAS: Yeah. I love Philly Black Pride. Right around the Penn Relays. That is always amazing. Baltimore Black Pride I love, as well, usually in Druid Hill Park, and I think one of the things that I wanted to put into this book was some of the energy of Black Pride. I do feel like Baltimore Pride has become one of the Blacker Prides I go to, and I think it’s on the strength of Baltimore Black Pride and DC Black Pride. And yeah, so the Pride that I write about in the book is very Black, and is very festive and social justice-minded, and that’s things that I learned from these Black Prides, from Philly and Baltimore, and… what other Black Pride did I go to? Oh, D.C.!
MW: It’s been reported to me that organizers of one Black Pride have been getting flack on social media from people saying that the premise of the event is racist.
THOMAS: People are always… You do a thing for yourself and your community, and then people are like, “Well, where’s mine?” And it’s like, “Go make your own. I made this.” The thing about Black Pride is that people who have only done oppression, only understand acts of liberation in the language of oppression, and so when you see, “Oh, I’ve made this festival for Black people, or Black-identified people and people from the African diaspora to meet and congregate and celebrate, and everyone is sort of welcome, but this is a space that is about us,” other people might see a fence and there’s no fence here. You invented a fence, because you are obsessed with borders.
This is not about borders. This is about diaspora. This is about reuniting, finding each other. We are so scattered, and we are made invisible, and our history is written in invisible ink from the very beginnings of our time in this country. It’s erased constantly. We are erased constantly. We are constantly put in the crosshairs.
Our Black trans sisters, particularly, are put in the crosshairs, and so you’re saying we can’t find a space? We can’t create a space to say, “Come on in, come on home, let’s see each other before we go back out and get scattered to the winds,” you have a problem with that? If you have a problem with that, you need to look inside yourself. You need to go in your prayer closet and work on yourself, because this is not about Black people, and this is not about being racist. And those people always come up: “When’s white history month?” I don’t know! Girl, go write to Congress. Leave me alone.
MW: Speaking of the prayer closet, this play is the second thing I have consumed in the last two days, along with a movie I watched yesterday, that dealt with whether or not a particular church was welcoming to the LGBTQ community. You’re married to a minister — have you personally found your welcome in the church? How concerned about that have you been up to this point in your life?
THOMAS: I grew up in a conservative church that wasn’t open and affirming, and it was very confusing to me, because I was like, “Well, I’m still the same person.” I didn’t get excommunicated, I sort of removed myself before they had the chance to, but I witnessed other people being excommunicated for being gay, and that had a huge impact on me.
MW: Is that a process or ritual? Or just played out over time?
THOMAS: They had a meeting, and the church voted. And they never said why. And I was there as a child, maybe 10 or 11 years old, and remember people were crying, but the vote passed. And years later, I asked my parents, I was like, “What was that about?” And they were like, “Oh, it was because he was gay.” And I was like, “Well, damn.”
MW: Did you ask them how they voted?
THOMAS: I did not. I did not. I did not want to have that conversation. And yeah, in any case, I went on a long journey to try and find an affirming church, because I had a hunger to be a part of community, and there were aspects of church that I really liked. And I’ve found some churches that were very cagey, that were very much like, “Come on in, have a bagel. We’ll talk about the whole gay thing.” And I’m like, “I don’t want to be a part of your conversion cult.” Either you accept me or you don’t, which is what the play is about.
My husband’s church, my husband’s denomination, is open and affirming. Every church that he’s been a pastor of has been aggressively open and affirming, and if you are not actively seeking out and making a space for the people who have been shut out elsewhere, you’re actually not welcoming. You’re not doing the work. If you’re not saying “We explicitly welcome trans people, we explicitly welcome gay people, LGBTQ people, we explicitly welcome undocumented people,” you’re not doing the work. You’re not welcoming.
We have welcome mats on our doorsteps for a reason. The mat is there to say, “The door is closed, for whatever reason, to keep the flies out — but you are welcome.”
And I’m obsessed with thinking about how we tell people, “You belong.” So many churches are like, “Why do we have dwindling membership?” and never asking, “Are we communicating that we actually want people to be here?” A lot of churches only want certain members, certain kinds of people to be there. That’s okay, I guess, but I’m sort of like, “If heaven is a gated community, that’s fine. If that’s your vision of heaven.” Those gates, it’s a slippery slope when you start aligning yourself on the side of gates, that’s all I’m saying.
MW: So what is your favorite Maxine Waters story?
THOMAS: Oh, God! The first time I encountered her was when she sort of busted out of a press conference with James Comey, and she like threw the whole press conference in the trash. Oh God, I can’t remember her exact phrase. But it set my head on fire. Every time I’ve met her has been just a whirlwind of activity. I think my favorite was, she did this tax day rally at Busboys and Poets to get Trump’s tax returns. Well, she did a pre-rally at Busboys and Poets, it was full. It was like a rock concert. It was like Beyoncé was there. People were packed out the doors, and she had called me down to be a guest with [activist] Brittany Packnett. I was like, “Great. I’ll hang out, watch her speak.” And I get there, and they’re like, “Come on up on stage. She’s going to interview you.” And I was like, “She’s going to interview me? Nobody wants to hear me talk.” And she was great. She had so much energy. She talked for two hours in a smaller room for VIPs. A smaller room being the stage of Busboys and Poets. So 300 people. And then she goes out to the restaurant, holds another rally, 500, 600 people. She’s got laryngitis this whole time. She is a force of nature. I’ve never met anybody like her.
MW: And if you were pitching another politician’s biography, whose life would you want to write about?
THOMAS: Guuurl… These politicians, let me tell you what. I don’t want to hear nothing from nobody. They could go pass a law, and then maybe I’ll write about them. Who would I like to hear about? Abraham Lincoln’s wife. [Laughs.] I don’t know. Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, Sheila Jackson Lee. Yeah. Some of these women who have burst through incredible obstruction, and held it down. I think I would be very interested in them.
MW: This summer, you’re filling in for Slate‘s popular advice column “Dear Prudence.” Are you somebody who actually asks for or listens to advice?
THOMAS: I ask for advice all the time. Most of my friends, I don’t ask for advice from, but I ask for advice from my therapist a lot.
I’m halfway through my run at Dear Prudence. I’ve been doing it for the last eight weeks and it’s incredible. I’ve got to say, what I’m learning is, inheritance? Whew! It’s going to make your descendants unhappy. So many problems are, “I got left this thing, now my whole family’s mad at me.” Inheritance? Weddings? Oh, don’t get married. Everybody gets mad at you. And what’s the other big thing? Couples, early in relationships, discovering that they think about money differently. It’s like, baby, it’s going to happen. You gotta have that financial literacy conversation. So yeah, that’s what I’m learning. I’m like, “Ugh.” And then a lot of people who are like, “My relatives are racist. What do I do?” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know.” [Laughs.]
MW: I was going to ask if you’ve been stumped by any question, and that might be a stumper.
THOMAS: Yeah. Occasionally, there are some questions that have to do with mental health crises or mental health treatment that I’m just like, “I don’t…” I always preface advice, “I’m not a clinician. I’m not a lawyer. I’m just a person giving you my thoughts.” Sometimes some mental health crisis stuff stumps me, and then every once in a while, I’m just like, “Oh, this seems like just a bad situation. I don’t know, there’s no solution.” With family stuff, I’m like, “Ah, I don’t know.”
The thing is, I don’t have to answer everything. We get too many for me to answer. So the ones that stump me, I usually don’t answer. But every once in a while, I’m just like, “Let me challenge myself.” But the comment section is very ferocious. So I don’t go in there half-cocked. You’ve got to know what you’re talking about at least a little bit, or they’re going to eat you alive.
Crying on Television runs through June 26 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, in Baltimore. Tickets are $19 to $69. Call 410-752-2208, or visit www.everymantheatre.org.
“Kings of B’more” and “Here for It” are available wherever books are sold. To find more of Thomas’ writing, visit www.rericthomas.com.
Follow R. Eric Thomas on Twitter at @oureric.
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