Donald Glover knew he had to prove himself with Atlanta. The star and creator has always had a chip on his shoulder, often forcing him to defend his career choices – and himself. Yet the common critique against Glover is that he spread himself too thin: pretty good at many things, but not great at any one specific thing. Atlanta puts this idea to rest — even though he’s still fulfilling multiple roles including writer and producer — and the series feels like nothing else on television.
When Atlanta was announced, a big fear was that it would be too defensive. A show about a rapper and his friends trying to make it big in Atlanta? With the criticisms Glover faces, it would’’ve been easy for the show to be a heavy-handed outlet for Glover to prove his black “wokeness” or cred as a rapper week after week. Instead, Atlanta captures the heart of what has made Glover a compelling performer. It approaches race with a fluctuating grip on both comedy and reality that asks viewers to understand the gray area that comes with the topic. Atlanta isn’t interested in proving itself to anyone; and it doesn’t need to.
After an explosive and disjointed cold open that ends with a gunshot, the pilot cuts to Earn (Glover) and a woman who appears to be his girlfriend. Quickly, the viewer learns key points about Earn: This “girlfriend” is actually his baby mama Van (played with wonderful nuance by Zazie Beetz) and this isn’t even his home (Earn is technically homeless but not, as he puts it, “using a rat as a phone” homeless). It’s a testament to Glover’s writing that he’s able to quickly capture the importance of Van to Earn’s sense of self-worth and identity. Van isn’t the oft-seen, put-upon girlfriend who is kept in the dark but rather she’s the reward that Earn seeks.
Atlanta draws a parallel to a classic hero story: the Odyssey. His status as a transient with no defined home puts Earn on the path of the “Hero’s Journey.” A stable home with Van and their daughter is Earn’s return to Ithaca (although Van’s suitors are too corny to require slaying). The journey to wealth via rap success is what Earn believes is necessary in order to reach this goal. When Earn proves himself and convinces Alfred to take him on as a manager, the call to adventure is accepted.
This isn’t to say Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) are background characters to Earn’s journey. Henry and Stanfield continually steal the show and are often more compelling than Glover’s straight man. When the audience is first introduced to Alfred (aka Paper Boi) he has no desire to be a rapper. “Rappers need managers. I’m just trying to get paid real quick,” he tells Earn. However, when Earn manages to get Paper Boi on the radio, it’s clear that Alfred does have a desire to achieve something more — he just doubts his talent. When Earn compliments the song, Alfred mumbles, “I kind of hate this song.” The moment of self-doubt leads beautifully into the moment of conflict that started the show. Alfred may not be sure if he’s actually talented but he’s eager to defend his name and reputation in the face of insecurity as he shoots a man who insulted his car and mixtape. Alfred’s insecurity and internal struggle between street cred and fame makes Paper Boi more than the stereotypical, played-for-laughs, ho-obsessed gangsta rapper typical of comedies.
Rounding out the trio is Darius, who acts as the perfect advisor for both Alfred and Earn. While he could be written off as the latest in a vein of quirky, odd sidekicks who only exist to join B and C plots, there’s something more mystical about him. He seems to have an omen of déjà vu as the conflict before the shooting heightens. Later, he lays out what could be the premise of the entire series: “As humans we’re always close to destruction. Life itself is but a series of close calls.” Darius is as much a visionary as he is a wild card.
In the second episode, Stephen Glover’s script opens up the focus of the show and lightens the mood. “Streets On Lock” wastes no time proving Atlanta is thoroughly a comedy as Earn and Alfred crack jokes about the shooting, turning it into a bonding experience instead of a Big Serious Event with a multi-episode arc. Atlanta affords its characters the privilege white characters from episodic shows have always had: the privilege of raising the stakes without getting stuck in the consequences.
Stephen’s script showcases the challenges, allies, and enemies the trio will face this season. Some people will use Paper Boi merely as entertainment with no actual concern for him, such as the officer who’s eager to get selfies with “that Paperman” even though the police previously tried to get Earn to snitch on Alfred. As for allies, there are people who understand what Paper Boi’s success means to the community, such as the BBQ waiter who warns Alfred “not to let him down and rewards him with lemon pepper wet wings (if you’re not familiar with Southern wing culture, just trust that this is truly a rarity). Alfred recognizes this division of being viewed as entertainment vs. inspiration. It’s why he refuses to smile with the cop who requests pictures but is happy to smile and pose with a group of kids after telling them gun violence is wrong.
Finally, there are the actual enemies. After the shooting, Alfred becomes a target, which is highlighted in a scene where he stops to buy gas, realizes the gas station is too dangerous, and immediately drives off. Director Hiro Murai perfectly captures the tension as the heightened soundscape of chirping birds and swarming bugs recreates the feeling of Atlanta heat that often precipitates moments of violence. Later on, when a masked man runs up to Alfred’s house and asks if Paper Boi lives there, it’s clear that the show will be handling these threats as episodic elements.
With a strong start, Atlanta doesn’t bear the brunt of Glover’s chipped shoulder but instead allows him to focus on his abilities as a storyteller and writer. These two episodes set the stage for everything this show is capable of and the possibilities that make Atlanta the most exciting show of the year.
- Hiro Murai’s direction deserves a special call out. Glover’s short film Clapping For The Wrong Reasons couldve been a boring, self-indulged look at the daily life of a rapper, but Murai’s direction elevated the piece to something strange and interesting. Murai’s inexperience with TV or longform storytelling allows Atlanta to look and feel different from anything else, giving it unique narrative room to breathe.
- Some people will find fault with the scene involving a transwoman and her ex-partner as an unnecessary moment of transphobia played for laughs but I do think black writers are allowed to examine the faults and imperfections that exist in their communities. I think this scene is trying to make a greater point about transphobia and homophobia in black communities, but it’s sloppy and was the only real low of the premiere.
- I really wanted Earn to bite that sandwich. I’m curious to see what type of role that figure will play or if it was just a one-off look into Atlanta’s weird world.
Photos via FX