I don’t think I have seen Donald Glover smile since he left Community in 2014. Rather, the image ingrained in my head is the cover of his 2013 Childish Gambino record Because The Internet: wearing a loud tropical Hawaiian shirt, and symmetrically embraced by hues of pastel orange and pink, Glover looks directly into camera, expressionless, but disaffected, clearly bearing something heavy. Who was this new Donald Glover?
Many, myself included, had a hard time reconciling the charmingly irreverent comedic actor/writer with this suddenly downtrodden, serious rapper. Was it a concerted marketing ploy to sell records–a dreaded rebranding—after a not-so-great debut album, was this the real Donald, or was there something more complex going on? Atlanta, Glover’s new drama/dark comedy on FX is the best answer to this question I have seen thus far. As a composite of all the different Donald Glovers we’ve watched over the last seven years, Atlanta observes and questions the battery of contradictions that fundamentally comprise identity, especially for those in overlooked or misunderstood communities.
The show follows Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover), a broke twenty-something who, in an attempt to better support his on-again off-again girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) and their daughter, tries to manage his cousin Alfred Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry), aka the burgeoning street rapper Paper Boi. Alfred’s one-person crew and drug dealing partner consists of his friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) who is simultaneously the most philosophically interesting and easily the funniest character on the show. In the first episode alone, Darius has two absurd, seemingly poignant lines that will likely be the ones you remember most.
Aesthetically the show strives for authenticity above all else. Visually, this translates to muted, grey colors. Atlanta is literally a dark show whose concerted drabness is brightened temporarily by brief, sharp comedic flickers and the sheer strength of the writing overall. Each central character, whether outlandish or understated, naturally reveals internal conflict—who they are vs. who they are perceived to be—in a believable way. The only gripe I have with Glover in this department is that infrequently his delivery of dramatic lines feels a bit forced, but perhaps that is only in comparison to his brilliant comedic sensibilities, where he truly shines.
Since the center of gravity is Atlanta’s hip-hop scene, arguably the source of America’s best hip-hop acts over the last decade (or ever, if you are an OutKast diehard), the music supervision is impeccably good. Hip-hop heads will dig the inclusion of Atlanta artists, classic artists, and newer rap acts from all over the place: fans of Migos, Shabazz Palace, and Kieth Ape rejoice. Most notably, the first song we hear as an audience, “No Hook” by Atlanta-native and Gucci Mane affiliate, OJ Da Juiceman, ignites your autonomic nervous system as you are treated to beautifully drone-shot panoramas of the city where Glover grew up. Seeing rich neighborhoods juxtaposed with projects as a classic trap song thunders loudly, you get the sense that you are looking at two different cities, and that, perhaps, Atlanta isn’t the only city that is like this.
“I just always wanted to make Twin Peaks with rappers,” Glover told a room full of journalist during the TCA Winter Press tour this past January. While this sounded great in theory, I remember being concerned about how commonly David Lynch’s cult classic series was cited as an inspiration in the world of music. As such a singular entity in pop culture history, Twin Peaks is a dangerous inspiration because replicating or even approximating it is impossible. Fortunately, Atlanta forges a strong enough identity that it doesn’t fall into these traps, but simply tips its hat.
The show mixes hyper-realism (Earn trying to make rent) with brief moments of surrealism (you will know the bus/sandwich scene when you get there), all which serve to disorient, and make you question if you can really trust what you perceive to be the narrative at hand. By the end of the pilot episode, “The Big Bang,” you are just as likely to walk away with a cut-and-dry understanding of the events as you are to wonder if any of it really happened at all.
So, the central question is this: Just because something doesn’t seem real to one person, does that mean it cannot exist for another person? Atlanta, subtly and artfully, deals with this question and applies it both microcosmically and broadly. Whether you are wondering if someone’s delusions indicate unstable mental health, or seeing what a moment of police brutality might look like to those who see it on a daily basis, you are compelled to question yourself and what you consider ordinary. What does it mean about racial identity when a white person feels comfortable using the N word in front of Earn but not another African American person? Even Black and White isn’t so black and white. There are never really answers to certain questions the show ponders, which, I think, is the point. You have to be comfortable with Atlanta and its overwhelming greyness.
Though fans of Community might see this as completely new direction for Glover, those that have holistically followed his career might have an easier time with this change in tone. Atlanta is a very good show that is compelling, challenging, and extremely funny because of and despite its existential probing. If this doesn’t sound straightforward, it isn’t. Even Donald Glover, with his fluctuating faces and versatile talents, doesn’t have all the answers. But by imbuing each of his characters, the titular city included, with dynamic identities that are not beholden to stereotype, he find himself closer to some sort of truth.
Rating: 4.5/5 Burritos