In 2016, FX aired the first episode of Atlanta and it is incredibly true to the diversity of the black experience. I remember hearing about Donald Glover’s upcoming series while I was still in high school, and I wondered what it would consist of. For the most part I knew Glover as Troy from Community, and I didn’t think his acting went much farther than that. However, after two seasons and a confirmed third, Atlanta is one of my favorite shows ever. And I am not alone here, it has great reviews from critics and fans alike, and is refreshing in an entertainment world that only does what is comfortable. After all, the reason that there are so many super hero movies, reality shows, and nostalgic reboots is that executives know that these will do well, these things involve absolutely zero risks (though that doesn’t mean that they can’t go incredibly wrong). Atlanta, on the other hand, is full of experimental and risky choices from plot lines to wardrobe decisions. Since Glover is a fan of classics like Freaks and Geeks and Twin Peaks and wrote for 30 Rock, while simultaneously working as an RA in at NYU, we weren’t surprised to see that this show was successful, but I don’t think we expected it to be this successful.
Atlanta follows Alfred, his cousin Earn, and his friend Darius, as Alfred works toward becoming a rap star. At the beginning of season one Alfred’s song “Paper Boi” has gone viral, but isn’t receiving radio play, even at local Atlanta stations. Earn is struggling to help Vanessa, the mother of his daughter, he’s freeloading, and at one point is even sleeping in his storage unit. Darius… honestly, we don’t know much about Darius. Aside from him being a weird oracle or savant of some sort, we don’t learn much about his own passions or goals.
The Black Experience
Atlanta paints a vivid picture of a number of black experiences. Vanessa is played by Zazie Beetz, an Afro-German American actress. Being a mixed black girl offers all kinds of differences in her black experience. In the episode “Helen,” we see that she feels segregated from other German Americans, from Earn as he doesn’t make an effort to understand the customs and practices of the German festival, and she feels segregated from her other Afro-German American friend, as she is not comfortable with her own blackness.
Earn is made out to be the stereotypical deadbeat dad; at the beginning of the series he has a dead-end job where he makes little to no money. His parents refuse to let him even come in the house, because they know how much of a freeloader he is, which implies that he’s been here before. However, since he’s our main character we learn more about him that helps him gain our sympathy. Throughout the course of the series, we find out that he’s dropped out from Princeton, that he was bullied as a child, and in general he seems to have bad luck. He spends a lot of time trying to break through the assumptions that Alfred has made for him, in turn breaking through the assumptions that he has for himself.
Darius is the weirdest character I’ve ever seen. He has immeasurable wisdom, but also doesn’t know how to tell when milk is spoiled. He can’t read social cues well at all, but he does make some really good philosophical, social, and political points throughout the series. We don’t learn much about his background, but what we do learn is that he’s Nigerian-American, he’s sterile and he knows who Steve McQueen is. Not only does he appeal to black nerds, he also appeals to black people who are into spirituality, black people that are somehow involved in the street life, those who believe in conspiracy theories, those who are exceptionally fashion forward, he has the farthest reach in my opinion, and in this aspect, seems to mirror Glover himself. He seems to represent a sort of internal peace, one that many people seek for much of their life, especially their formative years.
Alfred, Earn’s ever cynical cousin, appeals to yet another demographic. He’s simply trying to cash in on the moment. He doesn’t think the Paper Boi thing will last forever, so he’s simply trying to get what he can, while he can, and he doesn’t want any distractions on the way. He implores Earn to get his shit together several times throughout the series, especially when he is depending on Earn. Many of the conflicts in Alfred’s character arc involve coming to terms with his fame, no matter how small it may be, this is also something that Glover has spoken about. Alfred is a generally relaxed guy, and when he meets fans, he doesn’t feel the need to “turn it on” or allow fans to take pictures. It creates a dialogue about how popularity creates a certain expectation for these people, whether they desire it or not.
Risks and Surrealism
There are several moments during which the viewer questions whether or not what they’re seeing is real. For example, when Earn is confronted on the bus by the man with the peanut butter sandwich. Or when Alfred is confronted in the woods by the man with the knife (“Woods” is one of my favorite episodes, so I’ll discuss it in-depth in a bit). The number of risks that this show takes is also something to acknowledge. For example, Glover’s whiteface in the "Teddy Perkins" episode, actually… the entire "Teddy Perkins" episode. From putting Glover in whiteface, to Darius’s MAGA hat, to having the entire episode air without any commercial breaks. Nothing about that episode was expected. Other risks include making Justin Bieber a black guy, the B.A.N. episode, and starting off Season Two, Robbin’ Season, with an extended robbery scene that lacked any familiar faces. All of these risks are what keep fans coming back to this show. It is not necessarily the ideas themselves that are impressive; there are very few original ideas in entertainment; it’s about the execution of these ideas. The idea that Justin Bieber is played by a black guy is not what I’m complementing, what I’m complementing is the ability that this show has to create a conversation and statement with such small, and at times subtle, decisions. Another example of this is the invisible car that Earn, Darius, and Alfred see posted on Instagram by a man named Marcus Miles. At first, Earn questions whether or not the car is even real. It looks like the guy is making the car up. It’s an invisible car, those obviously don’t exist. It comments on the lies that people will create just to have some sort of fame or credibility. However, they soon find out that the car is real when it runs over people after there’s a shooting at the club. Rather than using the technology of an invisible car in espionage or other serious humanitarian ventures, he just uses it to flex.
This is a comedy that’s actually funny. Comedy is one thing that usually divides the masses. What people find funny is very subjective, and most comedy is borderline offensive. However, Atlanta makes the progressive beliefs and ideologies of its writers clear, and presents comedic situations in which everyone can find humor. This isn’t a sitcom, so there’s no laugh box, but any awkward silences only serve to make the show even funnier.
This is easily my favorite episode of Atlanta. The idea that we are stuck with Alfred in his own head is interesting. It’s not portrayed as an all black or white purgatory that situations like this are usually shown as, rather, he’s in the woods. I think that this serves to communicate how easy it can be for us to end up where Alfred is. Alfred literally just falls into the woods, spends all day there and runs out at the end. He is the reason that he’s there, and he’s the only one that can get him out.
My absolute favorite thing about the show is that Hiro Murai, Donald, and Stephen Glover, and other members of the cast and crew keep an air of mystery around the show. There is always plenty of room for viewers to speculate and analyze, and find their own meaning within the episodes. I like watching the analysis videos by The Most Unruly, because he always has an in-depth analysis with proof to back up his points, even if these are points I haven’t considered myself. Anyone that knows me knows that I love when things can be understood on the surface level in addition to being understood on a deeper level. What good is something that finds itself so scholarly and artsy if no one can derive a reason to enjoy it?
Atlanta is one of the most solid American television series that I’ve seen in years. Even though it’s still pretty early for Atlanta, the third season hasn’t even come out yet, the tone, the artistry, the social commentary, the comedy and all other aspects of the show have been incredibly consistent from episode to episode. As the show continues to grow and develop it is bound to become a classic that audiences will embrace for decades.