Donald Glover’s ‘Atlanta’: A review of the first three episodes
I shudder to think about the length of time it must take Donald Glover to write his résumé. The man has worked as a screenwriter (30 Rock), rapper (as Childish Gambino), actor (30 Rock, Community, The Martian, etc..), voice actor and standup comedian. He also wrote and starred in a short film called Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, because, you know, he clearly has a lot of free time on his hands.
This diversity of talent has manifested itself in his newest creation, Atlanta, a new FX television show which he produces, writes and stars in. The show is set (as one might guess) in Atlanta, and follows Earn (Donald Glover), a homeless Princeton dropout who becomes the manager for his cousin, the rapper ‘Paper Boi.’ Filmed by first time television director Hiro Murai, Atlanta is a semi-surreal, slow placed dramedy in the vein of You’re the Worst, Wilfred, and Louie (all of which are also FX products).
While there are clear similarities in pacing, cinematography and theme exploration, Atlanta sets itself apart from such comedies by making its stakes feel very, very real. Unlike a series like Girls, where, as culture critic Wesley Morris puts it, the characters “exist in an alternative realm — a kind of ‘whatever’ class,” Atlanta puts the threat of poverty and the struggle for meaningful work at the heart of its plot. Being a comedy, it does this in a humorous way — you laugh when Earn finally snaps at a waitress who has been upselling him all night — but you also feel his vulnerability, as the prospect of his card being declined in front of his mother’s child becomes more and more likely. It is these insecurities — not only about money but about relationships, masculinity, self fulfillment and parenting — that are at the heart of Atlanta.
One particularly moving scene, for example, depicts a character’s carefully constructed machismo coming under attack. Waiting in jail, Earn is caught in the middle of a conversation between a transgender woman and an aggressive man who used to date her. The prisoners around them begin to jeer the man for being gay. The man gets angry, saying “I ain’t gay! She’s a girl! You think I’m gay?” he shouts at Earn. Earn, the Princeton dropout, tries to comfort him, saying “sexuality is a spectrum” but he is quickly cut off. His liberal arts vocabulary has little weight in Atlanta’s prison system.
Much is made in the show of Earn’s not being “black” enough and losing the respect of both blacks and whites in the process. This is a criticism that has permeated Donald Glover’s image since he attained fame and it feels natural for the show to explore it. It does so in a clever fashion — the end of the first episode centers on a white guy who feels comfortable dropping the N-word in front of Earn, but avoids saying the term when confronted with Earn’s more intimidating cousin, the rapper ‘Paper Boi.’
However, the show is at it’s most interesting when it examines the insecurities that go along with Paper Boi’s consciously crafted gangster persona. Paper Boi’s cultural value immediately goes up after he shoots someone, and the expectations on him begin building rapidly. A restaurant employee hails him as being “one of the last real rappers” for shooting someone, then says, “Don’t let me down man. If you let me down, I don’t know what I’d do.” The discomfort in Paper Boi’s eyes following this interaction is masterfully conveyed by actor Brian Tyree Henry, and says more about his disquiet with his new status as a symbol than any words could.
Darius, the stoner philosopher of Atlanta brilliantly portrayed by Keith Stanfield, serves as the absurdist voice floating in between the “hard” Paper Boi and the “soft” Earn. His lines, like the show, are humorous, but also surprisingly deep: “Us humans are always close to destruction,” he says as he builds a precarious tower of salt and pepper shakers. “Life itself is but a series of close calls. I mean how would you know you were alive, unless you knew you could die?” Cue the tower falling.
It is the threat of this falling tower, of collapse (be it collapse of status, finances, physical well-being, or the ever precarious family unit) that keeps Atlanta engaging and unique. The sheer weight of expectations placed on Earn, be it from himself, society, or his baby mama Vanessa (portrayed with depth by actress Zazie Beetz but currently underdeveloped by the show’s writers), threatens to push Earn over the edge seemingly every episode. But somehow he and the other characters trudge on, blessing us in the process with one of the most promising TV comedies I’ve come across in a long time.