For the past 10 years, FX has established itself as an exemplar for groundbreaking television. They are not afraid to take risks, betting on programming that is varied and bold. Those gambles have paid off to the tune of strong viewership, critical acclaim, and numerous Emmy nominations (47 in 2016 alone). Though I was not sure it would be possible, with hits like American Horror Story and The Americans in their pocket, FX has upped the ante with their new show Atlanta.
Atlanta is the brainchild of the superbly talented Donald Glover, also known as Grammy Nominated rapper Childish Gambino. Before we discuss the show itself, we need to acknowledge the fact that Glover is a force of nature. He is an actor, producer, writer, comedian, rapper, and disk jockey. A graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts, he began writing for 30 Rock when he was just 22 years old. After 30 Rock, he starred on Community. Glover’s boundless talents are unleashed on Atlanta, where he pulls triple duty as writer, producer and actor.
Glover stars as Earnest “Earn” Marks, a Princeton drop-out, who is clever yet underachieving. His life is full of struggles, some of his own making, many due to circumstances out of his control. Earn expects to scrap, so the fact he has to, is unremarkable to him. He doesn’t enjoy his job selling credit cards at the airport, and he’s not good at it either, which is problematic since he is working for commission. His lack of cash flow is evidenced by the fact that he is “technically” homeless. He’s currently crashing at his best friend/sometimes lover Vanessa’s (Zazie Beetz) apartment. The two have a complicated relationship, but their connection is strong and they share a mutual love, for each other and their toddler daughter, Lottie. In order to provide for himself and his child, Earn needs to figure out a way to make money. He is idealistic, believing he can do so following his dreams and not taking a job he hates, that merely pays the bills.
“I just keep losing- I mean, some people just supposed to lose? For balance in the universe? I mean, like are there just some on Earth supposed to be here just to make it easier on the winners? Like really?”
Enter, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), Earn’s once estranged cousin and now potential pay day. Paper Boi is rapper on the verge of a big break, and Earn is aspiring to be his manager. His eponymous single and its accompanying iPhone music video have gone viral. At first, he’s tentative to bring Earn into the fold but does so anyway, naturally with no ceremony. Paper Boi spends most of his time with his “right-hand man and visionary” Darius (LaKeith Stanfield). The two share interesting banter and lots of joints.
Atlanta is a show that focuses on moments, some of which don’t necessarily fit the arc. We don’t get why it’s happening, but are we supposed to? It’s an effective way to build mood. Along with Earn, we attempt to navigate this quirky world. What a beautiful world it is. Atlanta is directed by Hiro Murai, who is best known for directing avant- garde music videos for Childish Gambino and The Shins. Murai has incredible eye and brings us visuals that are equal parts idyllic and melancholy. The exploration of how cities exist within nature. On a beautiful day Earn, Paper Boi and Darius sit outside on a battered, dirty couch smoking weed. The couch sits unapologetically on a lush expanse of vibrant green grass.
The cinematography is not the only component of Atlanta that explores contrast. The overarching theme of Atlanta is what it means to be black in America, a narrative on stereotypes versus reality. During an argument, Earn and Vanessa deliver blunt dialogue on racial imaging. He tells her that she is the stereotype of an “angry black woman” and she asserts that he is the stereotype of a black father. He agrees.
There is a more delicate exploration through Paper Boi. After he shoots an adversary, which we witness in the flash-forward opening of Episode 1 “The Big Bang”, Paper Boi grapples with who he is and the type of “street cred” fans want a rapper to possess. The show didn’t really go into detail of what occurred after the gun shot, but Paper Boi and Earn spent time in a holding cell before being released on bond. After his release, Darius informed Paper Boi that he stock was rising. People liked that he was an old school rapper, inciting violence, shooting guns. A waiter recognizes him when he goes to grab wings and hooked up with a special sauce. He calls Paper Boi “one of the last real rappers” and warns him not to let him down, leaving Paper Boi feeling uncomfortable. You can see the conflict in his eyes. Who he actually is and who the world wants to see.
A similar scenario occurs while Paper Boi is out for a walk. He sees kids pretending to him, shooting each other with fake guns. Paper Boi intervenes, clearly uneasy with his influence, and tells the kids that they shouldn’t play that way. The mother (aunt) supervising them gets immediately defensive so Paper Boi explains that his concern comes from the fact that he is Paper Boi. Instead of being troubled by the admission, the woman begins flirting with the rapper and asks to have her picture taken. All intervention was forgotten.
Like Glover, Atlanta is well rounded and ambitious. It is a dramedy that never goes too far in either direction, a true contradiction.
Atlanta airs on Tuesdays at 10PM on FX
Written By Sarah