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FX's Atlanta is a terrific comedy — and the best new show of the fall

It’s a Louie-esque series set in the world of hip hop that’s not quite like anything else on TV.

Donald Glover stars in FX’s Atlanta.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

FX’s Atlanta, about a man who hopes to manage his rapper cousin to the top of the hip hop world, is my favorite new show of the fall. And TV-wise, it’s gonna be a really good fall.



(Atlanta is also the first new fall show to debut — so it’s all downhill from here, folks.)

The series is a comedy, but in the Louie or Girls sense, where it aims less to provide a constant stream of laughs and more to present a skewed slice of life. Yet it’s blessed with much sharper jokes than many other shows of its ilk — something that may not surprise you, given that creator Donald Glover cut his teeth writing on 30 Rock and starring as Troy on Community.

Atlanta made me laugh a lot, but the show is capable of wrenching drama, as when an otherwise meandering conversation in episode two is suddenly punctuated by an outburst of horrible violence.

There are a few things Atlanta needs to work on, but it’s a great appetizer for the fall TV season to come, one whose best shows are dominated by very specific points of view and strong voices. Here are the five things I like best about the show.

1) All of the characters sound different from each other

Nobody on Atlanta sounds quite the same. That’s a good thing.

This might sound strange, but it’s not easy to pull off. Think of most TV comedies — even the ones you love. All too often, the characters seem as if they’re speaking in roughly the same voice. They have the same rhythms and word choices. They make similar jokes. They gradually all collapse into each other, like they’re different faces of the same person.

To some degree, this is inevitable in comedy, because the way comedy is written — with a big room full of people workshopping jokes and trying to settle on which ones are the funniest — is essentially a recipe for exactly what I describe above: homogeneity. And I don’t want to badmouth that approach, because it leads to lots and lots of very funny shows.

But Atlanta maintains very specific voices and points-of-view for all of its major characters, including Earn, the soft-spoken, more philosophical young man Glover plays, and Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), the rapper whose career Earn is managing.

By the end of the first episode, I knew exactly what sorts of jokes Earn might make, as opposed to those Paper Boi or one of the other characters might make; it’s incredibly rare for a comedy to distinguish its characters so well, so quickly.

And as Atlanta’s first season wears on — I’ve seen four episodes so far — that same quality is applied to all manner of guest and one-off characters. Glover and the show’s other writers make it possible to imagine a separate TV show suddenly springing up around any one of Atlanta’s characters.

2) The show’s direction boasts a terrific sense of place

Even the show’s interiors are perfectly chosen.

Hiro Murai — best known for directing music videos by several artists, including Childish Gambino (Glover’s hip hop stage name) — doesn’t rewrite the rulebook when it comes to directing Atlanta. As with most TV shows, this one mostly features scenes where two people are talking, and he doesn’t do anything radically new with them.

But check out how he uses wide shots and camera movement to immediately situate you in the show’s milieu. From the soft glow of fluorescent lights interrupting the dark of night to a slow push in on Earn’s face as he tries to convince his girlfriend that he knows what he’s doing, Murai proves terrific at both building and shading in this world.

After all, the title of the show is Atlanta. It wouldn’t work if viewers didn’t get a sense of what the city adds to the overall story. Murai’s camera is always there to find some interesting detail off to the side, or to keep the pace flowing. The series is leisurely, but never lethargic, and Murai is a big reason why that’s the case.

3) The series employs a touch of the fantastical and surreal

Paper Boi has to deal with the very early trappings of fame.

Late in Atlanta’s first episode, Earn has an encounter with a man on a bus that I won’t say too much more about, for fear of spoiling, but it ends in a way that’s at once perfect and ever so slightly surreal.

I don’t want to imply that the series is full of weird and whimsical moments. But it definitely has a very slight sense of taking place in a universe where everything is slightly more heightened, where waitresses push just a little bit too hard to upsell you on dessert, and where people might deny you are who you say you are.

Everything that happens in Atlanta could really happen — and does really happen every day — but the show’s perspective tweaks it just enough to make it feel slightly more surreal and unusual. It’s like looking at life through a magnifying glass that only magnifies things by a tenth of a percent — barely enough to be noticeable, but you can feel it deep down.

4) The balance of drama and comedy is note perfect

The stakes are real for everybody, including Van, the mother of Earn’s child.

At a recent press conference about the show, Glover said he wants Atlanta to capture how it feels to be black. He doesn’t want to deliver long monologues about it, or feature passionate dissections of systemic racism. No, he wants the show to capture how a terrific moment can suddenly be interrupted by something horrible — the tension between the show’s most comedic and most dramatic moments.

It’s like that sudden outburst of violence that interrupts the otherwise normal conversation in episode two. The scale and suddenness of it are so out of proportion to anything else that was previously happening that it immediately and instantly fractures the scene into "before" and "after."

Except it really doesn’t. The other characters mostly try to ignore what’s happening, even as it takes place in the background of their lives. If there’s one feeling Atlanta captures perfectly, it’s the way that Earn and his friends constantly worry that something terrible might happen — and yet it doesn’t define their lives. They’re aware of their fear, on some level, but they’re not constantly thinking about it. It’s just another piece of who they are.

5) Above all, Atlanta is one of the most sneakily conventional shows you’ll see this fall

Paper Boi and Earn just want to make it big. And that gives a show that could feel very experimental a conventional spine.

Lots of reviews of Atlanta have played up how different it is from everything else on TV, which I’ve also tried to discuss in the four points above.

But when you boil Atlanta down to its most basic self, it’s just a series about young people chasing down what must seem like an out-there dream, hoping to make it come true. The "climbing the ladder of the hip-hop world" aspects of Atlanta aren’t exactly foregrounded, but they’re there, and they give the whole show something to hang onto whenever it embarks on one of its odder flights into the surreal.

But by giving Earn, Paper Boi, and everybody else in the series something to work toward, Atlanta avoids the easiest criticism of these sorts of wryly comic dramedies: that they don’t have anything real at their center. What makes Atlanta special is the way it adds texture and flavor to a core you already know, and the reason the show is so compulsively watchable is that it perfectly executes that core.

Atlanta is about pursuing your dreams, sure — but it’s also about how, when you’re poor and disadvantaged, those dreams can start to seep into every corner of your life, until it feels like you’re not so much a person but a vehicle for something else. Earn and Paper Boi have a long way to go as Atlanta begins, but the show they’re on arrives as if it’s already just about there.

Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern on FX. It debuts September 6.