FX’s Atlanta is impossible to sum up in a single sentence — which was exactly the point.
Donald Glover’s series doesn’t mesh traditional comedy and drama so much as it smashes the genres to pieces and tacks them back together in the form of something more provocative, even strange.
Atlanta has some ongoing plots, but it mostly meanders from one story to the next. Characters like Glover’s Earn, his on-and-off girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), and rapper cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) feel out their scenes, like they’re also watching the TV show of their lives unfold. They’re curious about new opportunities, frustrated at the obstacles in their way, hopeful for the future, and angry when no one understands why — because they, like the show, are smart as hell.
By the time the first season ended on November 1, the 10-episode series had explored the lives of black Atlantans from shabby apartments to swank nightclubs, mundane workdays to pretentious parties, prison holding cells to rumpled bedroom sheets.
All the while, a brilliant streak of surrealism shot through Atlanta like a comet.
It appeared on the bus, as Earn tried to brush off an insistent man who literally disappeared in the blink of an eye. It lit up a charity basketball game where Paper Boi faced off against Justin Bieber as played by black actor Austin Crute. It engulfed an entire episode in which Paper Boi went on a staid talk show on the “Black America Network,” complete with fake commercials for products like “Coconut Crunchos,” which ended with the hungry mascot trying to steal the cereal and getting tackled by police.
Atlanta’s deliberate jolts of weirdness were always a welcome change from what we’ve come to expect from TV — though knowing Donald Glover, we really should’ve seen them coming.
Every one of Donald Glover’s career milestones informed the beautifully off-kilter Atlanta
Looking at Glover’s career means looking at a body of work that, like Atlanta, very purposefully defies definition. But the milestones from throughout Glover’s 10-plus years of writing and performing are all entrenched in Atlanta, informing its daring, its tenderness, and everything in between.
His sketch work for the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy theater and the comedy team Derrick — with D.C. Pierson and Dominic Dierkes — twisted expectations, as all good sketches are supposed to do. But the best ones went a couple of defiant steps further to make the audience think about why, exactly, they were laughing.
Take this 2006 Derrick sketch, which imagines a spelling bee that’s actually a game of chicken in which Glover’s host dares the white contestants to say and spell the word “n**gerf**got.” (And no, the irony of how we censor this word in the context of this sketch isn’t lost on me.)
Obviously, this sketch reads differently depending on who’s watching it. Personally, I felt my (white) skin crawl clean off my body rather than think about what I’d do in this same situation. But that kind of confrontation is where Glover excels, and a skill he put to use with writers like his brother Stephen on Atlanta.
As he told Time, Atlanta was his “Trojan horse ... the thesis was: ‘How do we make people feel black?’” The result was a show that rejected preaching tolerance for drawing you into the world and pressing you up against it, making you feel every moment rather than just watch it.
Glover’s work with Derrick and UCB earned him notice from Tina Fey. She hired him to work on 30 Rock in 2008 after reading his Simpsons spec script before he’d even graduated college.
30 Rock was one of the most gloriously bizarre shows on television, swerving constantly between rapid banter and self-reflective pop culture send-ups, from botched political satire to fake NBC shows. (My favorite: the reality competition MILF Island.) The obvious comparison point for Atlanta’s “B.A.N.” — the “Black America Network” that hosted Paper Boi for an episode — is Chappelle’s Show, but Glover’s time in the 30 Rock writing room undoubtedly played a part here too.
When Glover left 30 Rock after a couple of years to work on his standup, he stumbled upon the role of warmhearted jock Troy on NBC’s Community. Glover doesn’t often get involved in projects he doesn’t also have a hand in writing, but as he told the A.V. Club in 2010, he trusted showrunner Dan Harmon to do something a little different with the show.
Still, it’s easy to imagine an alternate reality where someone blander played Troy as a straightforward dumb jock with a heart of gold. In Glover’s hands, Troy became a sensitive, incredibly empathetic guy with good intentions that only sometimes worked out. Atlanta’s Earn is way more laconic than Troy, but the characters share a deep vulnerability that makes it hard to dismiss either out of hand.
In 2014, after almost five years playing Troy, Glover decided to move on. He dove headlong into his rapper persona of Childish Gambino — a moniker he got from an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator — which he had been toying with for years, spitting twisty lines packed with pop culture references. (Also on Childish Gambino’s side? Community music producer Ludwig Göransson, who’s consulted on Atlanta.)
In 2016, we now have Earn managing Paper Boi’s rap career, complete with original songs by the Glover brothers for both that rising star and “black Justin Bieber.” Glover also enlisted Childish Gambino music video director Hiro Murai to helm Atlanta, defying the idea that only experienced TV directors know how to make a great-looking episode of TV.
Glover’s career is as broad as it is deep, but he’s always had a taste for going left when everyone expects him to go right. With Atlanta, he found a way to bring all his seemingly disparate interests crashing together to make some of the year’s most affecting television.
Atlanta’s surrealism made the show feel more real
If you didn’t know about Glover’s career — and hey, even if you did! — Atlanta’s love of going deeper and more peculiar might not be what you expected from the show.
But every episode, the series found new ways to convey what it means to be these characters — young, black, poor, brilliant — by twisting their reality just enough to make us feel it. As Glover tells it, these offbeat moments are what we should already expect in our daily lives.
“We always kind of talk about the surreal nature of the human experience. It's a really strange thing,” Glover told NPR in September. “Most of the time, I think people forget that life is hard — and also, really strange.”
So even if “B.A.N.” was a stylistic departure for the show, it used all the tools in Glover’s arsenal to portray Paper Boi’s discomfort with what’s expected of him, for better and for worse.
“Black Justin Bieber” might seem like a left-field gimmick at first glance, but as the episode unfolds, it becomes clear through the way Atlanta portrays the real Bieber’s stunts — peeing in corners, assuming everyone loves him, escalating fights and apologizing via pop song — that they would be received completely differently if he were black.
And on a smaller scale, think back to that moment when Earn talks to the older man on the bus before he disappears. As directed by Murai, the sequence feels like a waking dream, letting rain spatter against the windows as Earn lets his attention wander, his eyes slide, his thoughts churn just enough to tease out alternate scenarios to his actual reality.
This otherworldly moment didn’t further any stories. It led us straight into Earn’s shifting mind; it didn’t describe his restless creativity so much as summon us into it, a siren beckoning.
Each of Atlanta’s 10 episodes found new and profound ways to show how everyday life can be messy, and mean, and, yes, incredibly strange. Why not have a show reflect that, even — especially — if it doesn’t look quite like what we’ve come to expect?