Between his acclaimed new TV series and hip-hop album, Donald Glover is having a moment. But he didn’t do it by himself.
It’s a calm Sunday morning at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, the location of Donald Glover’s PHAROS music event, only two days before the premiere of FX’s Atlanta, Glover’s new TV series about the city’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. The PHAROS event staff around the resort and campground prepares hastily for the fifth and final performance of Childish Gambino’s new album. A steady buzz has been building throughout the morning as one event milestone prepares to conclude while another looks to begin.
A self-described United Nations Security Council of artistic careers and viewpoints has helped contribute to the career of Glover over recent years with the present festival, forthcoming album, and television show being no exception. But the delegation isn’t a one-way street. The FX show is a project Glover has shared as an aspiration since his ensemble team came together and with all hands on deck, a freeway of ideas, albums, actions, and obstacles have paved the way for Atlanta to achieve its final form.
The byproduct of Atlanta’s behind-the-scenes narratives aren’t just notes on a whiteboard. They’re studio albums, mixtapes, fashion shoots, tours, and ambitious independent solo careers.
Fam Udeorji, soft-spoken and unhurried, is one-half of the management company Wolf + Rothstein, the duo responsible for guiding the career trajectory of Childish Gambino as well as the small team of artists collectively known as Royalty. He takes on Rothstein as a last name, taken from Frank Rosenthal’s Casino character Ace Rothstein, whose special attention to detail hits home with Fam.
The former half of the pair is Chad Taylor, aka Wolf, an experienced tour manager who met Fam on the road during Childish Gambino’s Camp tour where they founded a relationship as partners—and bed-sharing roommates when costs needed to be cut.
Fam walks through the entrance of a small resort cabin staged in the center of the festival area, one of a few similar structures surrounded by food trucks, a reflection pond, and various “illumination forest” installations decorating paths and lounge areas. Nearby the small cabin is an outdoor theatre screening the first three episodes of Atlanta each day for festival goers waiting to experience Gambino’s new album. The curious 60-foot-high white dome that is home to the performances protrudes above a line of trees at the back of the resort. The two events are the main course for fans adventuring into the desert to get the first look at the next step of the elusive career and character that is Donald Glover.
The former Community actor hasn’t done it alone, however. With his green, wide-brim bucket hat blocking the sun like a safari guide, Fam introduces his fellow collective that helped bring the festival and show to its current state of creativity and reality.
Alongside Gambino on the roster of Wolf + Rothstein are Kari Faux and Malik Flint, aka bLAck pARty—whose name capitalization refers to him and his musical accomplices’ roots in Little Rock, Arkansas and their current residence of Los Angeles. The Royalty umbrella also extends to creatives and musicians brought together around Donald Glover in some fashion, including Ibra Ake, Steve Glover, and Swank. The group drew the name from Childish Gambino’s 2012 mixtape, around the time they first started to come together and mesh as a team.
Ibra is the first of the group to offer insight with a mantra of stern fearlessness that begins to soften when conversation shifts into the realm of art. He’s known for his work as a portrait and fashion photographer and is often dubbed the “soundboard” for the group when it comes to establishing visual framing and creative direction.
His role as a creative guide and resource spans across the collective’s different albums and projects, including Atlanta, where he helped to transition the show’s tone to its marketing outreach. A series of reverse-motion clips, fast-cut previews, and peach-tasting images have headlined the show’s buildup on television, billboards, and the internet. Atlanta’s first teaser came juxtaposed to the conclusion of FX’s The People v O.J. Simpson with actor Keith Stanfield’s character, Darius, asking, “Is that why cops are mad?” upon finding out the nonfiction nature of the courtroom drama.
“We don’t want this to look like a Kevin Hart promo,” Ibra says with a laugh while looking back on the show’s marketing process.
“You’re not just going through one medium anymore. You have to have consistency throughout the style and creative vision on multiple platforms,” Ibra says. “Instagram is where everyone steals my best ideas.”
When asked about recent controversy over Atlanta’s all-black writers’ room, the group admits they could sense that something was different early on, but only because of how fashion-forward everyone was and the time taken to critique shoe choices—which they questioned to be standard in a “normal” TV writers’ room. This parallels the type of controversy and hypocrisy Atlanta brings to light in its early episodes, further blurring the lines between the show and the lives of the writers and integral Royalty influencers.
Steve Glover, younger brother to Donald and also known Steve G. Lover, brings a creative influence to the collective and show bathed in Atlanta’s sounds and culture. Steve is partnered by Swank, a charismatic jack-of-all-trades when it comes to tour management, artist relations, event planning, fashion, and most importantly, “setting the vibe.” The duo is confident and synergetic when recalling their meet in college and navigation of Atlanta’s music scene as young, motivated artists. They acknowledge the pressure brought on by Atlanta carrying the city’s name as its title. The two, however, aren’t afraid to bring their Atlanta stories as the Royalty members who came of age in the city’s glowing but poignant environment.
Both Steve and Swank describe how their southern capital upbringing has gone through the Royalty process of filter and refinement, getting feedback from all members—a practice equal to all projects and pieces of work that are released from the group.
“If someone has an idea, we find every way to shoot it down,” Steve says.
Swank explains the process when developing Atlanta’s characters, detailing how they are almost all fusions of real-life friends and experiences. Steve is personally invested in the show’s rapper focus Alfred, aka Paperboi. Steve’s music is used as the up-and-coming rapper’s in the show, led by the pilot’s feature of “Paperboi” by Paperboi—the anthemic track that sparks Alfred’s career.
Steve’s hip-hop sound has heavier Atlanta and trap influences compared to his brother. He began making music at age 17 and has since been built a steady and respectable discography, including a handful of Childish Gambino features as well as his recent Rich Black American mixtape released in late June.
Swank jokes that Steve and Donald’s mother doesn’t understand how their music can sound so different—a caveat Steve reinforces earnestly while describing the challenge of being blanketed as “Donald’s brother” rather than his own independent and unique artist.
As a lead writer of four episodes of the season, Steve alludes to the creativity and experimentation fostered in Royalty as key factor leading to his smooth transition to working on his first television show. The reality of the humor and stories that Steve helps portray in the show also lend to his evolution as a writer, one that Ibra describes as the funniest in the group.
Steve and Swank zero in on the prison-focused second episode of the series, which was inspired by an arrest after a night of music video filming in Atlanta.
“We were in a parking lot, shooting the video, and this cop was driving around,” Swank explains. “She just stops. She was scared immediately. We rented a Camaro and I’m trying to explain that we were shooting a video and waiting for the owner of the car to come pick it up and she’s like, ‘Well where are all the cameras though?’ That’s when I knew she thinks we were up to no good. I told her the director is right here and I can go get them. She’s like, ‘no, no’ walks over and sees weed in the car, so she grabs it and calls backup, says it’s fine and that she just has to search the car. Our director goes, ‘I’m just going to let you guys know now that I have three guns in the car and I don’t want anyone to freak out.’ And, of course, they freak out.”
Experiences from life in Atlanta as well as the group’s everyday lives as emerging artists seem to bleed into the show at every turn. They cite a range of instances, including being overly scrutinized when leaving a grocery store in Kauai without buying anything and not being able to hail a cab in Brooklyn when grouped together. Swank also recalls observing Malik at a party for the Grammys, standing next to the Alabama Shakes and seeing how out of place he felt. Moments like these have helped guide the writing to put Atlanta’s own characters in uncomfortable settings to see how they would react.
“I always say that if you make it to age 23 [in Atlanta] you’re good. But from about 16 to 23, every day is 50-50, in terms of what you’re doing and the environment you’re in,” Swank says—a sentiment not lost on some of the darker moments of the show.
The sun dips below the barren desert skyline back at PHAROS. Neon blue lamps around the campground take over. The energy outside of the dome venue for Childish Gambino’s performance builds steadily as a winding line of fans are ushered through a security check finalized by having their phones locked in a small pouch for the duration of the show.
Wolf and Fam are preparing for the final show backstage. After meeting on the road with Gambino, they became official to help manage Donald’s career in 2013, the first major step to Wolf + Rothstein’s formation the following year.
Kari and Malik are the newest artists to be signed by the company and are the youngest members of Royalty. The two Arkansas natives began recording their debut project in a one-room, unfinished LA office around the same time Atlanta was first put in motion. Royalty moved their creative works to a location they dubbed "the factory," which housed the continued development of Atlanta while both Childish Gambino and bLAck pARty worked on their to-be-released solo albums.
The conversation earlier in the day about Atlanta’s current music scene diverted to the topical subject of Lil Yachty’s recent controversy in which the 19-year-old Atlanta rapper told Billboard he “couldn’t name five songs by Tupac or Biggie.”
With the bait in the water, the Royalty process of analysis began like an assembly line of input. Steve, Swank, Fam, and Ibra all offered a unique take on the conversation relative to their own tastes and expertise. It becomes easy to picture how Atlanta’s refined take on music, race, and society came to be: through debate likes this filled with counterpoints and laughter while crunching through a bag of Peanut M&M’s.
The concept of an artist collective or co-sign group is not unique to hip-hop or entertainment. Friends and family can often play important roles in the success of a major artist. It could be easy to feel that putting a name on a group centered by an A-list artist makes them simply along for the ride, but Royalty seems content to allow their output of content to prove their difference.
“So many things start off as good ideas and then people just don’t care along the way. You can get paid for not caring today,” Steve says.
With a closer look around the festival, you can start imagine the debate and care that went into every detail that made PHAROS unique, from the location, food, and masquerade themes that are personal to Swank and Ibra who both spent time growing up in Nigeria.
At the end of the day, Royalty is a group of individuals with their own opinions and cohesions. As Swank says “everyone has a ‘trust me on this one’ card,” when exchanging ideas. The view of the overall group changes depending on who you focus on and how you rotate the web.
When asked where he sees the Wolf + Rothstein in five years, Wolf billows with excitement: “I want to make some noise! I want to be that candy that you put in your mouth that is sour and then it turns sweet.”
The directive seems to fit well with the group that is never afraid to ask “why?” and put their art to the test. Because once it passes through their gauntlet of creativity, they are happy to let the world interpret.