Donald Glover's passion project offers a hilarious, textured look at life in the title city.
Atlanta—the new FX series from creator/writer/star Donald Glover—announces its ambitions before you've seen a single frame of it. It’s right there in the title, which implicitly promises to illuminate not a character or a plot but an entire city.
It's a promise other, lesser TV shows have made before. Dallas, Texas is a city of enormous racial and economic diversity, but Dallas the TV show was almost exclusively about rich white oil barons. Nashville, Tennesse contains 13 diverse counties, but Nashville the TV show keeps itself laser-focused on the singers at the top of the country-western music industry.
Atlanta, too, zeroes in on a narrower subset of its title city; having seen four episodes, I feel confident in predicting the series will never visit the CNN Center or the Coca-Cola Museum. But at a time when Atlanta's most prominent presence on TV is a bombed-out wasteland in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, Atlanta manages to say a lot without turning into one of those TV shows that's self-conscious and self-satisfied about Saying Something.
Donald Glover plays Earnest "Earn" Marks, a broke, aspirational part-time credit card salesman with dreams of a better future. Spending his nights with the mother of his infant daughter—but "technically homeless," as the series repeatedly reminds us—Earn sees opportunity when he learns that his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) is "Paper Boi," a rapper whose mixtape is beginning to garner attention in Atlanta's underground music scene. In an effort to get in on the ground floor, Earn wheedles his way into a side gig as Paper Boi's manager—an opportunity that seems less appealing when Paper Boi ends up in the middle of a shooting.
So far, so good—except maybe that's not what Atlanta is about at all. On a different series, the shooting would be the dramatic powder keg that propels the entire season forward. Here, it's merely an opportunity to spend an episode showing us the inner workings of an Atlanta correctional facility: a glum, fluorescent-lit holding pen where people trade jokes and insults while waiting for someone to post their bail. It's a remarkable episode of television—hilarious and character-driven while tackling everything from police brutality to mental illness in a manner that's as brief as it is potent.
Blackness is essential to Atlanta, but Glover also bristles at the lofty labels typically associated with this kind of show.
Atlanta continues on in this pattern, forging its own narrative trail by zigging where television tends to zag. Qualities that would be character-defining on a more conventional series—like a blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to Earn dropping out of Princeton—are introduced without any immediate payoff. Instead, we're given a series of impressionistic snapshots covering a wide swath of Atlanta and its residents, and designed—as Glover explains it—"to show people how it felt to be black."
Blackness is essential to Atlanta, but Glover also bristles at the lofty labels typically associated with this kind of show. ("I'm not interested in making something important," he told The Daily Beast The largely rapturous critical response to Atlanta only further demonstrates the need for it. Critics, attempting to find analogues for what Atlanta is accomplishing, have struggled to find any consistent points of reference. Mother Jones dubiously praises the series as "the black Master of None." Many reviewers have cited parallels to Empire, a series that shares an interest in both music and blackness but is otherwise totally different. It's unfair that any TV show created by a black person is weighted with the extra cultural baggage of speaking for the entire black community—but in an industry that's still embarrassing in its widespread lack of diversity, the show's importance is magnified.
But that's not the only thing Atlanta is doing—which is why it's also so important to acknowledge that Atlanta is just a great TV show, full stop. It's textured and smart and laugh-out-loud funny, featuring scenes packed with so much carefully calibrated banter that they almost feel musical. The observational humor is frequently rich and human in its insights. Take, for example, an episode when Earn takes his quasi-girlfriend on a disastrous restaurant date. With just $67 in his pocket, Earn discovers too late that the cheap tapas bar he had carefully selected has since been converted into a high-end seafood restaurant. ("Ooh, we’ve got a hipster!" the perky waitress grins when he glumly flails to keep costs down by ordering a Miller High Life.) Every new menu item, casually and obliviously ordered, is a punch in the gut for a man who spent the morning arguing with a fast-food worker about whether an adult can order a kid's meal—and, by extension, for the audience.
These are the kinds of small, grounded micro-conflicts that give Atlanta such a rich sense of reality—which is why it's so intriguing that the same episode offsets Earn's humiliating dinner with a surreal, over-the-top drug deal orchestrated by Paper Boi, which goes hilariously wrong when his buddy Darius (Keith Stanfield) loses the key to the handcuffs he used to attach a briefcase to his wrist. It's a testament to Atlanta that these two stories—one small and bitter and deeply felt, one broad and violent and wacky, of all things—can exist comfortably in not just the same universe, but the same episode.
That's why, if we need to draw comparisons, I prefer the pitch Glover repeatedly, half-jokingly made in the run-up to the show's premiere: "Twin Peaks with rappers." It's a cute line, but it's also a closer analogue than you might think: a strong roster of eccentric characters, a marvelously textured sense of place, and a bald, bow-tied, possibly imaginary stranger who appears to dispense cryptic life advice to the protagonist.
More than anything, Atlanta feels—like Twin Peaks—like the rare series on which anything really can happen. In just a few episodes, Donald Glover and his collaborators have turned the title city into a marvelous engine for generating stories—and if this is just the beginning, I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.