Review: Donald Glover does something very different — and very good — in 'Atlanta'
"The thesis with the show was kind of to show people how it felt to be black, and you can’t really write that down. You kind of have to feel it."
This was Donald Glover a few weeks ago at the TCA press tour, trying to explain his new FX series Atlanta, which he created in addition to playing the lead role. It's not the sentiment you'd expect to hear from Glover if you're a fan of his role as weepy jock-turned-nerd Troy Barnes on Community, or his role as the astrodynamics nerd who saves the day in The Martian, or even his side job as rapper Childish Gambino. It's not just that Glover's onscreen persona (both on Community and in his time with the Derrick Comedy troupe) is of the black guy to whom white people can easily relate — who makes and gets the same references we do, and whose allusions to black culture can be perceived as having air quotes around them. (The Childish Gambino moniker, after all, came from an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator.) It's that, whether as an actor or writer (he was on staff for at 30 Rock for a bit), Glover is known not only for comedy, but an unapologetically silly and overt brand of it. A show about how it feels to be black, that's conveyed more in the feeling of it than what anybody says or jokes about — and add Atlanta to the list of recent half-hour series that are only sometimes interested in behaving like a comedy — isn't what most people would have assumed Glover's first post-Community series would be.
And he knows it. At that same press conference, he acknowledged that Atlanta would be viewed as a departure by many of his fans, and, "Some of them will be, like, 'Oh, that’s cool.' Some of them will be, like, 'I hate this thing. I don’t get him.' That happens a lot. I think people are always, like, 'I don’t get this guy,' like, 'I don’t understand him.' And that’s, I think, good... really good, actually."
But if Atlanta is a surprise, it's frequently an excellent one. (I've seen the first four episodes of the series, which debuts Tuesday night at 10.) Glover is new to creating a series on this scale, just as his lead director, music video veteran Hiro Murai, is new to this kind of narrative fiction, and where sometimes rookies make obvious rookie mistakes, Glover and Murai's relative inexperience results in a show that looks, feels, and sounds like nothing else on TV. There's a bit of DNA in common with the many other quasi-mumblecore half-hours, but stylistically and tonally, Atlanta is its own absorbing, and at times surprisingly funny, thing.
Glover stars as Earnest "Earn" Marks. He has a job selling credit cards at the airport that pays him very little, since he works on commission and few travelers care to stop and talk about interest rates. He's technically homeless: though he spends most nights staying with his girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) and their baby daughter, Van dates other men and makes clear that Earn's sleeping arrangements are subject to cancellation at a moment's notice if he doesn't start pulling his weight. (His father — played by Clay Davis himself, Isiah Whitlock Jr. — won't even let Earn inside the family house anymore, after being disappointed one time too many.) Seeking both direction and a better way to make money, he attempts to manage the career of his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who raps under the name Paper Boi while selling drugs on the side with roommate Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) to pay his own rent.
Early in the premiere episode, there's a scene that comments on Glover's position as white America's black friend. Earn tries to get his white friend Dave to arrange for a local radio station to play the first Paper Boi track, but Dave is more interested in telling him an allegedly hilarious story whose punchline involves Flo Rida and liberal, casual use of the N-word. Later, Earn runs into Dave while hanging out with the more intimidating Alfred and Darius, and invites him to tell them the Flo Rida story; a nervous Dave stammers out a pointless version that omits the N-word, and quickly excuses himself.
Dave is one of the few white people of note in the early Atlanta episodes. Earn can navigate that world, but he lives in a different one, where the accents and slang occasionally makes the dialogue, especially that of some of the local actors who pop up for a scene or two, all but indecipherable. (There are conversations that all but beg for one side of them to be subtitled, in the same way I have to watch Happy Valley with the closed captioning on.) But, as Glover suggested to the TCA, what's being said is less important than the way it's said, and the way that, no matter the context or people around him, Earn so rarely feels in control over anything in his life.
It's a show as much about class as race, as we see Earn constantly struggle to assemble even the necessary funds to pay for a meal: in one episode, a fast food manager won't let him buy a kids' meal, even though that's all he can afford, while in another, he takes Van to an unexpectedly fancy restaurant where the waitress keeps upselling them, much to his dismay. At one point, Darius proposes a scheme where Earn could triple his money over a period of several months; a frustrated Earn replies that "poor people don't have time for investments, because poor people are busy trying not to be poor."
Murai and the other directors shoot the series in a way that feels simultaneously raw and dreamlike, where strange and violent things can occur around Earn and it almost feels like they can't have happened. Alfred is more grounded and self-aware than his cousin — "I scare people at ATMs, boy! I have to rap!" he notes at one point — but even he and Darius occasionally wander into a moment that seems more out of a fable than a dramedy about Atlanta hip-hop and drug culture.
Glover hasn't completely abandoned his comic roots, and the show's jokes can sneak up on you, like a running gag in the fourth episode about a social media-obsessed Paper Boi fan whose ethnicity nobody seems able to identify. Most of the comedy comes from Stanfield's eccentric, deadpan drawl, which at times makes Darius feel like if Steven Wright started out working on a drug corner.
In the third episode, Earn tries to convince Van to be patient with him as he embarks on this new venture, because, "Humans need a chance to fail in order to discover what works."
It would have been very easy for Glover to do something safe with Atlanta — something broader, more accessible and overtly comedic, or maybe something trading off Gambino, where he played the would-be rap star. Instead, he wanted a chance to fail, and while not all of Atlanta works yet, it absolutely has that immersive quality Glover was hoping for. There's only so much even a great TV show can do to show a white audience how it feels to be black, but I feel like I understand Earn, and his world, much better than I ever would have expected to when I first heard Glover was leaving Community to make a rap comedy for FX.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org