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Atlanta Season One Review

December 15, 2016

There is no greater enigma in entertainment today than Donald Glover. His television show Atlanta, which he wrote and now stars in, cements this status. His varied credentials include a stint as a writer on 30 Rock, a cast member of the cult favorite TV show Community, and a recording career as rapper Childish Gambino. His return to TV writing shows that he has developed into an innovative artist capable of effectively and creatively communicating his unique worldview. In Atlanta, he proves that there are absolutely no creative boundaries for him; he operates as a true artist that refuses to be labeled.  

Much like its creator, Atlanta is a difficult show to pinpoint, especially in terms of plot. This is because there really is none to speak of. More or less, it follows the day-to-day lives of Earn Marks (Glover), a twenty-something Princeton dropout turned music manager and his cousin Alfred “Paperboi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) as they attempt to survive the rap industry in Atlanta. However, the music industry angle is abandoned several times, as Marks and Miles get swept up in the law, parties, the press, and their own personal lives. There are even entire episodes where Marks and Miles are absent. Atlanta emphasizes mood, character, and strong satire over plot, a feature that distinguishes it from other shows on TV.

Donald Glover in Atlanta. Courtesy of NPR.

With its half-hour standalone episodes, Atlanta feels like a reinvention of the American sitcom. It echoes the famous “show about nothing” format of Seinfeld and the breed of sitcoms it inspired.  This seemingly simple format becomes surreal in Glover’s hands as he uses it to craft a show that constantly rails against the repetitious and meaningless nature of most modern sitcoms. This is a show that takes a format that seems small and unambitious and uses it to make a powerful, insightful, and hilarious critique on society and humanity.

While it borrows the sitcom format, Atlanta does not look like a sitcom. The majority of episodes are directed by Hiro Murai, a director who has worked predominately in music videos, including in some of Glover’s. Murai brings a cinematic and stylized look to the series, using unusual and off-center camera angles that emphasize blank space. This is filmmaking one may see on HBO in an hour-long drama, not an FX half-hour comedy. There is also a sense of realism to the look of the series, as it was shot on location in Atlanta. Glover knows Atlanta as a city and the people that inhabit it, and he says that his experiences informed the show. This makes the surreal elements of Atlanta jarring and unexpected, but Murai reminds us with his offbeat direction that the surreal is just another part of Marks’ unstable life.

Continuing in the tradition of TV shows like Twin Peaks and The Sopranos, Atlanta attempts to weave surrealism with television entertainment. Glover relishes the opportunity to baffle his audience, which usually results in memorably hilarious moments. Even in the very first episode, he introduces a bizarre walk-on character that utters truthful reflections on life while forcing a Nutella sandwich on Marks while riding a public bus. This is a scene that Glover must have known made little to no sense, but it remains incredibly entertaining and gripping because of its incongruity. The surrealism of Atlanta further exemplifies the personal nature of this TV show, as Glover weaves in these hallucinatory sequences that seem to be torn straight from his unique psyche, completely unedited and pure.

Keith Stanfield and Brian Tyree Henry in Atlanta. Courtesy of IndieWire.

All of these influences may sound like Glover is simply taking whatever he likes in other shows and creating a bizarre pastiche out of them, but this is far from what he has planned. He is drawing on the things he loves, both in art and reality, to craft a deeply personal portrayal of what life in the city of Atlanta means to him. Atlanta is a powerful melding of style and content that perfectly reflects a singular artistic vision, a rarity in television.

Race is an issue that is central to Atlanta’s identity as a show, and Glover as an artist and individual. There is a strong focus on the idea of cultural appropriation, a subject that Glover repeatedly and creatively criticizes. A highlight of the show for me was the character of Craig Allen (Rick Holmes), a wealthy white man that harbors feelings of guilt for his family’s slave-owning past and becomes obsessed with black culture to a hilariously uncomfortable point. While Allen’s scenes are generally on the comedic side, it raises important questions about cultural appropriation. Glover is not afraid to write about what is close to his heart, and he encapsulates his feelings about race relations perfectly in Atlanta.

Zadie Beetz and Donald Glover in Atlanta. Courtesy of FX Networks

In his writing for Atlanta, Glover is especially indignant of masculinity. A scene in the series’ second episode, “Streets on Lock,” best exemplifies his views. We see the gradual breakdown of a man waiting to be released from prison as he is belittled for his genuine love of a transgender woman. He is accused of being gay, an unmasculine concept in his mind, and he responds with outrage and embarrassment. He shouts homophobic slurs and denounces to the woman he loves, just as his accusers did. This is a devastating scene that shows how obsessed with masculinity men today can be, even to the point that they would demean the person they love. I had trouble holding back tears in this scene.

Sometimes lost in all the surrealism and social commentary of Atlanta is Glover’s brilliant sense of humor and comedic timing.  This is definitely one of the funniest shows on television, and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) is certainly the funniest character on television. He is a drug dealer who possesses quite the arsenal of weapons, yet he exudes a drugged-out innocence that is consistently amusing. He speaks in memorable non-sequiturs, with my personal favorite line being, “If we spent the time we spent thinking about not spending money and spent that time on spending money, then it’d be time well spent.” A character this strange and seemingly unimportant to the overall show feels somewhat out-of-place in the world Glover has crafted, but Glover’s writing allows even the out-of-place to exist in his vision of Atlanta. The bizarre is just another element of his ambitious writing, and it results in hilarious moments and amusing characters like Darius.

For all of its astute social criticism and surrealistic imagery, Atlanta would be a mere curiosity if it weren’t built on the foundation of strong characters and complex relationships. The most fascinating relationship exists between Marks and his on-and-off again girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz). They have a child, and while Mark is a devoted father, there is constant conflict between the parents. Most of this is related to Marks’ lack of money and ability to support his child. He also spends his time partying with his cousin and ends up in trouble, ranging from affairs to shootings. Van describes this relationship in one of the series’ many profound emotional moments, as she tells him, “I hate you, but you’re a good daddy.” Marks gives her a coy smile, and recedes into the Atlanta nighttime, bouncing home-to-home, searching for money and a purpose.

The most complex and fascinating character in Atlanta is Alfred “Paperboi” Miles, portrayed in a nuanced performance by Brian Tyree Henry. He possesses a dominating physical presence, a characteristic that works to his advantage in crafting a character full of contradictions. Over the course of the season, Miles is fixated on the idea of the traditional gangsta rapper persona, a violent and profane character he can transform himself into for celebrity’s sake. But as the season proceeds, he seems to adapt this persona for personal purposes. This is depicted in one of the best scenes of the series, where Miles explains to one of his harshest critics why he raps. He passionately explains, “That’s what rap is, making the best out of a bad situation.” He scares people with his physical appearance, and rap is all he has. Henry grounds his character in a simple yet powerful performance that walks a delicate line between a character that seems repulsive yet is completely relatable.

With characters and relationships that feel completely real, bizarre dream-like imagery, and powerful social themes,  Atlanta is clearly Glover’s passion project. It is with this passion that Glover subverts racial stereotypes and provides hilarious and truthful satire on the world we live in. He creates characters that could easily be seen walking down a street in Atlanta, or anywhere in America. More than any other show on TV, Atlanta feels real, even when an invisible car shows up. It is absolutely unpredictable, as life always is. This show is a snapshot of the political and social situations of the present, and I eagerly look forward to seeing what more Glover has to say about America next season.

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