Atlanta Delivered on the Hype

By  · Published on September 7th, 2016

Donald Glover’s new comedy meets even my absurd expectations.

After the FX TCA panel in August, I wrote about Atlanta as it relates to the network’s push for more diverse stories and creators behind them. In an article for The Ringer, Allison Herman presented the groundbreaking nature of the show better than anyone else:

“There are no white leads on Atlanta. There are no white writers on Atlanta. There are no white directors on Atlanta.”

White voices have dominated television for decades. Shows like this one and Queen Sugar on OWN are now paving the way for a more representative television landscape. I wish I could say this is why I wrote about the series last month, but I’d be lying. I was just excited.

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I’ve been on the hype train for Atlanta since I saw its ad during the finale of The People v. O.J. Simpson.

30 seconds of Darius (Keith Stanfield), Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), and Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover) on the couch was enough to get me hooked. The promo aired immediately after the series’ depiction of the O.J. verdict, so Darius’s reaction was the first the audience experienced besides their own. I was blown away by the seamless integration between the series and its marketing, but my enthusiasm did not stop there.

I first started following Donald Glover in 2006 when a fellow juvenile linked me to Bro Rape: A Newsline Investigative Report from Derrick Comedy. While I may have outgrown the sketch’s politics, I still admire the group’s pioneering on YouTube. That spelling bee bit remains priceless. I’ve been fanboy since he played Troy Barnes on Community, though my fanaticism reached new heights when I realized he wrote for 30 Rock before appearing in the series. As the show’s format allowed Dan Harmon to experiment with genre and structure, it gave its actors opportunities to demonstrate their range. I saw a rising star; someone with the rare combination of writing and acting prowess that would do big things someday.

And there was Childish Gambino. I unabashedly loved his EP and was envious of his seemingly endless well of talent. I met some of my best friends in college because we both rapped all of the words Freaks and Geeks at a party. I wasn’t as hot on his more recent releases, but I remained impressed with his prolific catalog. Missing his stand up show at my university to judge a debate tournament is one of my bigger regrets. I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to see him do a dual stand-up/rapping set. All of this is to say that when I heard he was producing and starring in a show about an up-and-coming rapper in Atlanta, I had high hopes. I knew he had the raw materials, but anything less impressive than his previous projects would have been a disappointment.

This brings me back to the promo. After it aired, my expectations grew even greater. I had a slice of the lives of these characters and could only hope that the series delivered on its promise of a realistic, witty depiction of a community I knew far too little about. Here’s an important caveat: I can’t attest to the show’s accuracy. I’ve never stepped foot outside of the Atlanta airport and I grew up in a predominantly white, wealthy suburb outside of Washington, D.C. I will, however, default to Justin Charity, a writer for The Ringer who wrote one of the many pieces praising its realism.

What I can speak for is the other aspects of its quality. The series was shot on location and it shows. Director Hiro Murai conveys the geography of each scene with a mastery reserved for the likes of Cary Fukunaga in the first season of True Detective. Okay, after only two episodes and no ridiculous biker heist scene, that may be an overstatement, but his shots of Atlanta’s neighborhoods have a serene beauty to them that reminds me of Fukunaga’s work.

It’s moments of comedy balance the awkward reality of racism with its more serious undertones. One of my favorite bits from the opening episode contrasts the situations in which Earn’s white friend feels comfortable using the N-Word. But these small moments make way for salient commentary. A scene in the second episode depicts the humor and tragedy that results from the constraints black masculinity places on a relationship with a trans woman. These segments help satisfy Glover’s acknowledged attempt to demonstrate “what it feels like to be black in America.” As Todd VanDerWeff notes for Vox, “If there’s one feeling Atlanta captures perfectly, it’s the way that Earn and his friends constantly worry that something terrible might happen – and yet it doesn’t define their lives. They’re aware of their fear, on some level, but they’re not constantly thinking about it. It’s just another piece of who they are.”

Moreover, each character has a distinct voice and personality, with their gags firmly rooted in their backstories and values. The show even has the touches of surrealism, as inspired by Twin Peaks, that dig into the subtext of Earn’s philosophical musings. Just wait for the Nutella sandwich guy to show up and you’ll see what I mean. I could go on and on about the series, but the easiest way to understand its appeal is to watch it yourself. FX even made the first episode available on YouTube and I’ve embedded it below. Just try to watch it without getting hooked.

So far, Glover has succeeded in creating a series that breaks racial barriers in the television production industry, introduces a plethora of interesting characters, and is just plain funny. At first, I was concerned that my admiration for the show’s creator biased my perspective. After observing the critical reaction, I knew it didn’t matter. Glover lover or not, Atlanta will leave you satisfied.

Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10pm on FX.

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