No Place Like Home: Donald Glover and His “Atlanta”

By: Jordan Ferguson

Three years ago I trudged my sleepy, nightshift-working ass down to Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park on a cold and drizzly day in November just to listen to some music get played off of an iPhone through an aux cord. The music in question was a then-forthcoming album from Childish Gambino, the rapping alter ego of writer/actor/ comedian Donald Glover. The iPhone was Glover’s, who tweeted that morning his plan to hold the impromptu listening session in the park that afternoon. He played the record[1] through some cheap amplifiers and answered a few questions from the hundreds of people who’d gathered to see him, some shimmying up nearby trees to get a better view. His final episodes on Community, the beloved and acclaimed sitcom that blasted his gifts for timing and comedic inflection onto a national stage were wrapping up by the end of that calendar year, and industry scuttlebutt reported he was developing a new show for the FX network. He’d taken to wearing a threadbare V-neck tee and floral print shorts in most media appearances, seated cross-legged on chat show couches, his beard and hair grown out to a bohemian circumference.

For anyone who became a fan on the strength of his stand-up, acting, or first musical breakthrough, 2011’s compelling (if uneven) Camp, Glover’s shifts in attitude and ambition were seeming a thorny road to follow him down. Yet any concern trolling I or anyone else might have engaged in following Glover’s marked shift towards the weird is obliterated by the triumphant debut of that show he left Community to make: Atlanta.

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Paper Boi, Darius and Earn Marks of “Atlanta”.

Atlanta is the story of Earn (Glover), a Princeton dropout who’s boomeranged home to the titular city for as yet undisclosed reasons. He lives with his daughter’s mother Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), while not being with her, and tries to scrape a living together working a job selling credit cards on commission at the airport.  When Earn discovers that his cousin Al (Bryan Tyree Henry) is bubbling up in the streets as a mixtape rapper named Paper Boi, Earn sees an opportunity to finally make something of his life and lobbies Al to take him on as his manager.

A simple plot synopsis does the show a disservice; it’s playing with more complicated ideas than what’s usually found in popular entertainment set in the world of rap.[2] In the way it deals with issues of race, class, poverty and failure, it stands in stark contrast to something like The Get Down, another recent series rooted in hip-hop. Whereas that show is a backwards-looking beautiful mess, Atlanta feels fully positioned in the present, itself a bold move in a television landscape where every new series attempts to score a sheen of prestige by setting itself in a bygone era.[3] It is so vitally of this moment, it leaves something like The Get Down, a show I liked despite its flaws, looking like a dusty tchotchke by comparison.[4]

Also differing itself from something like The Get Down is the way it views success in hip-hop. Music isn’t a ticket out of anywhere in Atlanta, there’s no glamour to be found in getting over as a recording artist, no industry exec offering a limo ride and a seven-figure advance. It’s just the tiniest step on a ten-mile road. If anything, the show tackles notions of poverty in ways few programs have before it. This isn’t the extreme poverty of the projects and welfare lines mined for laughs through the plucky perseverance of the people oppressed by it, this is the poverty of paying your rent and all of your bills on time and not having enough left over to feed yourself or travel back to the job that pays you so little in the first place. In the series’ third episode, Earn tries to step up and prove he can be responsible by taking Vanessa out for a nice dinner, on sixty dollars or less. It’s a plan that only works if Van knows the budget, but Earn can’t bring himself to be honest with her. As she orders glasses of wine and market-price seafood he shrivels in discomfort and slowly unravels before snapping on the waitress and ultimately calling Al to transfer him a few bucks before reporting his debit card stolen at the end of the night.[5] This is the sort of treadmill that millions of us are running on. Atlanta is the rare show that finds that story worth telling.

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Earn tries his best with Vanessa (to comedic effect).

A proud member of the David Simon School of “Fuck You” Storytelling[6], Atlanta has no time for exposition. It just drops you into the lives of these characters, and trusts the viewer to decipher the relationships and piece together histories from tossed off lines of dialogue. Earn isn’t some audience avatar, he isn’t figuring out a new situation along with the viewers. This story is his life, he doesn’t need to spend five minutes of airtime explaining to a cab driver, blind date or coffee barista how he ended up in his current predicament. He doesn’t need to fill in our blanks, whether that’s how and why Earn left Princeton or what his relationship with Al’s been like in recent years. These details are deftly threaded throughout the episodes, showing a level of respect for the audience’s intelligence and attention spans often lacking in half-hour television comedies, if this show even qualifies as a straight comedy.[7] If there’s one criticism to be made of the show at this early stage, it’s that the tone can seem a little scattered, a fact that will likely be off-putting to some viewers. It’s the sort of show that can be both hysterically funny and uncomfortably tense: one moment Al’s stoner partner Darius[8] is conducting a thought experiment about the plausibility of using rats as cellular phones, the next a mentally ill man is being beat down by cops in a downtown holding pen. Some people might find that erratic storytelling. Others might just call it life.

Despite shifting priorities for television networks, the fall season remains an oppressive time for viewers; the level of choice available is well beyond what any sane person can reasonably manage. The fear is that a show like Atlanta gets lost under the avalanche of new programs that come every September. Airing on FX affords it some leeway; a second season past the initial 10-episode order is likely a given despite how it performs, considering the acclaim it’s already garnered. But that’s a pyrrhic victory if the show can’t catch any eyeballs. Which would be unfortunate, because Atlanta is better than most of what you’re already watching, and actually tells a story you haven’t seen before, which in 2016 might be the last revolutionary act a television show can perform.

——–

Jordan Ferguson ain’t got shit to do but fall in love with you. Subscribe to the Geekdown Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud.

[1]2013’s Grammy-nominated Because the Internet.

[2] Don’t come to Atlanta looking for the delicious trash of something like Empire.

[3] Mad Men, Halt & Catch Fire, Narcos, The Americans, ad infinitum…

[4] Not every show about the Southern rap scene would have the balls to use Tame Impala in its promo spot.

[5] Truth be told, the whole sequence was a little too real for a guy who meets numerous beautiful women in this city, but doesn’t have the disposable income to date them.

[6] Go back and watch the first episode of The Wire. Tell me you understand anything that happens for the first 30 minutes.

[7] During a preview for the Television Critics Association earlier this year, Glover said his aspiration for the show was to make “Twin Peaks with rappers.”

[8] Played by Straight Outta Compton’s Keith Stanfield, who effortlessly steals every scene he’s in.

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