In the premiere of Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta, a deliberate anti-show, his broke, industrious protagonist Earnest Marks tries to gain a favor from a white friend who works at a local radio station. Failing at the power of persuasion, Earnest tells Dave, “I’m not ‘every dude,’” a statement we know to be false. Because Earnest is precisely that. “Uh, you kind of are,” Dave responds. Atlanta, in a nutshell, is Glover’s proof that a story about a black everyman within the rarely depicted blue-collar framework of hip-hop can be just as interesting as any other.
To achieve that goal, Atlanta had to be intentionally sparse. Instead of blaring drama or drenching sarcasm, the show packs its leisurely paced episodes (the first two aired last night) with loaded monotone statements, blank stares and weighted glances. (Even in its previous trailers, nothing really happens.) Implicit in these moments is deeper commentary about rap, capitalism, guns, love, masculinity, survival, systems, cultural tipping points and black identity—in a deceptively mild-mannered package.
The initial four episodes (provided as screeners via FX) feel designed for the jaded, excruciatingly observant rap and/or internet obsessor who loves and criticizes these cultures with equal fervor. Like us, the material takes a stab at figuring out what it means to traffic in brokeness, blackness and rap shit with subtle levels of seriousness and cynicism. It masters that sweet spot where nothing and everything happens. Dually, the show is as much a wellspring for TV artistes who fish for offbeat content. It’s as good as everyone’s saying.
At the center of this drama about the exploration of struggle in a big city where people feel small is a penniless black dude (Earnest, or Earn for short) who reconnects with his estranged cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry)—an aspiring rapper nicknamed Paper Boi, who notes resentfully that Earn hasn’t spoken to him since his mom’s funeral. Together with Paper Boi’s friend Darius (Keith Stanfield, who plays the sidekick role stupidly well), they seek out some version of fame. Paper Boi initially rejects Earn’s offer to become his manager—“I need Malcolm. You too Martin,” he says—before eventually caving. It makes sense that a show like this comes from the mind of Glover, a Georgia-raised actor with a brand as an internet weirdo comedian who moonlights as Childish Gambino, a rapper who makes a living as a contentious black fringe player popular amongst the nebulously-defined hipster set. Those are the divisive sensibilities that color this series made in Glover’s straight-faced image. Its point, it seems, is to make viewers settle in and parse all the seemingly small things in life, because life and relationships are really about those middle moments.
As such, the lines are designed to be read between. In Episode 1, when Earn’s boy Dave recaps a story about Flo Rida, he retells it twice, first to Earnest, a black man to whom he feels safe saying “nigga” (the punchline is “Really, nigga?”) because Earnest seems safe. Earn later forces Dave to tell the story again when they’re in company with Paper Boi and Darius. The second time, as you might guess, Dave neglects the “nigga.” The scene lets the story tell itself. “I don’t know, man, I like Flo Rida,” says Darius, confounded. “Moms need to enjoy rap, too.”
These first four episodes find smart ways to comment on and toy with cliché through observation. In Episode 2, after landing in jail, Earn finds himself in the same room as a man who drinks toilet water and wonders out loud, “Why is he in here every week? He look like he need help.” In another scene, when a neighborhood boy imitates Paper Boi by slinging a water gun on the sidewalk, the implications are understood. Paper Boi pops up to advise the boy that, “Shooting people isn’t cool.” The boy’s mom is already sidetracked, though, more focused on getting a picture with a future rap star.
Lack of bombast is precisely what makes the series pop. Minimalist strokes exist because of a self-awareness in the writing and execution. What’s potentially frustrating to people who want absolute theses is that whatever statements are made aren’t decisive and that the show is content to frolic in muddiness, presenting ideas for the public to dissect on its own. It’s fun to watch nonetheless. And visually, the scenery is just as thoughtful and patient as the content, with wide snapshots of Atlanta blocks and overheads of building tops and freeways, with a dirty color contrast. Just as comforting is that the visuals are overlaid with ambient sounds of a city that’s full of life and yet not often depicted substantially on TV. Mid-commute, over the droning hum of a bus engine, Earn tells-slash-asks a strange, black-sage-archetype passenger, “I just keep losing. I mean, some people just supposed to lose? For balance in the universe? I mean, like, are there just some people on Earth who supposed to be here just to make it easier for the winners.” You don’t get the sense that Earn is “smarter” than his friends, but he is an adjacent outsider. Paper Boi is perceptive, and so is his right-hand man Darius, though the latter’s layers are willfully hidden under the pretense that he’s high and loopy all the time. For a generation that favors over-explanation, Atlanta consciously plays with, and against, type in this way.
It’s probably predictable to wish for more interaction between Earn and Van (Zazie Beetz), but I’ll do it anyway. The mother of his daughter (who lets him stay in her place) and the show’s only female supporting character, thus far she’s seen primarily in passing. Their relationship is secondary to the storyline about him and his rap friends. When we do get those moments, though, there’s clear history behind what’s said, even if there’s no visible drama. You can tell they used to be something good and that Earn wants some of that back. “You know, you’re lucky that I like corny ass dudes,” she tells him.
In conversation among friends recently, the Netflix series Love came up, namely the fact that it’s a simple take on a rom-com about two terrible, regular white people who may or may not fall in love. It’s truly a show about nothing. It’s been renewed for a second season. For anyone who wishes for a down home show about contemporary black life, Atlanta is something reliably special.