Donald Glover is without question one of the most talented men in show business. A writer, stand-up comedian, rapper who goes under the nom du guerre Childish Gambino) and actor, Glover succeeds in whatever area of the entertainment industry he dabbles in. For his next and most ambitious project to date, Glover created the FX television show “Atlanta,” which he stars in, writes, directs and produces to fantastic effect. “Atlanta”’s first season proves the series to be one of the most surreal, atmospheric, real-to-life comedy shows to air on television in a long time, a new stand-out in our current Golden Age of TV.
“Atlanta” follows the life of Princeton University drop-out Earn (Glover) as he attempts to manage the up-and-coming rap career of his cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), get along with Paper Boi’s stoner best friend Darius (Keith Stanfield) and sort out his relationship with Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his child. Glover describes the show as “‘Twin Peaks’ with rappers,” and that description certainly does apply to similar surreal undercurrents and oddball side characters of both shows. Nevertheless, while the best episodes of “Twin Peaks” were those that delved into that show’s central murder mystery to go along with the development of its absurdist characters, “Atlanta” is unafraid to eschew season-long plot structure in favor of focusing on singular stories that cultivate the show’s unique atmosphere. For example, the season’s seventh episode is entirely dedicated to Paper Boi’s appearance on a BET-esque talk show as well as the fake advertisements that air during the talk show’s commercial breaks. This episode, especially its fake advertisements, feels more similar to the shows on Adult Swim rather than the “prestige comedy” shows on networks like HBO to which critics are comparing “Atlanta.” In this case, the series is all the better for it.
Another fantastic aspect of the show is its authentic feel. The series’ actors contribute greatly to this, with captivating performances coming from each of the four main cast members that all play well off of each other. The standouts are Henry as Paper Boi and Stanfield as Darius, with their respective annoyed and spacey personalities complementing Glover’s straight man to powerful comedic effect. “Atlanta”’s writing and setting also contribute to the show’s lived-in feel. The decision to shoot the show entirely in Atlanta with absolutely gorgeous cinematography to boot makes the locations all the more believable, but the situations that the characters are placed in sets this series apart from other television shows.
Whereas other popular shows like “Friends” or “Modern Family” claim to portray the lives of “regular” people, these shows’ characters actually have lifestyles that are much more in line with those of the wealthy upper class. In “Atlanta,” the characters are struggling to merely get by, just as many regular Americans have to. In one episode, Earn realizes he is so broke he might not even have the cash to pay for a nice meal during a date with Van without completely emptying his bank account. Rapper Paper Boi, who under a different creative vision might be portrayed as glamorous and wealthy beyond belief, has to resort to selling drugs to make money. “Atlanta” doesn’t merely highlight real economic woes though, as its exploration of modern black culture provides social commentary worthy of the finest dramas while also mixing in its distinct absurdist humor. From the inadequacy of inner city public school systems in the form of a white-face wearing black boy to the brutality of police against African-Americans in the form of unwarranted violence against a chocolate cereal mascot, the show sends important messages while retaining its entertainment value. In these ways, “Atlanta” doesn’t seem to be working hard to make its characters and their stories relatable. It just feels natural.
“Atlanta” is funny, thought-provoking, strange and incredibly original. Glover’s grandest experiment yet has paid off in every way, as his show deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other shows in the upper echelon of modern television achievement. I would highly recommend watching “Atlanta,” for if its first season is anything to go by, we may have a new modern classic on our hands.