UPDATE: FX has thrown the first episode of Atlanta on YouTube and Facebook to see for free if you missed last night’s premiere. Check it out below
Pride, debauchery, music, and pride flow through Atlanta’s veins, but how do you capture all of that in a single shot? By reveling in and transcending the beauty of the Peach State, Donald Glover’s dramedy Atlanta is grounded in its own lofty ambitions. As contemporary hip-hop’s massive cultural hub, how could it not be? For all the music and trips to Magic City that always make the news, there’s a middle class thriving in the face of gentrification. For every larger than life star like Outkast or Future, there are bold independent forces like 21 Savage or Rae Sremmurd; and for every one of those that break through the ceiling, there’s thousands of young black kids still in the streets laying their own path to victory, brick by brick. With just two episodes under its belt, Atlanta is already proving to be hilarious in its portrayal of people circling the drain of Twitter fame, late rent payments, and white obliviousness; a virtual Instagram post of an impressionistic painting bombed on the side of a concrete wall.
Even in an entire industry of hustlers, few have walked the path Glover has. From his humble days as a member of Derrick Comedy to the Wu-Tang Name Generator that led to the birth of Childish Gambino to the calculated rollout of Pharos and his new R&B album(?) at his music festival in Joshua Tree, CA this past weekend, he’s continuing to define Black Excellence on his own terms. Critics have always accused Glover of being too “white” to appeal to a Black audience, his music too much of a hipster pastiche to really leave an impact. “I know when I go to Baltimore, when I go to D.C., it’s like 50-50 — half of them are like, ‘I love this dude, this dude’s cool.’ And the other half are like, ‘This coon-ass dude,’ ” he elaborated in an interview with Vulture back in August. “But I have no hate in my heart for no black person ever. Because we’re in a position where the system has fucked us up so bad we can’t always trust each other.”
His character Earnest “Earn” Marks embodies that middle ground. He’s a slick college dropout/wannabe rap manager surfing between his baby mother/best friend Van (Zazie Beetz) and his parents’ couches while holding down an airport security job. He’s an opportunist with a heart of gold and enough drive to finesse his way into a radio station by befriending a janitor who sees big money when he comes across a music video by his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry). The two set up a working relationship that starts with radio play in episode 1 and ends with jail time and a rumor surrounding Paper Boi’s involvement in a shooting at the beginning of episode 2.
This puts Paper Boi and his dealer Daruis (Keith Stanfield) in the crosshairs of Rap Twitter, who immediately pick up on the story that even has cops busting themselves for selfies. While Paper Boi deals with the consequences of his newfound fame, Earn deals with the Atlanta prison system in a waiting room that’s as much an Atlantean hub as anything else we’ve seen. But all the cop beatings and awkward relationship conversations can prepare him to head back home; you could hear a pin drop when Earn first opens the car door after Van bails him out.
All of these scenes are filmed with a stillness and stark sense of drama that you rarely see in TV comedy, courtesy of director Hiro Murai. Murai rose to prominence as a music video director, particularly for Glover and Flying Lotus, but his style fits perfectly into this universe.
So far, Atlanta has already found the dark comedy in various struggles of the contemporary Black experience. The uneasy feeling when a white person says “nigga” in any context. The jarring nature of police brutality. “Authenticity” in hip-hop. The complexities of casual dating when a child is thrown into the mix. Family obligations. Latent and reflexive homophobia. It’s all presented unfiltered and without pretense or baggage attached except for what you as the viewer bring.
Earn and Paper Boi are two cousins living out their dreams on each other’s terms, and that relationship is gonna drive the rest of the series. But for now, Atlanta is shaping up to be the pixel and the big picture of the Black Experience in America; by black writers and showrunners, for black audiences, but if you’re hip, you can keep up.