Leading up to the release of Donald Glover’s new FX series, Atlanta, there wasn’t much to go off of but a name, which took us on a one-way flight down south, a series of short clips with very little plot development, and Donald’s indication that the TV series would delve into what it’s like to be black. While the storyline follows the lives of African-American men leading “dollar and a dream” lifestyles as they attempt to carve out rap careers of their own, Atlanta is far from the stereotype. In fact, it’s not the black narrative that we could’ve foreseen, but the realistic one that we probably needed.
If you’re looking for action-packed episodes with twists and turns, this isn’t it. To say the least, the series – to which Donald wrote, directed, executive produced, and starred in – progresses sort of like a slow-roasting chicken. In fact, “slow” wouldn’t even be the word to accurately account for the sluggish pace established in the first three episodes. But it takes time to unthaw the characters and flesh out the plot. In turn, the story only develops when Earn (played by Glover) decides to abandon his uneventful post at the airport and follow his instinct to becoming a manager for his cousin, up-and-coming rapper, Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry).
You can try to take the hustler out of the hood, but you can’t take the hood out of the hustler. A ballsy stunt in the first episode seems to have worked its magic on Paper Boi and his righthand man (who is balancing somewhere in between philosophical genius and high as hell) Darius’ (Keith Stanfield) reputation, but it presents a bit of a dilemma for Earn.
At the moment, Earn is in a homeless limbo, sometimes staying at his parent’s house or with Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his infant daughter. He’s barely got a job and his lethargic, sometimes narcissistic persona might be just the thing that’s holding him back from truly achieving a successful career and a happy ending with Van and his family. In just a few episodes, Glover has married his leading cast’s carpe diem desires with the day-to-day duties of paying rent and being a present father. It’s a plain Jane, run-of-the-mill come-up story, but here’s why it works: it’s honest.
Glover has written out a slice of life that doesn’t err on the side of being politically correct or making a social statement. The reactions of the black men waiting in prison when a regularly-arrested, mentally ill man drinks out of the toilet or a man being reunited with his ex-girlfriend whom he realizes is transgender, isn’t censored. In its honesty, it may have shed light onto holes in the black community when it comes to sexuality and disabilities, but it presents the issues authentically without lingering.
Glover, whose stage name is Childish Gambino, is known for bringing a certain awkwardness to the table. That same vibe is presented in Atlanta. The series is coated with dry humor and social detachment that sometimes makes you cringe but also connects to blackness as it is today. For example, Earn runs into an old, Caucasian buddy, who now works at a big radio station. When the friend recalls a story at a party using the N-word as his punchline, Earn is forced to do one of two things: cuss him out or laugh it off. In the moment, he chooses to laugh it off, but returns the favor when he asks his friend to recall the same story in front of Paper Boi and Darius. And let’s just say the story has some minor tweaks the second time around. It’s that sort of comedic relief that makes it relatable.
While the writing is simplistic in many ways, it speaks to the power of the cast that brings it to life. Henry and Stanfield hold it down in terms of capturing the essence of merely living. And Beetz, the show’s only female lead thus far, gives a particular sophistication and attitude that is needed among an otherwise male-dominated world. Thirty-minute episodes don’t seem like enough time to give them the spotlight they desire, but it’s something that Glover can flesh out with practice as the season continues.
Unfortunately, the show’s scope probably isn’t wide enough to reach a huge TV audience, but it’s narrative is much appreciated in a sea of dramas, thrillers and slap-stick comedies. Atlanta is far from anything seen on cable right now and although it may show what it’s like to be black, it definitely isn’t only for black people. Atlanta inches along, but it has a real shot at being one of the breakout series of the fall.
Atlanta premieres on September 6, on FX at 10 p.m. ET.