Classifying Atlanta is tough. Is it a comedy? There are certainly plenty of hilarious moments. It also has heavily dramatic moments which often hit hard and unexpectedly surreal moments sometimes played for laughs, sometimes for drama, and some which seem to exist mostly for the audience to think, “What the hell was that about?” Sometimes Atlanta is a hip-hop show. After all the premise of the show is Glover’s character Earn trying to help his cousin Alfred make it big as a rapper named Paper Boi. Sometimes it’s a sitcom. Sometimes there’s a drug deal that interchangeably evokes fear like Breaking Bad and humor like Louie.
Does pinning a genre on the show really matter? What matters is that Atlanta is excellent, inventive, and anyone with a passing interest in the content should watch.
Mostly, creator and star Donald Glover just wanted to make a show about the city itself, his hometown:
“It’s the part of Atlanta I don’t think that people show because it’s not ‘interesting’ to people,” Glover said, making air quotes. “I put that in quotes because it’s not the part of Atlanta that’s been proven to sell. And I felt like I just knew there was a hunger for Atlanta s— like that, but nobody had really figured out how to sell it. And I was like, I know how to sell it. It needs to just feel like you’re black, you know?”
Feedback from those in the know say he succeeded, but you don’t need to be from Atlanta or live in the neighborhoods depicted to appreciate what Glover has done here. What makes Atlanta succeed is the ability for anyone to relate to the many different things the show tries.
Since most know Donald Glover for his comedy chops, they will want to know about the show’s jokes. They’re very, very funny, and especially because the show rarely, if ever, tries too hard to create them. For example, an early episode features Earn, Glover’s character, taking his daughter’s mother Vanessa out to dinner. Problem is he has about $62 to spend and an upselling waitress selling Vanessa on the most expensive items on the menu. And that’s it. All the jokes derive from that simple setup, and they all deliver. Or take another episode where Glover wants to order a kid’s meal and gets denied, then gets caught stealing soda. Absurd moments do exist to create jokes, but few and far between compared to the jokes built just on everyday life.
This is a good time to bring up Alfred’s friend Darius, the source not only of many jokes but a substantial amount of the surreal moments in the show. The best description would be that he’s Atlanta’s Cosmo Kramer, but much more chill. He has a variety of shady connections to make money and never has to pay for drinks since he’s “that dude” that people love to give free drinks. He asks if he can measure trees and brings dog targets to the shooting range. Or he makes mystical comments on the nature of life and humanity. Most probably went in expecting great things from Donald Glover, but Keith Stanfield steals the show just about every time he’s on screen.
(Though the most surreal moment in my opinion definitely goes to the random student at the school where Vanessa teaches that shows up in white face. Almost nothing is said about it by anyone. One teacher tells her about it, talks about him messing with her, and that’s it.)
The acting is wonderful across the board. Glover and Stanfield may be the favorites, and Zazie Beetz does well as Vanessa, but Bryan Tyree Henry’s role as Paper Boi is as key to the show as anyone. He carries much the same load as Glover and excels in the role. Alfred somehow manages irresistible likeability despite having many bad traits on paper; he deals drugs, shoots someone, treats women like crap (more on this in a second), and generally comes across as the stereotypically toxically masculine rapper (MUCH more on this later). Henry is just so damn good, though. Hating Paper Boi is hard when he gets into fights with black Justin Bieber at charity basketball events, manages agreement with feminists on TV shows, and comes across so charismatically.
Atlanta doesn’t treat his less savory characteristics as good or bad things. He is just the kind of person who exists in the real world, with things to like and dislike. The audience can decide which way they lean.
(Did anyone else feel a relationship vibe between Alfred and Darius? They live together, are always in each other’s company, and have some…interesting interactions each other sometimes. Alfred definitely shows interest in various women throughout the season, but we never actually see him with any.. Darius is always around, though. I don’t know, I might be grasping at nonexistent straws here.)
That same ambiguity extends to Atlanta as a whole. A variety of issues see coverage throughout the first season: poverty, police brutality, racism, sexuality, sexism, racism, self-identification, toxic masculinity, the show covers so much. Yet Atlanta makes a conscious decision to never take a hard stance on anything. Other than the previously-mentioned episode where Paper Boi appears on a talk show with a feminist, they barely even talk about the many social issues featured on the show. Glover likes things that way:
“I’m less interested in showing what should be, and more interested in showing what is, from my perspective,” Glover responds. He says he doesn’t like “being preached to” by TV shows about how people should act. “It doesn’t feel authentic.” He wants people to “wonder why they’re laughing or why that made them feel uncomfortable, rather than tell them like why they’re a bad person or good person for feeling that way.”
It’s an interesting approach, and one that may upset some people. Atlanta cares more about showing the harmful attitudes the characters on this show (and people in the real world today) have towards those who differ from them, than telling you an opinion on those attitudes. Even when someone does speak against these attitudes they shine in no better a light than Paper Boi while he makes fun of them.
And this works. The point is never to glorify one side or another or validate one attitude over another. Rather Glover asks why they feel that way to begin with. Even in its cruelest moments (such as Paper Boi ridiculing a black man who identifies as white, only to have that man turn around and spout hate speech against gay marriage and homosexuality as a whole), I don’t believe Atlanta ever crosses the line into poor taste.
One thing which especially stands out is the relationship between Earn and Vanessa. Their dynamic looks usual at first; they wake up in bed, say they love each other, and get up to take care of their daughter. Then Vanessa says she has a date that night. Not only does Earn barely react, he makes light of it. From there you learn quickly that they often date other people. Sometimes jealousy will pop up on both sides, but for the most part they seem just short of content. The history never really gets explored, and doesn’t seem to matter to either. Something might have happened that kept them from a closer relationship. Maybe nothing happened. They have their daughter, they care for each other, and they seem happy to raise their daughter. Sometimes they live together. Sometimes they sleep together, and sometimes have sex with others.
Normally such a dynamic gets played early and often for the obvious tensions involved. It’s not often a show is content to let two people live happily in this kind of relationship, and it is refreshing.
Probably the best example (and arguably the best episode of the season) comes in the aforementioned episode where Paper Boi goes on a TV show with a feminist and a combative host desperately trying to cause confrontation. This actually produces some really good debate. Tolerance, civil rights, toxic masculinity, and gender identification are all talked through. Both sides get their good points. The feminist gets her good points in about Paper Boi’s insensitivity and intolerance, while Paper Boi gets his in about supporting rights for everyone, but tolerance not meaning he can’t be uncomfortable with a person like Caitlyn Jenner. In the end they actually find peace and agreement in each other’s viewpoints.
I’m a fan of this kind of subtlety and non-judgment, and Atlanta revels in that gray area, because it wants to show real life. Real life is full of gray, where people form opinions and personalities based on their life experiences and the influence of their communities.
One of the big topics covered during the talk show is the influence of rap and his image as a rapper on his toxic masculinity. Paper Boi flat out admits that he has to act a certain way to sell. He also lives in neighborhoods where he isn’t exposed to gender issues, homosexuality is looked down upon, and the influence of his neighborhoods shaped him to be uncomfortable about certain things. Yet he accepts and supports rights for men who identify as women and the LGBTQ community. Is that enough, or is his behavior still unacceptable? Atlanta leaves it totally up to the viewer.
Even seemingly obvious injustices like police brutality do not appear in the show for the purpose of preaching, but rather because they exist. When Earn spends a night waiting in a police station to be processed, a man who’s there every week gets beaten after spitting water on one of the officers. The man seems ill, but no one seems to care about that or the beating. Where most shows might focus on something like this, Earn’s question about the man needing help gets met with, “Shut up.”
And it ever gets mentioned again.
This also happens with a shooting in another episode. Earn spends all day tracking down a jacket he lost the previous night and ends up in the middle of a police raid. When police shoot and kill their fleeing suspect, the only reactions consist of “Ooh” and “Damn!” from Alfred and Darius. Earn’s main concern is the dead man wearing his jacket and wanting to retrieve something from the pockets. Obviously the viewer should be upset by this. The episode just never tries to force that viewpoint on you, or really any viewpoint.
I suppose going this long without talking about Earnest “Earn” Marks is weird. He’s the main character after all. Anyone who has seen Donald Glover before knows the man’s charisma. It carries over in full force here, makes for a very relatable main character to root for throughout the show. Seriously, you have to love Earn. Maybe he spends too much time wrapped in big dreams. Maybe he is too happy as a stereotype (his words). The guy’s an adorable cinnamon roll; nerdy, smart, passive, friendly, funny, driven, and a great father. Some as of yet unrevealed history remains, as Earn apparently dropped out of Princeton at some point. He does not even share the unknown reason with his parents.
A big reason for wanting to manage Paper Boi has to do with his daughter, and the life he can provide for her.
Much of Atlanta’s best and most relatable content revolves around the portrayal of poverty for Earn and their neighborhood in whole. The small touches really count here. Little scenes like Darius asking if the milk in the fridge is bad, and Alfred asking whether he wants to drink it (as supposed to cooking with it), let you know this was written by people who know poor living. The aforementioned dinner scene also comes to mind, and another episode where Vanessa tries to cheat a drug test with the content of her daughter’s diapers. Earn’s attempted journey out of poverty is a familiar one twisted not to dwell or preach or overdramatize. Poverty is just a way of life they deal with as they live like anyone else.
Earn is not some overly dorky and selfless Mary Sue, though. He might believe himself too intelligent for those in his life. He as a superiority complex which sometimes draws ire of those around him. The way he views his lofty dreams as better than Vanessa’s may be a reason they have not committed exclusively to each other. His passiveness gets him into bad situations. When an agent at a charity basketball game confuses him for another agent that screwed her over years earlier, he plays along too long until he can no longer convince her she mistook him.
Overall, he makes for a great protagonist, and Glover’s humor and charm only makes him better.
Some of Atlanta does fall short. The “plot of the week” feel unfortunately leads to rather big moments that go unaddressed the rest of the season. Paper Boi commits two crimes that could have seen a season-long focus, but barely see mention outside their episodes. Things appear to be important only to not feature again. That’s not to say the show won’t address it later. For all I know Glover planned the resolution for next season. Regarding the first season alone, however, these dropped threads easily top the weak points. They may be the only weak points seriously bothering me.
It’s still a single weak drop in an amazing bucket. Atlanta whole package reflects the incredible talents of Glover and everyone involved in its creation.
A big deal was made when Glover announced the all-black writing staff, mainly because of Glover’s comments about wanting to show white people they “don’t know everything about black culture,” struck some people the wrong way. This stands out in an episode where Earn and Vanessa attend a Juneteenth party where a friend’s white husband acts quite aggressive in assuming black culture as his own. I don’t think Glover meant any harm by the comments; he just wanted writers who can best relate to the portrayal of the characters and city Glover wanted to show. Reactions to the show say he succeeded. Everything about Atlanta feels authentic. Glover wanted to give his show a feeling and authenticity not seen in television. That feel radiates off the screen at all times. He did not hire his writing staff to make any sort of statement:
““I’m not interested in making niche shit. I think that shit’s boring. And I’m not interested in making something important. I don’t want to win an Emmy for most diverse cast. That’s fucking bullshit.”
To sum up; Atlanta is really, really good. And whether Mr. Glover likes it or not, he did make something kind of important.
Much like FX brethren Louie, Atlanta feels like a show that its creator waited years to make, and is now benefiting from years of creativity and control given an outlet that can support it. The way the show so fluidly transitions from humor to drama, from reality to the absurdly surreal, from lofty social issues to the personal, it’s masterful and something I’ve rarely seen a show pull off so well. Add in a well-acted, well-written cast and an authenticity to the setting and episodes nearly anyone can relate to. There is so much to like about Atlanta that I imagine anyone can find something which keeps them watching. This was also intentional, something Glover really wanted to do with the show.
I’d say he succeeded. Give Atlanta a go. I doubt it will disappoint you.