When Donald Glover left Community to focus on his music career and explore other acting opportunities, it was a huge loss for the show, but folks were curious to see what he’d do next. As Troy Barnes, Glover excelled at a swell mix of naiveté and goofiness, serving as a terrific companion/foil for Danny Pudi’s more cerebral (yet still nerdy) Abed. But instead of continuing on in the same mold, playing another nerdy goofball, Glover opted to expand his horizons in a big way with his first post-Community project by creating and starring in a TV show of his own. Atlanta is, on the surface at least, a comedy series set in the Georgia city that stars Glover as an underachieving Princeton dropout who decides to manage his cousin’s rap career. That in and of itself is a swell premise for a half-hour comedy, but eight episodes into the show’s first season, it’s now become clear that Atlanta is something far more special than your average sitcom.
The show’s pilot set up a fairly traditional yet engaging series that promised to offer plenty of comedy with a mix of topicality as we follow Glover’s Earn trying to succeed. The series continued in compelling fashion, fleshing out fascinating and above all real characters that surround Earn, from his rapper cousin Alfred/Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) to Aflred’s somewhat aloof best friend Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) to the mother of Earn’s child, Van (Zazie Beetz). In these first few episodes, the show reveled in the banalities of everyday life (like going on a date when you’re flat broke) while never feeling banal itself. It kept things interesting with an air of absurdist comedy that first broke through in the fifth episode, “Nobody Beats the Biebs”, which saw Alfred participating in a celebrity basketball tournament opposite Justin Bieber—yes, that Justin Bieber. In a twist that would feel right at home on Seinfeld, the show presented Justin Bieber as a character—still an overly confident, obnoxious pop star, but one who’s black and crosses paths with Alfred.
Atlanta truly began to touch greatness in the sixth episode, “Value”, which hit pause on the Paper Boi storyline to focus entirely on Van. In what marks Glover’s directorial debut, the episode is a refreshingly earnest snapshot of Van’s life, with an opening scene that lasts the entire first act as Van meets up with a friend for dinner, only to find herself questioning her value in life in relation to this friend who now frequently dates professional athletes and is spoiled beyond recognition. It’s a testament to Glover’s ambition that, only a few episodes into the show’s first season, he wanted to move outside the box and try something different; in most comedies, this is the kind of episode you get in the second or third season.
The result is phenomenal, with a terrific performance showcase for Beetz that subverts traditional sitcom gender roles by positing that the female characters are just as prone to screwing up as the men. Moreover, it’s entirely in keeping with the show’s laser focus on realness, portraying Van as a three-dimensional woman and therefore reinforcing the richness of the show’s characters—by getting inside Van’s head, getting to know her ambitions, desires, and faults, she becomes a far more interesting and vital character than simply “Earn’s ex-girlfriend.”
And then, as if sidelining the show’s protagonist this early wasn’t ambitious enough, the next episode, “B.A.N.” takes place entirely on a fictional Charlie Rose-type show as Alfred is confronted about rap music’s misogyny, the media’s indictment of Black culture, and transphobia. The show-within-a-show conceit goes so far as to create hilarious fake commercials that aren’t just incredibly funny jokes, but also comment on how black culture is portrayed in the media. It concludes with yet another touch of the surreal as the show-within-a-show highlights a Black man who undergoes “racial reassignment surgery” to become white, solidifying the fact that Atlanta simultaneously takes place in a somewhat heighted state of reality, but is also one of the most real shows on television.
It’s precisely this tightrope walk between the surreal and the grounded, and the show’s ability to tackle incredibly ambitious conceits and subject matter while sticking the landing, which makes it one of the most exciting shows on TV. This is a series in which the appearance of an invisible car elicits a guffaw, but in no way diminishes the impact or relatability of the show’s themes and characters. It’s incredible really, and totally shouldn’t work, but thanks to Glover and his writing team’s fine-tuned scripts and inspired direction from Glover and Hiro Murai, this “magic trick” of a series soars.
And really, this feels perfectly in line with Glover’s sensibilities. There is an inherent goofball/nerdiness to his personality that he’s not shying away from, but he’s also keen to tackle serious issues in a comedic manner. Just as Louie was the perfect encapsulation of Louis C.K.’s persona, Atlanta feels wholly Donald Glover’s and yet is an undeniably collaborative effort, with just as much time and focus spent on the other characters aside from Earn.
Atlanta is something entirely unique, which is almost impossible to pull off in this day and age. Sure there are shades of C.K. in there, and even a touch of David Lynch, but at heart Atlanta is Atlanta. It’s a vital series right now—Glover is exploring what it means to be black in America in a way no one else is or has before—but it doesn’t forsake comedy for relevance. It’s hilarious, it’s honest, and it’s one of the best things on television right now.