At first, being an Atlanta local hindered my appreciation of Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta. I had my hackles up to dislike it, feeling like it was just too bold to name a series after such a diverse and complicated city even though Glover grew up near where I live. But after watching the first few episodes, I’ve been won over. Atlanta is Atlanta — not all of it, but enough that it feels honest, intimate, and sincere. Atlanta may be the capital of Georgia and the king city of the South, but it’s also town that’s often underrated, and that scrappy spirit dominates this show.
Like many of FX’s half-hour series, Atlanta isn’t strictly a comedy. It’s often bracingly funny, but it can be deadly serious. Glover has previously described the series as “Twin Peaks for rappers,” and it’s apt. The show plays with the surreal while managing the stay grounded in a way that is charmingly off-kilter.
Atlanta is the story of an up-and-coming rapper, Alfred a.k.a. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), and his cousin Earn (Glover) who is looking to mange him. Earn is broke and essentially homeless — his parents don’t want him (“I can’t afford it,” his father says, barring him from entering) and he has a fraught relationship with the mother of his daughter, Van (Zazie Beetz). Van wants Earn to be a real partner and a good father, but he can’t get his act together. His tries, but then when he fails he wants to turn his back on all it, telling Van that he shouldn’t have to sacrifice his dreams to become a family man (she calls out his BS). As Earn, Glover is truly playing against type, but he keeps some weirdness as part of his persona here, and his comedic timing as the show’s Everyman is impeccable.
Atlanta may baffle viewers who are looking for a straight comedy, or for an insider-y show about the backstage theatrics of the music industry. But Atlanta could not be further from a show like Empire–unless we’re just talking about Empire’s flashbacks to a life pre-fame. This show doesn’t have a clear aim episode to episode, and it isn’t about rich recording artists and parties full of booze and women, this story is—in part—about a young black man without means who sells drugs to get studio time, and says, “I scare people at ATMs, so I have to rap!”
That’s a good example of Atlanta’s sly humor, and the show is full of Easter eggs for locals. References to JR Crickets’ lemon pepper chicken—with the sauce!—and the girls at Edgewood “loving a thug” are clever, embedded jokes, too. Some of it is more universal though, as a bartender opines that a YouTube star Paper Boi is battling with, “[smokes] a Swisher with no weed! Dude gave me the creeps.”
Under Hiro Murai’s direction, the city of Atlanta is both familiar and incredibly distinct, which matches the series’ unique beats and storylines (and killer soundtrack). One of the best parts of the series, though, is Keith Stanfield as Darius, Alfred’s best friend and a sweet-natured dreamer. When Earn first knocks on their door to offer his managerial services, he rounds the corner to find Darius standing there with a butcher knife. When Darius realizes Earn is a friend, he offers him a plate of freshly baked cookies. While Alfred and Earn struggle to make it, Darius floats along beside them, staying out of the fray while also being an integral part to the show’s chemistry and meditative tone.
Like Baskets or even Louie, Atlanta is a deeply specific portrait of a certain way of life, one that’s often desperate but that’s tempered—for our benefit—by a casual, sometimes even caustic humor. These moments are occasionally punctuated by bursts of violence, some of them shocking, but it never feels like there’s a statement being made so much as truth being shown. And as referential as the show is, it never feels obtuse or difficult for those unfamiliar with the world it portrays. Atlanta is a complicated city, and Atlanta is a complicated show. Yet the bottom line is that Earn doesn’t want to be poor. What’s more universal than that?
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
Atlanta premieres Tuesday, September 6th on FX.