This review originally appeared on Den of Geek US in September 2016.
If you’ve seen the weird, yet cool teaser promos for Donald Glover’s new show, Atlanta, you’ve probably been intrigued but unsure of what to expect. And that’s actually a great primer for the show because, while it contains familiar elements from a few different TV genres, it combines them in unfamiliar ways. This, along with the atypical setting of a southern Black neighborhood, makes for something you’ve simply never seen on television before.
Atlanta stars Glover as Earn “Earnest” Marks, a young and ambitious guy held back by his situation and himself. He’s got dreams and some drive, but he’s also broke and has a kid he should be worried about providing for. An opportunity to escape his dead-end job and life presents itself when his cousin Alfred (Bryan Tyree Henry), who raps under the pseudonym Paper Boi, scores a hit locally. Earn decides to prove to himself, to his cousin, to his girlfriend, to his parents, and to the rest of the world that he can be Paper Boi’s manager.
Glover has said that he wanted to make “Twin Peaks, but for rappers.” Well, Atlanta is not anywhere near as odd as Twin Peaks, but I can see where he’s coming from. For one, the main conflict of the series—Earn attempting to launch Paper Boi to the big time—is, at least in the first four episodes FX gave us, more of a catalyst than a focus. Instead of being all about the pursuit of fame, the plots centre on the immediate problems the characters encounter in their present environment and status.
I sort of assumed Atlanta would be a mostly Glover-driven vehicle, but the show regularly splits the characters up and gives everyone their own meaningful plots. Many storylines come out of how flat-broke Earn is as well as how that affects his relationship with his girlfriend and the mother of his child, Van (Zazie Beetz). Despite his moderate musical success, Alfred/Paper Boi still makes the bulk of his cash selling weed, so his plots are about juggling drug deals while adapting to his new status as a local celebrity. This duality is a core theme and one of the most interesting concepts in Atlanta as we also see Earn having to adjust his behavior accordingly dependent on whether he’s interacting with people in his lower-income Black neighborhood or, alternatively, with predominately White rich music biz types.
The most Twin Peaksian aspect of Atlanta is the harsh, quick, and confident manner in which it changes its tone from moment to moment, scene to scene. This is what I find especially exciting and what feels like one of its more groundbreaking elements. Yes, we’ve had dramedies for a long time, but the comedic sides of these sorts of shows tend toward the ‘isn’t life funny’ naturalistic style of comedy. Donald Glover got his start writing sketches and sitcoms (his first really pro gig was as a writer on 30 Rock) and, as such, the comedy in Atlanta is smartly structured with jokes with clear setups and hilarious payoffs. There are also astute pop culture references, including loads of stuff about modern web culture. For example, there’s a great joke sequence about clickbait and one-half of an episode entirely about the culture of YouTube personalities.
There’s even a main character, Darius (Keith Stanfield), who is often to this show what Donald Glover’s character Troy was to Community, spouting off stunningly ridiculous non-sequiturs. However, in keeping with the whole duality thing, he’s also revealed to be extremely clever about certain subjects and regularly serves as Atlanta’s go-to philosopher.
The show is not afraid to crank up the drama just after landing a killer joke, occasionally getting extremely dark. A lot of what happens in this neighborhood is deeply tragic and Atlanta does not shy away from depicting it as such. Half of one episode takes place in the holding area of a police station. There are some very good jokes in there but there’s also a stark and distressing instance of police brutality presented sans irony.
And, yes, as those promos hinted at, Atlanta does dabble in the surreal. It’s not yet at the Twin Peaks level of giants and horses materialising indoors, but the strangeness that’s there is already another cool facet that demonstrates Atlanta’s willingness to try new things, worrying little about, and indeed reveling in, how indefinable the end product might be. This is a show that takes place in a largely untapped setting, follows characters from an often ignored demographic, and tries risky and weird stuff with its storytelling.
It’s on early course to be one of the most unique and important shows you’ll see this year.
Atlanta series one is currently airing on BBC Two and is available on BBC iPlayer.