Donald Glover has been thinking about stories lately… and death. But mostly stories.
The creator, lead writer, and star of FX’s Atlanta has been crafting stories for most of his adult life. After getting his start in comedy as part of the internet sketch group Derrick Comedy at NYU, Glover was hired by Tina Fey to join the writing staff of 30 Rock at age 23. The saga of his life since then is one of the most impressive pop culture runs of our era. Glover had a successful multi-season acting run as Troy Barnes on the beloved NBC sitcom Community. He appeared in films including The Martian and Spider-Man: Homecoming. He embarked on a Grammy-award-winning music career under the nom de plume Childish Gambino. He was LANDO-FREAKING-CALRISSIAN.
All of that, however, isn’t the story of his life. Because there’s no such thing as a story. That which we call a story is just an evolutionary coping mechanism in the human brain to create a coherent narrative where there is none. Everything is a moment, according to Glover. The realization came once he realized he was going to die one day.
“There’s no actual story. You might be like, ‘Oh, I was born, and then I smoked and then I ate and I got married and then I had a dog and then I got sick and then I died.’ Those are just things that happen. It’s not a story. Stories make sense to us. They help us understand what’s happening, but they’re not actually what’s happening.”
Understanding what’s actually happening without the psychological crutch of narrative is what Glover and the impressive team behind Atlanta have been doing for two, going on three seasons now. First premiering in 2016 on FX, Atlanta follows the “story” of ascendant Atlanta rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), his friend Darius Epps (LaKeith Stanfield), his Princeton-dropout cousin-turned-manager Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover), and Earn’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Zazie Beetz).
The arc of Paper Boi’s music career provides the framework for the moment-mining that Atlanta is known for. When tuning in to a new episode of the series, no viewer can have a reliable expectation of what they’re about to experience. Any given installment could feature Earn working the logistics of Paper Boi’s latest concert, presenting a dispatch from a fictional local cable channel, or sending Paper Boi into the woods for a journey of Georgian magical realism.
One episode in particular, season 2’s “Teddy Perkins,” has become something of a modern horror TV classic. That half-hour finds Darius visiting the mansion of the reclusive titular musician to buy a piano only to become a prisoner to the man with a pale, mask-like face (played by Glover under sheets of corpse-white makeup).
“The honest truth is a lot of the times when we’re talking about these things [genre episodes] they don’t feel that different from anything else that we’re doing,” executive producer and writer Stefani Robinson says. “Teddy Perkins is a great example. That episode for us was more funny than it was scary. It was more about how eerie this character was and how ridiculous we could conceive of a character.”
Intentional or not, the surreal intersection of horror and comedy continues apace in Atlanta’s long-awaited third season. Though the show hasn’t been on the air since May of 2018, due to Glover’s busy schedule followed by the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting production, when audiences tune in to season 3’s first episode, they won’t see Earn, Paper Boi, Darius, or Van… at least not right away.
Instead, season 3 opens with a quiet moment shared between two fishermen on a lake in the Georgia countryside at night. The moment is dark, eerie, and effectively sets up season 3’s themes of curses, whiteness, and the curse of whiteness.
“‘Blackness’ or ‘whiteness’ doesn’t exist,” Glover says of the season’s point of view. “It’s an idea that’s made up, all of it. It’s something that we all just kind of agreed to. It was interesting to play with the idea of ‘What if you built this system, but you can’t see it?’ That would be kind of scary if you built this thing to help you, but you didn’t realize it was also hurting you, but you’re the only one who can turn it off.”
According to Atlanta writer and Donald’s younger brother, Stephen Glover, Donald was adamant upon the moment’s conception that it should be season 3’s opening salvo.
“Because I just wanted to do some stuff that other people don’t do, and I just wanted to be brash, honestly,” the elder Glover says. “I just feel like most people were too scared to do something like that, so I was like, ‘Fuck it.’”
Atlanta season 3 isn’t scared to do just about anything. Despite the show’s provincial title, nearly the entire season takes place in Europe, following Paper Boi’s international tour through London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Filming during the tail end of European COVID restrictions gave Atlanta certain opportunities that few shows have ever gotten. Per longtime series director and frequent Glover collaborator Hiro Murai, production received access to public areas that would otherwise not accommodate filming due to loss of tourist dollars.
“We shot a whole scene in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, which was nuts because it was completely shut down at the time,” Murai says. “There were no tourists, and Amsterdam was this strange tranquil ghost town and we had to repopulate it with our people and with our decor and lights.”
Though the city of Atlanta is an ocean away, the influence of the show’s title location remains as vibrant as ever as its residents make their way through an unfamiliar European landscape. The journey mirrors several of the writers’ experiences. Stephen Glover recalls graduating from college, moving to L.A., and traveling around the world to discover that the world was far different from his Southern home.
“The clubs felt weird, the parties felt weird, the people felt weird,” the younger Glover says. “I remember one time I was like, ‘Maybe we’re the weird ones?’ Maybe Atlanta is the weird place and everywhere else is more of the same. I came to realize it’s kind of true.”
Much of Paper Boi’s tour in season 3 also reflects upon the high strangeness of traveling through the world as Black Americans. In Amsterdam alone, Earn and Paper Boi encounter the awkwardness of the Dutch Christmas tradition of Sinterklaas and his unfortunate helper “Zwarte Piet,” a.k.a. Black Pete.
The inescapable surreality of being Black in a world that doesn’t know quite how to act around Black folks has always been a narrative feature of Atlanta, but the show’s European side quest brings it into sharper focus.
“Some of the experiences as a writers’ room, specifically a Black writers’ room of people of a certain age, when you say them out loud, they sound surreal,” Robinson says. “There are some things that do feel very clear cut and racist. But what always fascinates us is that while there are those horrible things that seem very black-and-white, there’s also that more nuanced gray area.”
Robinson points to the season 1 episode “Juneteenth” as a prime example. The installment, which was many white viewers’ introduction to the now-national holiday, finds Earn and Van at a party hosted by an older white man who is reverent of Black American culture. The man encourages Earn to visit Africa for a life-changing experience, not realizing that Earn barely has enough capital to take care of himself, Van, and their child, let alone embark on a transcontinental self-actualizing trip.
“You have someone who is so apologetic and reverent of your culture, but he’s experiencing it in a way you’ll never experience because you haven’t been given the tools to experience those things. Some of those stories present more questions than answers. Being Black in America is hard to explain,” Robinson says.
According to Glover, however, the show’s exploration of the Black experience in America and now Europe is just part of a larger storytelling mission, moment-by-moment.
“I’m not really into things being just about race. I want to make something that’s really good and interesting,” Glover says. “We went into (season 3) this way because we just knew people were just seeing it as a ‘Black show,’ on some level. So we were like, ‘Well, let’s just do this season about white people, and just skip over that.’”
Suffice it to say, conversations about Atlanta become abstract rather quickly. The show’s third season, however, isn’t all just vibes. There are plenty of concrete character moments to latch onto. Paper Boi’s burgeoning worldwide fame as an artist will be more apparent than ever, with Stephen Glover, behind-the-scenes writer of Paper Boi’s self-titled hit, promising more music to come. Earn and Van have come a long way from their cash-poor beginnings. And Darius? Well, he’s still Darius. It also must be said that all of these moments, abstract or otherwise, are also entertaining.
“To be honest, I’m pissed because I just feel like people aren’t going to know how good this is,” Glover says. “I want people to watch it. Sometimes things are just good.”
Though the wait for Atlanta season 3 was a long one, the wait for the fourth and final season will be much shorter. FX renewed both simultaneously, giving Glover and the writers’ room a chance to pen their swan song in two acts, the second of which has already been shot in its entirety.
“Weirdly, I was aiming for season three to be the best season and season four to land the plane well. But I think now that we’re going through it, it’s like, ‘Oh, season four is actually probably better,’” Glover says.
With the Atlanta experience about to be in the rearview, the folks behind the show are already on to their next moments. Stanfield, Beetz, and Henry have thriving film careers, with Henry having just joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Eternals. Murai is highly in-demand, recently directing several episodes of HBO Max’s Station Eleven. The writers’ room has been raided with Stephen Glover, Stefani Robinson, and more moving on to other big-time TV projects.
As for Glover, he’s got a lucrative overall deal with Amazon to pursue new projects. The experience on Atlanta, however, came with some important lessons … beyond the nature of life as a series of surreal impermanent moments.
“I learned you do punk things, you get punk results.”
The first two episodes of Atlanta season 3 premiere on March 24 on FX. The first episode screened on the closing night of SXSW.