I’m glad Donald Glover and Atlanta are getting award recognition. His show was easily one of the most unique of 2016 because of its southern setting and it’s almost entirely black cast and crew, but also just because it was phenomenally frickin’ weird.
Glover once stated that with Atlanta he wanted to make “Twin Peaks, but for rappers.” This helps to explain why the show ricochets between tones, going from dramatic to comedic to deeply dark to outright surreal. And also why it uses the basic plot of a rapper (Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry) and his agent (Earn, played by Glover) trying to make it big as a springboard (much like Twin Peaks used Laura Palmer’s murder) to explore tangentially related plots and non-sequiturs.
On the one hand, this is what I loved about Atlanta’s first three episodes. I found it incredibly cool that the show carried itself with the seriousness of a drama, but also had jokes with the tight writing and punchy delivery of a major network sitcom. I loved how Earn, who seemed set up to be the main character, spent the whole second episode waiting to be bailed out of jail. I also loved how the same episode successfully juggled a comedic plot about Paper Boi dealing with the strangeness of being a local celebrity with a tragic and brutal depiction of police brutality and a commentary on the poor treatment of people with mental health issues in America. And I loved how the premiere introduced a mystical man who appears to people and tells them to eat Nutella sandwiches.
But I guess Atlanta’s fearlessness to do whatever it wanted from episode to episode and scene to scene ended up also being what distanced it from me. I know many people saw this as one of the best, if not the best, series of the year and, after the first three episodes, that was my feeling too. But then we got some very outlandish characters like internet troll Zan, who brought the show to goofier levels than I was prepared for.
And that was followed up with an incredibly goofy episode where Paper Boi came to blows with a black Justin Bieber. And finally we had the episode “B.A.N.,” in which we watched a fictional talk show on a fictional network, and though the fake, all-black advertisements were clever, the episode on the whole came off like a failed Adult Swim pilot.
I admire Atlanta for how it throws caution to the wind and tries whatever it feels like, but it seems I was outed as a bit of hypocrite when the show got too weird. I’m not sure where the middle ground is, but I guess I’m cool with things getting a bit surreal when there’s still other stuff to bring it back down to earth a bit, which is probably why the last three episodes of the season, which had somewhat more realistic dramatic plotlines (and, yeah, also an invisible car), worked better for me than some of the uneven craziness that came before. And it’s also likely why I tended to enjoy episodes featuring Earn’s girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) as she’s the sanest presence on the show (I gotta say it was pretty out of character for her to be dumb enough to open that pee-filled condom with her teeth).
I’d propose that Atlanta stick to a formula of tempering its many flights of fancy with heavy doses of groundedness but I don’t imagine Donald Glover and team give even a mild fuck about what I want, or think I want. Glover’s is a mind that resists stagnancy, abhors doing more of the same, and he’s already suggested that we should expect season two to be wildly dissimilar from its predecessor. I’m intrigued by Atlanta, certainly enough to continue watching, because, with the bizarre grab-bag of a first season that it had, I frankly have no clue what to expect, which is what makes the show both amazing and frustrating.
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