When writer/comedian/actor/rapper/Lando Calrissian/eventual-ruler-of-the-world Donald Glover pitched his show Atlanta to FX, he conjured the phrase “Twin Peaks with rappers.” That simple statement proved to be quite sticky amongst the critical community and beyond. I find myself using it with regularity when I recommend the show to the unconverted.
Why has “Twin Peaks with rappers” proven to be such a popular description of the show? Because how the hell else do you describe this thing? It has some jokes and each episode is a half-hour so it’s a comedy according to most award shows – including the Golden Globes which just honored Atlanta as the best TV comedy of the year. But it also has dramatic elements. It’s a splendidly mature and realistic depiction of poverty – actual poverty. And the characters at times go through hell to reach their goal.
Still, “comedy” or “drama” don’t really capture the many tonal journeys Atlanta goes on. And don’t you dare even bring up “dramedy.” Dramedy is just a lazy word we like to bring out when we’re helpless to categorize art that is accurately depicting reality. It’s a comedy! It’s a drama! That’s real life, bro.
Sure, Atlanta depicts reality quite nicely when it wants to. But then there are the fantastical elements on top of it. The tongue-in-cheek depiction of the “Magical Negro” trope in the pilot, Darius’ occasional precognitive abilities and of course, the invisible car*.
*Perhaps the single best joke on television in 2016.
Atlanta defies categorization because it embraces every genre it can get its hands on. This is not unusual in recent TV history. Atlanta’s spiritual FX godfather, Louie, is (or maybe was at this point) rightfully lauded for not being beholden to any particular genre or tone from episode to episode. Atlanta is similar in that sense. Each episode goes on it’s own journey. In fact, there is not a single character in Atlanta that appears in all ten episodes of the first season. That’s a testament to the level of storytelling diversity at play.
Where it differs from the auteuristic Louies of the world is that it still somehow manages to tell a mostly complete season-long story – Paper Boi’s ascent in the Atlanta rap scene and Earn’s efforts to manage his career. What television still has over other storytelling mediums is that it’s telling three stories simultaneously: episode-long stories, season-long stories and series-long stories. Atlanta’s first season long story is coherent, which is in and of itself a minor miracle as it’s episodic stories are so wildly divergent in everything from cast, to tone to even genre.
Atlanta is a quilt. Each episode is borrowing from markedly different genres and somehow along the way producing a cohesive whole. So in order to appreciate the storytelling in Atlanta at every possible level, let’s break it down the atomic level: the episodes.
Episode 1: The Big Bang
Genres: Comedy, Mystery, Magical Realism
In many ways, the pilot of Atlanta is its most bizarre and quasi-magical episode. It begins with a confrontation in a parking lot, a confrontation that will eventually drive the direction of season one but not in as concrete a way one would expect. The most surprising aspect of season one to me is that the show never really takes the time to address the fate of Paper Boi’s shooting victim. Ultimately that doesn’t matter, what matters is establishing Paper Boi’s gangster rap bona fides and establishing a tone of uneasy strangeness. Earn’s encounter with the old man on the bus to Darius’ deja vu regarding the incident.
Episode 2: Streets on Lock
Genres: Crime drama, Realistic Fiction, Slice of Life
The tonal whiplash from episode one to episode two might be the strongest in the series so far. While the first episode is bizarre and uncanny, “Streets on Lock” is just uncomfortably real. “Street on Lock” is not preachy or overly showy about the prison industrial complex and it doesn’t have to be. The sudden escalation to violence in the prison intake center says it all for the episode. Meanwhile on the Darius and Paper Boi side of things, they experience a leisurely, slice-of-life Atlanta day culminating in the most holy of all relics: lemon pepper wet wings.
Episode 3: Go for Broke
Genres: Comedy, Thriller, Political
“Go for Broke” further establishes that Glover knows what he’s doing when it comes to A and B plotting in comedy. The Earn and Darius/Paper Boi plots couldn’t be more different on their face. Earn struggles comedically to find enough money to take his girlfriend to a boujee Atlanta restaurant while Darius and Paper Boi find themselves in essentially a thriller: where Migos literally kills a guy. Still, both stories are deceptively political. They’re about poverty from the light-hearted annoyances to the grisly reality of the drug trade.
Episode 4: The Streisand Effect
Genres: Screwball Comedy, Adventure, Satire
“The Streisand Effect” is perhaps the hardest episode of season one to place genre-wise. Particularly because of Paper Boi’s struggle with the ethnically ambiguous and strangely flamboyant online troll Zan. Ultimately it’s a satire of Internet culture and the concept that the only economy that matters is the economy of attention. On the other side of things, Darius leads Earn on a charming journey through the Atlanta underbelly trading item after item to generate some cash. It’s fascinating and funny and is almost reminiscent of a Zelda side quest.
Episode 5: Nobody Beats the Biebs
Genres: Meta, Satire, Absurdist
Introducing a black Justin Bieber is one of the boldest moves of Atlanta’s first season. It effectively satirizes how much poor behavior society and media will tolerate from celebrities – provided they’re floppy-haired White Canadians. It’s also patently absurd with a dash of meta thanks to Glover, himself, performing the Biebs songs.
Episode 6: Value
Genres: Feminist, Family Drama, Drug Comedy
“Value” focuses almost exclusively on Van, the only female main character in the show, and does so beautifully. It’s an episode almost perfectly split in two where in one part Van struggles with external factors like she and her old friend’s very different interpretations of feminist. And then it becomes a straight-up sophomoric drug comedy with Van going to the end’s of the Earth to pass a drug test. That’s not even to mention the weird kid who decided to attend school in “whiteface.”
Episode 7: B.A.N.
Genres: Critique, Experimental, Parody
“B.A.N.” is Atlanta season one’s most ambitious episode and it has a lot to say. It adopts a completely new format by placing Paper Boi on a Charlie Rose-esque talk show Montague on the “Black American Network.” The format leads to all kind of critiques of media, pop culture and cereal commercials. It’s wildly experimental, wickedly funny and remarkably consistent right down do the fake commercials.
Episode 8: The Club
Genres: Comedy with a dash of Science Fiction
If there is one episode of Atlanta season one that comes closest to flat out Community/30 Rock-esque comedy, it’s “The Club.” It’s only natural that a show about rappers, whether they be Twin Peaks or not, should have an episode set in the club. It’s filled with wonderful and realistic comedic undercuts. Darius can’t get back to the VIP section so he merely just goes home. Earn complains about hating clubs to anyone who will listen until eventually a bartender points out how douchey he sounds. And then there is, of course, Marcus Miles’ invisible car.
Episode 9: Juneteenth
Genres: Romantic Comedy, Satire, Political
Calling “Juneteenth” a romantic comedy is damning it with faint praise. It’s so much more than that. It’s a satire of boujee suburban culture, annoyingly kind and empathetic White guys who want to talk about the Black experience and even some religious commentary thrown in. But above all, “Juneteenth” is about Van and Earn. There is no overwrought re-declaration of love – just two people getting drunk in an uncomfortable situation and then hooking up in a car. That’s a hyper-realistic romantic comedy.
Episode 10: The Jacket
Genres: Realistic fiction, Mystery, Tragedy
“The Jacket” is not the best episode of season one. What it does, however, is find a way to tie together all the disparate tones and genres of the episode that precede it. After a wild night out, Earn has to find his jacket. He embarks on another Zelda side quest not unlike the one in “The Streisand Effect.” The search eventually does lead him to his jacket…in the form of a dead man on the ground, having been shot to death by police moments earlier. It’s yet another wild whiplash of genre. Naturally one assumes that Earn has an important artifact in the jacket pocket, maybe an engagement ring perhaps? Nope, it’s just the key to the storage container that he’s living in. It’s a reminder that throughout all the zany twists in genre and tone, Earn has been plugging a way, trying to create a better life for himself and his family.
Atlanta cycles through so many genres per episodes that it ends up transcending them all until it resembles something life-like. Or at the very least a lovingly crafted picture book. That’s a genre too.