One of the most promising comedies of the fall season, the premise of FX’s Atlanta is easy to describe, but far more difficult to define. A comedy about a wayward young man, Earnest Marks (star and show creator Donald Glover), the show follows his journey to succeed, as he navigates the minefields of being a father, trying to make money and also trying to make the right choices. At the point where the series begins, all of that’s about an emerging relationship with his cousin, Alfred “Paperboy” Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry), an up-and-coming rapper who has a viral hit on his hands.
That’s a familiar enough framework, but Glover isn’t content to merely tell a coming-of-age story. The series is deeply suffused with melancholy and informed by Glover’s own public struggles with his identity as a successful black man. Even at this early stage, Atlanta is deeply rooted in Glover’s singular worldview, while avoiding all the pitfalls that come with telling a story that feels so personal. Here are five reasons Atlanta is worth visiting.
It’s tempting to classify Atlanta along with established and freshman comedies like Louie, Better Things, and One Mississippi based on their centralized narrative alone. They are, after all, shows that feel driven by their title character to the point of feeling like auteurism. But it’s far more productive to view them in relation to their setting. Just as a show like Louie underlines the sublime absurdity of New York through lyrical odes to the subway system, Atlanta’s titular setting has a gravitational pulse.
Earn’s neighborhood isn’t just a backdrop, it’s in constant conversation with his own personal rut. Poverty isn’t even a conversation, it’s just a casual expectation with so many of these characters—as seen with Earnest’s parents who don’t want to let him in the house for worry that their kindness will cost them the contents of their wallet.
But Atlanta’s social consciousness also isn’t about fetishizing the poverty of Atlanta, as much as recognizing that all these people are scraping by without facing deep repercussions like homelessness. They’re all waiting for their opportunity to be something bigger—and who knows when it’s going to come.
As much as Glover was regularly a scene-stealer on Community, with his exaggerated line readings and heightened reactions (There’ve been few performers in recent years who react more with their entire bodies to jokes), the show absolutely felt like a product of creator Dan Harmon’s imagination. Atlanta is a complete manifestation of Glover’s sensibilities, and unsurprisingly, it’s a very thoughtful show in its meld of comedy and philosophical contemplation.
Glover has a clear vision for how characters like Alfred and wide-eyed stoner Darius (Keith Stanfield, more on him later) talk to each other. And more importantly, he’s not afraid to skewer his own character—a person who’s not immune to overly serious monologues that verge on self-parody. One of the first scenes of the pilot perfectly establishes the tone as Earnest starts recounting a dream he had to the mother of his infant daughter, before she interrupts and starts picking apart the details. His head is in the clouds, but everyone’s dragging him back to Earth.
A huge part of what makes the city of Atlanta feel so vivid is the work of Hiro Murai, a name that’s more familiar to the music video world than television. Having previously collaborated with Glover on videos like the globetrotting “Telegraph Ave” from his most recent LP as Childish Gambino, Because the Internet, Murai knows how to bring a tinge of surrealism to nearly every visual composition. Whether it comes with blocking that feels deliberately off-kilter, or a cut that foreshadows something explosive in the narrative, Murai makes these episodes feel deeply controlled.
And while Twin Peaks has become a critical shorthand for every time when a show ventures into discomfiting visual territory, Murai and Glover have a knack for shooting and staging scenes that creep from the ordinary, to the point of absurdity in a single second. In particular, a scene in the second episode involving a prison is a great example of comic escalation that only works because of the framing. Together with the work of cinematographers like Christian Spenger, Atlanta has a color scheme that alternates between urban desolation and a nocturnal, smoky glow.
Television isn’t exactly hurting for more depictions of the glamour of the music industry. The world-shattering phenomenon of Empire and the no less soapy, but dramatically different Nashville have already explored the pressures of fame, but Atlanta is approaching hip-hop from a more anonymous vantage point.
Atlanta fully recognizes that fame in hip-hop is short-lived—so much of one’s success is determined by how many hits you’re getting on Worldstar, or how you’re building your reputation. If you’re not putting out a steady stream of mixtapes or physically defending your territory, your 15 minutes will be over in the blink of an eye.
As good as the writing is, Atlanta would not work without Glover’s performance. It’s a construction of smugness, easy charisma and an undercurrent of deep disappointment in the trajectory of the character’s life. It makes for an undeniably subtle presence—delivering each line with a dazed somberness. But it’s very much the center of this show, as he moseys along from situation to situation, at a total loss of how to proceed. And while it’s easily a role that could be consumed by a listlessness, Glover never allows the character to be overshadowed by his own emotional insecurities.
Keith Stanfield arguably already had his breakout role back in 2013’s Short Term 12 as Marcus, a kid who’s lived in a cloud of rejection for his whole life. And yet, he’s still heralded as a “breakout” star with each new role, whether it’s his heartbreaking role as Jimmie Lee Jackson in Selma, or his perfect delivery of Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton. Hopefully, his role as the sweet stoner, Darius, will cement his status as a star.
It’s a role that could easily be a stereotype, or worse deeply annoying, but Stanfield delivers each line like everything in the world, to Darius, is magical. There’s a scene where Darius asks Earnest’s father (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) an insane question about whether he can measure a tree in front of the house, to which he responds, “Not right now.” Stanfield delivers the question perfectly, but it’s his winded response after being told no that becomes the best part of this odd exchange, as he pouts and says, “That’s basically the same as no.” There’s easily a dozen instances like this where Stanfield inserts himself into a conversation, without ever ruining the flow of the show. This is no small feat, and we can only expect more greatness as the series unfolds.
Atlanta premieres Tuesday night, at 10 PM on FX.