South of the North, North of the South
When Donald Glover was making the rounds to publicize the first season of Atlanta, the new FX series he created, produced, wrote, and stars in, he made a comment that has come to be the log line for the series: he claimed he wanted to make a show about what it’s like to be black. That’s an extremely tall order, and it’s probably best treated as an offhand comment even if he meant it seriously; being black is a condition that contains multitudes, after all, and no one man, not even the multi-talented Glover, could ever hope to encapsulate it in a half-hour semi-sitcom, especially given how rare it is to see any treatment of the black experience on television.
But I’ll be damned if, watching the first four episodes of this extremely promising show, I didn’t get the feeling he’s come damn close. Atlanta is a beautiful thing the way black is beautiful: in an uncountable number of ways, in ways both (literally and figuratively) low and high, and in ways you never can predict or expect. It’s a black show on every level: Glover went out of his way to hire an all-black writing staff, and there’s hardly a white face to be seen in much of the early goings. And it doesn’t restrict itself to a singular view of blackness, despite the limitations of the form: there are depictions here of blackness as a construct, as an idea, as an irreducible quality; we see the black bourgeoisie, the black street life, black drug dealers and black professionals, broke black people and black people who ain’t with bein’ broke. Even the show’s title card, in a font reminiscent of Good Times and The Jeffersons, promises that we’re going to see some extremes of the black experience.
Atlanta largely focuses on Glover as Earn Marks, a young college dropout (the reason for his failure to graduate from Princeton is one of the show’s early mysteries) with drive but no direction, a girlfriend he loves who barely puts up with him, and a daughter he wants to provide for but who represents the possibility he’ll have to compromise his dreams in order to be a good father. When he learns that his cousin Alfred, as “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry), is starting to generate heat on the local rap scene, he figures there might be a future for both of them in music, and he sets about becoming Alfred’s manager, with no real vision or knowhow but a determination that this is what he wants.
There’s not much more to the show than that. It’s beautifully directed — one of the most visually appealing shows of the season, thanks to director Hiro Murai’s eye and Glover’s knack for locations — but it sometimes meanders along at an almost soporific pace. This actually works in its favor at times, as it manages not only to put you in its frequently zooted-out headspace and conjure the breezy hang-out vibe that makes a lot of its characterization hit home, but also to drive home the fact that for a lot of people living on the economic margins, life can be pretty goddamn boring: hours and hours of just sitting around with nothing to do, long hauls across town on the bus, social calendars empty of appointments. Atlanta is one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen about being broke, about its infinite little frustrations, its paradoxical dearness, the way it eats up your time and turns leisure into boredom. And, as it does with most things, it shows you the specific frustrations of being broke and black: the different way you’re treated by institutions, the way your friends react when you have money, the attitude you get from people who already managed to make a life and don’t want you fucking it up.
If all this makes Atlanta seem like a drama, that’s not entirely wrong. Like its sister show, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, Atlanta is a television show that owes a lot to the success of Louie, and like Louis C.K.’s genre-busting show on the same network, it has been given the space, the faith, and the budget to play itself out like a series of short films, with cinematic photography, a sharp combination of drama and comedy, and a unique rhythm to the editing that’s uniquely its own. But Atlanta isn’t homework. It’s often wildly funny, even when it’s at its most exasperating, with Earn being a big enough screw-up to let us wring humor out of his failures but have enough on the ball that he’s able to call attention to the absurdity of others. And Atlanta‘s breakout character, Paper Boi’s friend Darius (Keith Stanfield), is hilarious every time he opens his mouth, with his weeded-out philosophy, surprising sensitivity, and bizarre musings on what a boon it would be for the economy if people could use rats as cell phones. His ability to take the most ridiculous ideas at face value never stops paying off.
Glover is a supremely talented young artist who has often caught flak from those who want him to confine himself to more comfortable roles. But he’s also restless and skillful enough to not want to do that, and hopefully Atlanta will convince fans, critics, and networks to let him take his ideas wherever they lead him. (Another thing he’s said about the show is that he wants to make it a hip-hop version of Twin Peaks, and it’s not entirely off the mark in that regard, with moments of surrealism that are both funny and terrifying — such as Earn’s encounter with an intrusive Black Muslim on a bus armed with a Nutella sandwich, or Paper Boi and Darius visiting a gang of eerily calm drug dealers out in the woods.) In its first four episodes, it’s managed to strike a tone so interesting and entirely of its own that even if it doesn’t show us what it’s like to be black, it shows us what black creators are capable if they’re given the space and the support to realize their vision.