I had my reservations about Atlanta.
I expected FX’s new show, created and executive produced by Donald Glover, was going to be corny. Maybe dry. Maybe a little weird. But not in the good, weird-creative way—weird in the bad, try-too-hard way that’s supposed to be smart but comes off smirkingly annoying. Glover, though funny on Community, and witty as Childish Gambino, doesn’t immediately strike you as authentic. Most people didn’t even know he actually grew up in Atlanta (Stone Mountain). The guy pretty regularly wears loafers with no socks, after all.
But Atlanta is the best new show on television, and it’s precisely because of Donald Glover’s vision and refusal to compromise. The show has a crew of all black writers who previously had never stepped foot into a Hollywood writing room. It was shot on location in Atlanta, not in Alpharetta like some portions of Housewives but on Bankhead, the neighborhood that T.I. famously rapped about as “the trap” in his early years. Atlanta is authentically Atlanta– the side that you don’t see on reality television, the side that transplants who come to the city to work a corporate job at Coke or Home Depot, gentrify the in-city neighborhoods most convenient to them, and never leave the Perimeter, probably know nothing about. Atlanta explores Black Atlanta, native Atlanta, through the lens of three dudes trying to find their path, in totally different ways. And it’s damn brilliant.
From the moment Atlanta opens, it’s obvious this show is doing something entirely different. It’s laugh-out-loud funny without going for obvious or easy jokes. Many of the moments are a slow build; at only 30 minutes long per episode, the show often feels as though it’s happening in real time. It’s relatable, even if you’ve never been inside of the ATL’s 285 perimeter.
It’s dark. It’s hilarious. It’s Black as hell. At times, it’s melancholy and downright painful. But most significantly, it’s honest. There’s never been a show like this about Black people on television. Atlanta is a game-changer. Here’s why.
It shows “real” Atlanta. Sift through local papers, talk to locals and even the transplants that moved to Atlanta to attend college at the Atlanta University, Georgia State or Georgia Tech and you’ll probably find out no one that actually lives in Atlanta thinks it’s being represented properly on reality shows like The Real Housewives and Love & Hip Hop. And that’s not to completely discount either show as completely inauthentic (they mostly are)— it’s just, the characters on that show often feel manufactured or like their experiences in Atlanta coming through some homogenized “Atlanta-factory” machine that consists solely of Future’s music, Buckhead and strip clubs. From the first episode of Atlanta, those images of the city are completely swept away in favor of the Atlanta that any Black person who’d been in the city before Kirkwood was considered chic and artsy or before Ponce City Market became a thing, knows about.
Glover shot scenes in Bankhead on Simpson Road—the area that Killer Mike urges black residents to re-invest in before it is gentrified and unrecognizable. One of the main characters, Paper Boi, is a drug dealer who lives in an apartment that every black person in the city has been to. It’s not a dump “trap house”—or some other garden variety lame mischaracterization of how regular people who just happen to sell drugs live. It’s a regular-ass apartment you’d see somewhere off of Glenwood Road.
There’s one particular scene (in jail, no less), when Glover encounters a dude who is so Atlanta, people not from the city, or unfamiliar with the Atlanta that thrives below I-285, will probably have a hard time understanding what he’s saying. It’s so awesome, because as “Atlanta” as that dude is, he also embodies so much of the Black experience— in the four-to-five lines he has, it resonates on another level. Really, therein lies one of the most powerful attributes of the show. As Atlanta as the show is, mostly, it’s just authentically Black in a way that hasn’t been captured on TV as of yet, but even in all of its blackness, never is it isolating non-black folks.
It captures that weird space between adult’ing and adolescence perfectly. In one of the opening scenes of the first episode, Glover is lying in bed early in the morning, staring up at the ceiling fan with his headphones in his ears, clearly trying to think of a rhyme. It’s a subtle ode to Andre 3000’s classic verse on “Elevators” where he raps, “Now every day we looked up at the ceiling/Watching ceiling fans go ’round tryna catch that feeling off instrumentals.” But it’s not just a cool shout out to 3Stacks—it’s a set up for the entire show: An incredibly smart dude with the passion and drive to do brilliant things, hunkered down by the reality of poverty, limited access, and general indecision about how to go about getting what he knows he’s capable of having.
If you’re post-college poor, if you’re struggling to find yourself, if you’re one misstep away from making a bad decision that could alter your life forever, but also one promising step away from making a good decision that could also change your life forever, you’ll get Atlanta. Glover plays Earnest “Earn” Marks, father to a young daughter, ex-boyfriend to a woman (Zan, played byZazie Beetz) who loves him but is tired of his inability to make a decision she feels is worthy of her and their infant daughter, son to parents who are exasperated by his mooching, and cousin to a man (Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles played brilliantly by Brian Tyree Henry) who reluctantly acknowledges his passion and brilliance but doesn’t understand why he can’t just make a solid decision about his life’s direction.
It’s not cliché. An aspiring drug dealing rapper whose street activity earns him popularity and his smart but misguided cousin who wants to manage him. That doesn’t sound all that original but Atlanta is. Mostly, because the writers clearly took the time to delve into the nuances that make us human. The characters are whole people on Atlanta, never making decisions just to further the plot or conveniently filling cliché’s to make them more understandable to the audience. There are no caricatures here. And, as has previously been noted by virtually everyone who has seen and watched the show, all of this becomes a political statement, simply because these human, whole characters also happen to be black.
It’s smart without being preachy; honest without being corny. Poverty gives people a deeper perspective, and that realization is present on Atlanta.
In one scene, after Earn’s plan to get some quick cash (pawning his cell phone) goes wrong (no spoilers), and he realizes he’ll have to wait months for his money to see a significant return, he’s dismayed by his circumstances—the powerlessness and endless frustration that comes with being really smart but too poor to act on that brilliance.
Faced head-on with the realization that for all of his smarts, he still can’t do simple things, like help his girl out with rent or buy milk for his kid, Earn’s entire countenance changes, and the hopelessness that permeates from his frame is definable, raw, relatable to anyone who’s ever been without. “People don’t think there’s a process to being happy,” he says aloud, mostly to himself. It’s, again, a subtle moment, but one that speaks to how intelligent the show actually is.
Atlanta is arguably the best new show on television, and is certainly a game changer for the way that Black people are presented on the small screen. For that alone, Glover deserves props.