You Should Be Watching Atlanta
(TW: Atlanta contains substance use, gun violence, and explicit language. Spoilers abound.)
Atlanta is the smartest show on television right now.
It is the only show that captures the heartbreak of the black condition, the reality of the hip-hop industry, and the dark humor of a generation struggling with financial anxiety. By balancing the tightrope between drama and comedy, it offers subtle social commentary through a bittersweet lens that finds hilarity in the heaviest situations. It’s also a cinematic masterpiece thanks to director Hiro Murai, with artful cuts to black, an ever-changing episode format, and carefully framed shots that convey unity, division, and tension.
The show has won two Emmy and two Golden Globes so far, with Donald Glover being the first black person to win Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series. As someone who
1. spent the better part of high school listening to Donald Glover’s music under his rap pseudonym Childish Gambino,
2. bought exorbitantly expensive music festival tickets to see him perform, and
3. read Glover’s 73-page screenplay for his album concept in one sitting during finals week,
Donald Glover is something like entertainment royalty to me. Still, I don’t think I’m being overly flattering when I say that Glover’s diverse background probably plays a major contribution to the nuanced genius of the show, which was his passion project in the works for so many years. As a former writer for 30 Rock, a stand-up comedian, an accomplished actor, and a versatile singer-songwriter-rapper, Glover knows to harp on his many strengths to produce a show that is unerringly funny, sad, and authentic all at once.
The show revolves around Earn (Donald Glover), a Princeton dropout who tries to find stable work and residence in his hometown Atlanta. He has a daughter with his ex-girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz), and he desperately needs money to improve his life and his daughter’s. When his cousin Al (Brian Tyree Henry) emerges as a rapper named “Paper Boi,” Earn rushes to reconnect and become Al’s manager. Yet life in Atlanta is anything but easy. Earn is a protagonist that never catches a break, ever – every time he seems to be moving forward, he gets dragged back by his circumstances and his decisions, despite his best intentions. In fact, trying but failing seems to be the major arc of Earn’s entire storyline on the show, as well as that of Al and Van as the show progresses to include episodes from their perspectives. There is no rags-to-riches tale of glory, no matter how satisfying it would be for the viewers or the network, because Atlanta is not afraid to confront uncomfortable realities where broke black people stay broke.
Still, what makes the show so watchable are those little wins and losses that emulate the ebb and flow of life. Earn’s small victory of season 1 is getting the keys for his storage space, where he keeps the mattress he calls his sleeping place. Van’s unexpected failure is losing her job over one night of smoking weed, although she usually doesn’t smoke at all. When Van comes clean to her boss on drug test day at work, her boss is sympathetic and admits that everyone smokes it, but she’s required to fire Van anyway because of her spoken confession.
This brings us to another major strength of the show: the acting and casting are believable. Each character makes reasonable choices given their limited knowledge, and nobody acts drastically out of character to further a plot device. Earn looks exactly like the type of guy to be skeptical and book-smart, just as Van looks like the type of girl to see the best in Earn although she’s out of his league. You never stop to yell at a character on the screen because you see exactly where they’re coming from and how they got there, and maybe because you would make the same decision in their shoes, too.
Atlanta is also remarkably esoteric considering its diverse audience. When I watch an episode with friends, we each notice different details. During episode 7 of the first season, the show gives a nod to Rachel Dolezal through a mockumentary of a “transracial” black man who identifies as white. In the most recent episode of the current season, Earn is being watched by an office full of white workers, but as he turns to look back, they all resume their duties; this moment is a clear nod to Jordan Peele’s racial thriller Get Out. It feels like Glover and his all-black writing team are always winking at the audience, flashing inside jokes to those in the know and refusing to explain a single pop culture reference to everyone else. As a result, I come away from an episode recognizing the elements of it that appear in my reality, and the world of Atlanta conversely integrates itself into my world through this connection – you don’t just watch Atlanta, you live Atlanta. The show manages to sublimate the fourth wall rather than breaking it.
As Damon Young from VSB writes, Atlanta “exists without exposition.” It is unapologetic and hard to swallow in a way that is refreshing, especially in an age where every TV show seems to cater to the whims of a fickle audience. It’s not for everyone, and doesn’t claim to be. But if you are intrigued by the idea of a black Justin Bieber, or an alligator that lives in a bathroom, or an invisible car, dive right in.
(Season 2 of Atlanta, “Robbin’ Season,” is currently airing on FX. Tune in Thursdays at 10 PM EST.)