| Two cousins, with different views on art versus commerce, on their way up through the Atlanta rap scene; “Earnest ‘Earn’ Marks,” an ambitious college drop-out and his estranged cousin, who suddenly becomes a star.
“Twin Peaks with rappers.” That’s how Donald Glover has described his new FX series Atlanta. Atlanta’s debut season is a tonal breath of fresh air for the television landscape, and also one that happens to be as successful with viewers as it is with critics. It’s no secret that series creator Donald Glover is a hugely multi-talented artist (impressing as an actor, rapper, and writer), and with Atlanta he’s better able then ever to express his identity. Using the city’s unique environment, Atlanta casts an evocative feel right from the start, and minimalist use of music enhances the mood.
While Atlanta’s rags-to-riches narrative is the series’ main focus, it’s far from its primary selling point. It mainly functions as the structural backbone that allows the show’s offbeat vibe to flourish. Atlanta’s all-black, mostly unseasoned writers’ room (a concept still virtually unheard of in today’s diversity-focused entertainment environment) is largely responsible for its unconventional feel; everything from its minimalist episode structure to setup-punchline jokes scans as just a little “off” relative to the rest of television. Glover and company have obviously written Atlanta from a personal point of view, imbuing the show’s world with lived-in texture and specific referents, and that extends to the comedy itself, a distinct blend of absurd sensibilities eager to gain laughs from low-stakes dialogue exchanges and the deadpan surreality of the moment.
Scenes like the one illustrating Earn’s romantic/parental predicament is evidence that Atlanta does a great many things well, but that it all starts with the strength of its perspective. Earn’s temporary transience is pivotal in understanding where he is in his life. He lives in the liminal space between ambition and success, but the same is true for almost all of the other characters as well. While the story is told primarily from Earn’s point of view, his cousin, rapper Alfred Miles, aka Paper Boi, is a central figure in the narrative, as his underground music career is in a similar liminal space between becoming a footnote and breaking out into the mainstream.
There are plenty of shows about the uncertainty that comes with growing up and the fears of never making your way in the world, especially when that world seems engineered to work against you because of things you cannot change. That helps ground the series in a distinctive and important point of view. And that sense of being grounded also allows the directors of the show that includes Glover and Murai, room to move around when it comes to matters of tone and the sometimes-startling difference between comedy and drama. Atlanta is often very funny but in a way that rarely relies on jokes. At the same time, the series opens up with a possible homicide, creating what seems to be an immediate tonal contradiction until you realize just how deliberate the shift in tone is.
Atlanta is a great new show filled with great characters who help fill the gaps throughout the first episodes as the series finds its footing. Especially Keith Stanfield as Darius, Alfred’s best friend and a sweet-natured dreamer. It is the kind of show that starts strong and only gets stronger.
‘Atlanta’ (Season 1) gets an 8.6/10.
Shot on 35's rating sheet: 9.5 – 10.0: Excellent! 8.5 – 9.5: Fantastic, but with minor flaws 7.5 – 8.5: Great, but with issues 6.5 – 7.5: Okay, but with major issues 5.5 – 6.5: Had potential, but falls flat hard. 4.5 – 5.5: Disaster!