The art-based television dramedy is a genre growing at a respectable rate. Technically first created by Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld, recently revived by Louis C.K. with his groundbreaking program Louie (wonder where they got those names), and then expanded with Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, the main idea is to use the absurd to explore the mundane in the lives of an artist character, taking their humiliations to the extreme as they try to make it in a cutthroat business. However, while each of these shows has become an instant classic, renowned for their smart writing and great casts, none have been as ambitious as Donald Glover’s Atlanta, the study of finding yourself and your identity as a black man in the rap scene of Atlanta, Georgia (note: I have no idea if Atlanta is actually a big deal in the rap community. I will take the show’s word for it and say “yes,” but this may be a joke I’m not getting). Shot gorgeously by Hiro Murai and smartly written by the Childish Gambino himself, the show may be the breakout of the year.
The show opens with a rapidly escalating conflict in a gas station parking lot that slowly builds to a gunshot. The episode then flashes back to that morning, as Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover) wakes up in bed with his best friend, Van (Zazie Beets), and the two dissect his dream and share a kiss. Earn is an aimless young man who recently dropped out of Princeton for undisclosed reasons. His parents want him out of the house, and he can barely afford to room with Van, let alone support the child the two of them have. However, despite his issues, Earn is portrayed as a loving, goofy sweetheart, instantly pitting us on his side from minute one (he’s much more likable than Ansari’s Dev, Louie’s Louie or Jerry’s Jerry). Glover’s natural and gifted from the very beginning, and his talent doesn’t let up for the entire hour-long episode(s).
That morning, as he works his dead-end job at the airport, a coworker shows him a hot new rapper named “Paper Boi.” Earn is shocked to learn that Paper Boi is actually his cousin, Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry, who is rough around the edges, but really nails his more important scenes). Having a revelation, Earn rushes to his cousin’s house, which he shares with his right hand man/stoner buddy/gofer Darius (Keith Stanfield, who is a truly talented actor, and is already set up to be the breakout character). His plan: to use his intelligence and connections to serve as Paper Boi’s manager, helping him further his career. Unfortunately, the two aren’t close, as revealed in Henry’s first excellent scene: “I ain’t seen you since my mom’s funeral. And the first thing out yo mouth is ‘let’s get rich.’” As over-the-top as Paper Boi gets, it’s clear from minute one he won’t devolve to stereotype (not even an entertaining one, like Sam on You’re the Worst)
The show’s first exploration into identity comes when Earn tries to reconnect with an old high school friend who works at the radio station. The friend, the most stereotypical white male you can imagine, drops an n-word while telling a story of his own “coolness.” The strange thing is, he only does this when he is alone with Earn. This can be interpreted two ways, both with the same message. One, it could be literal, and this white man is saying the n-word to Earn because he “feels safe” doing so. Two, it could me metaphorical, and the reason only Earn hears it is because it’s what he hears interacting with white people. Either way, the message is clear: Earn feels that he has fallen out of touch with the black community, and that the white community no longer accepts him as such. Either way, Earn gets his revenge on the man by breaking into the radio station and playing Paper Boi without his permission.
On the bus to meet with his cousin, Earn sits with a strange man making himself a sandwich. It is here that Earn first expresses his disillusionment with his own life, opening up to the man by asking him, “Am I supposed to lose? Are people like me here to make the lives of the winners easier?” For people with the odds stacked against them who witness one setback after another, this is an understandable reaction, and one that will resonate with many viewers. His companion’s response? Trying to force him to eat the sandwich, before disappearing off the bus and into the woods. It is unclear if this was a dream or not, but either way, it was surreal, it was disquieting, and above all, it was hilarious.
Earn meets with Paper Boi and Darius in a gas station parking lot as his song plays over the radio-it’s a hit. However, just as Paper Boi begins to discuss hiring Earn as his manager, the fight from the opening breaks out, and we cut to Van returning home to a photo of Paper Boi on the news, accompanied by Earn’s awkward and hysterical high school photo. The two have been arrested for injuring a man in the gas station parking lot, as his companion ran into the night. “Idiots,” she states, as the first episode ends.
Episode two opens with the cousins the closest we’ve seen them. Ironically, this is in the holding cell in prison. They are bonding over the fact that the cops tried to convince them to railroad each other. Both men know better, however, and in the end, Paper Boi is released on bail. However, Earn has yet to be processed, and will have to wait for Van to come bail him out. Paper Boi and Darius walk out of the building, only to be stopped by a young black police officer. As it turns out, the officer is a fan, and wanted to tell him show. The scene serves as comic relief, but also contains two pieces of intelligent commentary that elevate the sequence overall. The first is the choice in a black officer congratulating Paper Boi as he leaves, showing that it takes a member of his own community to treat a young black man-a rapper, no less-with respect. The second, funnier (and sadder) detail is the mannerisms embraced by the actor playing the cop. Yes, he is an African-American. However, Glover and Murai want something deeper here. His mannerisms seem off throughout. He insists on taking a photo for Instagram, tries to pose them as stereotypically as possible, and speaks like Eddie Murphy’s “Banana in the Tailpipe” character from Beverly Hills Cop. In short…he acts white. It’s a harsh (if slightly unfair) treatment of an African American police officer, but it might be the most accurate statement when it comes to what such a person would have to do to be accepted in that environment.
The episode then splits into two different plotlines. I’ll start with Paper Boi’s as his is perhaps the lightest, despite having the most character growth in the episode. As Paper Boi leaves the prison, he learns that the shooting has made him an overnight celebrity. His music is being played on every station, he’s being recognized everywhere…he’s a star. And while he is excited about these prospects, he feels extreme guilt on how he got to this point. This is first seen in a stellar segment, when Paper Boi and Darius are getting lunch, and the store’s manager comes up to him. He gushes over the rapper, telling him he’s the “last real rapper,” unlike fakers (not what he really said) in the vein of Fetty Wap. “More like Biggie. Getting into gunfights in the street. A real gangsta.” All through this exchange, Henry gives a killer performance, balancing the flattery he feels over the compliment, and yet horrified at the implications. He can barely muster a proper response to the final moment of pressure: “You’re one of the last real rappers. Don’t let me down.” However, Henry’s real Emmy moment comes when he sadly wanders the streets, trying to figure things out. As he wanders around, he hears children playing in the streets with toy guns. One of the kids yells “I’m Paper Boi! Bang! Bang! You’re dead!” This has two severe ramifications on Paper Boi’s life, both unspoken verbally, but very clear in Henry’s eyes, as well as the fear in the mother’s voice. Not only has Paper Boi’s foolish action inspired an entire new generation to get into the world of gang violence and black-on-black crime. However, even more ominous, the image of a scared mother stopping her son from playing in the streets with a toy gun instantly calls to mind the images of Tamir Rice. It’s a realization that forces Paper Boi to intervene, in the hopes of saving the lives of the children. Of course, the minute a rapper walks up, the frightened mother becomes flattered, flirting with the celebrity and giving him her number. While Paper Boi is unsure if he’s managed to save the children’s lives down the road (based on the boy’s continued playing with the gun, the assumption would be no), the prospective love interest is enough to lift his spirits. That is, until a masked man arrives on the porch asking for him, only to be diverted by Darius. Their victim’s gang is out for blood.
However, the social commentary of the episode rests squarely on the shoulders of Earn, who spends an entire day stuck in the holding area. The absurdity of his situation is made clear almost immediately, as Earn is stopped from taking a nap by the officer on hand. “If you want to sleep, you have to go to your cell!” the officer yells. “Fine, take me upstairs,” responds another man in the room. “No, you shoulda thought of that before you went to jail!” the officer shouts back. Think about that sentence for a moment. Relish in it. That’s one of the funnier TV lines of the year. The comedy continues as the man in front of an uninterested Earn goes on a minute-long rant, explaining how it’s really his friend’s fault that he’s in prison. Before Earn can respond, the man in front of the man in front of Earn turns around to say, “Man, I said I was sorry!” It’s a brilliant sight gag, and Murai executes it perfectly. However, as funny as these exchanges are, there’s a darkness below the surface. It soon becomes apparent, albeit subtly, that every prisoner in this room is a minority, whether African American, Asian, or Muslim. There are no white prisoners to be found. There’s also an exploration of homophobia in the African-American community, as two exes begin to reunite over a highly uncomfortable Earn, only to be informed that the female partner is a transgendered prostitute. The man is taunted for being gay, and he begins to grow increasingly defensive, declaring himself demonstratively straight, and pointing out that many of them will be gay in prison, while the others say that his actions started before prison rules. Earn, the voice of reason, offers up, “You know, sexuality is a spectrum.” This line would be laugh-out-loud funny without the glares he receives in response. But while the entire exchange is delivered with a layer of satire, there’s a deep and sad truth at its core about the way the community treats gay and transgendered members, even of their own race.
However, there’s one scene that truly sums up the episode’s views on the current justice system. As Earn sits quietly, a man in hospital clothes stands up and begins to wander around, screaming and talking to himself. The guards laugh, and explain that he’s in there every week, doing the same thing for their entertainment. The rest of the prisoners laugh along as the man fills a cup from the toilet and drinks it, but Earn is horrified. “Why is he in here every week? He needs help!” he asks. The guard’s response? “Shut up.” This is a painful statement, made worse by the fact that this is how prisons treat the mentally ill. However, it’s ramped up even more, as the mentally ill man wanders over towards one of the laughing guards and spits the toilet water in his face. He can’t help it-he’s mentally ill. But suddenly, now that it’s embarrassed him, the guard doesn’t find it so funny. So he punches the mentally ill man. Then pulls out his billy club. And then he beats him as the other guards hold him down. Over and over. The camera cuts to black as we hear his screams. It’s one of the most sickening images you’ll see on any screen all year. And it’s how this show decided to introduce itself to the audience. That is a ballsy, ballsy move.
The episode ends with Van showing up and bailing an exhausted Earn out, their daughter in the backseat. Earn turns on the charm, telling an irritable Van “Don’t worry. She won’t remember this.” And that’s how the episode ends.
Atlanta is an excellent addition to the world of art-based dramedies. Glover is a brilliant writer and an even better actor, and Murai has a distinctive eye behind the lens. The ensemble ranges from decent to great, and the music is actually incredible. I’m excited to see how this show grows and improves over the rest of the season.