Tonal Range Leads to an Eclectic Playlist in Donald Glover’s ‘Atlanta’

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We all know the type of person that seems to be incapable of failing. No matter what venture he tries, he finds success. He has a seemingly endless well of energy to draw from, all while making it look effortless in the process. Donald Glover is this person.

This modern renaissance man got his start by creating some of the first scripted YouTube content. He was then hired at the ripe age of 21 to write for the Emmy Award-winning show 30 Rock, which he later left to star in NBC’s Community, all the while launching a highly successful stand-up comedy career, creating two critically received specials. Not only this, but he also simultaneously launched a rap career under the name Childish Gambino, creating multiple mix tapes and two albums, recently netting him two Grammy nominations in 2015. For many, this level of achievement would be enough, but not for him. With his busy and overachieving mind, Glover has written, produced, and starred in one of the most exciting new show of the fall TV season, FX’s Atlanta.

Atlanta premiered on Sept. 6 with a double episode, and is already on the top of critics’ list of shows to watch. The show follows the rap scene in the city of Atlanta, through the eyes of Ern (Glover), a Princeton dropout who is stuck at a soul-sucking job of selling rip off credit cards to unsuspecting airline customers. Ern sees a chance to change the situation for himself, his daughter, and Van (Zazie Beetz), his daughter’s mother, after he hears a new single by his rapper cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). Ern becomes Paper Boi’s manager, and the two attempt to navigate the Atlanta rap scene.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yVQNCP9jWI


Tonally the show hits a variety of notes by virtue of Glover’s adaptability, not as a result of sloppy writing. The success of this partially comes from the ability of director Hiro Murai, Glover’s go-to music video director, to steer the tone from dark comedy, to tense, to surreal, to poignant, often effectively combining several of these emotions simultaneously. The razor-sharp writing allows the show to balance both Glover’s comedy and important topics such as social injustice, mental disabilities, poverty, police brutality, sexuality, and more. In one representative scene, Ern goes from being stuck between an awkward but comedic fight, to being stuck, helpless to stop police abuse of a mentally disabled man.   

Glover has made an effort to make the show feel real, to make it a reflection of what Atlanta is really like. The writer’s room for this show is entirely made up of African-American writers. This set up helps create an authentic tone, but is not without controversy. A profile for Vulture opens with Glover saying, “I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.” This comment was met with some backlash, but the success of the writing speaks for itself.

The dialogue is crisp and feels like actual conversations one would have in real life. Only two episodes into the first season, the writers have already created memorable, multi-dimensional characters. A good pilot show introduces the characters and sets them in a situation—this pilot does all of that and more. It’s hard to think of an example of a show that has more rapidly established a cast of characters as distinct and believable in such a short span of time.

The rising star Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12 and Straight Outta Compton), playing Darius, Paper Boi’s right-hand, emerges from this great cast as its scene-stealer. Darius is a stoned-out, eccentric character that delivers non sequitur after non sequitur, but somehow is able to impart emotion into every line. After pulling up to Ern’s dad’s house, he earnestly asks, “You don’t know me, my name’s Darius, but I was just wondering, can I measure your tree?” And after being told not right now, he replies with a devastated, “Man, ‘not right now’ means no.” While Darius has yet to be critical to the plot, he has become much more important than simple comic relief and has shown incredible potential.

While the show has been a hit with critics and fans, it is a relatively niche show that might have trouble attracting viewers. The authentic atmosphere of the Atlanta rap scene might make it difficult to draw in viewers, but the quality of the writing and the execution will suck in those lucky enough to give Glover’s new project an open-minded view.

Featured Image By RBA