“I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.” – Donald Glover on his new show Atlanta
Usually when I start watching a new series I have some information about it beforehand. I try to change that in order to just let the thing wash over me and see if it leaves an impression. With Atlanta I knew exactly two things: That Donald Glover, Childish Gambino, wrote, produced and plays an instrumental part in it and that I loved the trailer. Now that I’ve seen 9 out of 10 episodes, Atlanta, that runs on FX, leaves me impressed, confused, contemplative and confounded. Atlanta is the show that shows you a real city, as real as Donald Glover experienced it and still does, and a show about being black.
“The thesis with this show was to show people what it’s like to be black, and you can’t write that down. You have to feel it,” Donald Glover to critics at FX’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour.
And there it begins, it’s also a visually enthralling piece of narration, with no real thread of narration. The broader storyline focuses on Earn(est) Marks, a Princeton dropout for reasons unknown and unfocused on, trying to find a footing in everyday life and going from broke to – not broke. He finds out that his cousin Alfred is underground (as in un-signed) rapper Paperboi and pays him a visit with the offer to manage him. We follow Earn trying to get Paperboi to the top of the charts while navigating his own life, taking care of his baby daughter he has with his ex-girlfriend Van, partly relying on his parents to babysit, and working on a $5.15/hour job at the airport, trying to make poor travelers fall into the trap of applying for a credit card (I’ve been there, trust me, it’s a trap). There’s Darius, who’s close to Earn’s cousin and is involved in Paperboi’s real-life money-making profession – selling drugs; there’s a black Justin Bieber, visits to the club, the county lockup, guns and violence, the hustle of making money by trading up one’s possessions, a Juneteenth celebration and so much more. The episodes run 20ish minutes long and I wish there were more. As do the viewers apparently – reading comments on Atlanta’s Facebook site, on YouTube clips, on tumblr made me grasp the level of appreciation viewers show for the show. Also the ratings suggest high approval.
Surreal, so real, too real
While the viewer is thrown into the broader storyline of Earn trying to make a career for his cousin, we also dive into the protagonists’ day to day (and also unusual) experiences. Director Hiro Murai, who collaborated with Donald Glover before for music videos for Childish Gambino, captures those situations intriguingly. The colour palette plays with muted hues, and the setting creates an atmosphere that fleshes out a (part of the) city that feels real.
“He compares Atlanta to a wool jacket that you need to put on to realize that you don’t hate wool jackets. “I actually kind of like this,” he says, as he mimes putting it on. “I guess it is a little itchy, but I like the way it fits.” Donald Glover to critics at FX’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour.
The atmosphere is furthermore elevated by visual and storytelling aspects that make you question what you just saw. This is not a dark and messy show, it’s fun and really laugh out loud funny sometimes, but in the juxtaposition between hilarious situations, pieces of dialogue or plain visual gags and the (sometimes harsh) reality that comes with them, exactly that reality is highlighted. There’s a strange person uttering philosophical truths while making a nutella sandwich on the bus Earn takes, there are invisible getaway cars, special needs incarcerated inmates that dance in the holding cell – but in a matter of seconds the nice guy with the sandwich becomes a threat, the getaway car runs over a couple of people and the inmate that made everyone laugh, get’s beaten to a pulp by the guards in the holding cell.
“People may watch and say ‘I don’t get this guy — I don’t understand him,’ and I think that’s good.” Donald Glover
Looking into the lives of the protagonists
Earn sort of stumbles through his life. He doesn’t seem to be his parents absolute dream boy, he hasn’t seen his cousin in a while who then confides in Earn’s parents that he „doesn’t trust him“, he’s broke, for whatever reason left Princeton University, shares a daughter, bed and apartment with his (ex)girlfriend Van, but only if he pays rent. But Earn, whose name is both in short- as in longform so telling, wanders through life with a good heart, the right intentions, open (wondrous) eyes and the charme Donald Glover brings to life seemingly so easily. He tries to make it in the rap scene, for which he’s not tough enough – while trying to get the money for an appearance Paperboi had in a club he tells his cousin, „I just don’t scare people like you, man. Like, Niggas know I drink juice.“ He is too broke to make an investment with the little money he has, has to make ends meet while showing Van that he can make the effort to provide for his baby daughter (which involves spending money, taking her out for a nice meal).
But he doesn’t resort to drug dealing, unlike his cousin who’s conflicted between the responsibility of being a rapper the kids and adults of the community look up to and the need to make money as well as being part of the rap narrative in the business. There’s a great episode with a black Justin Bieber (exactly the same performer and story, but with dark skin) in which Alfred confronts him on the basketball court for his ways, which leads to Bieber’s „Sorry“-tour of apologizing while having a new sound and single out (sound familiar?). Here Alfred is shown the boundaries of the rap narrative in show business, when a journalist tells him how nobody wants the rapper (him) to be „the good one“. So we follow his doings as a dealer as well as trying to get a foot in the door of the industry.
“I want people to feel scared, because that’s what it feels like to be black. Amazing things can happen, but it can be taken away in a moment.” Donald Glover
The perspective shifts continually, the viewer for instance sees how Van lives. As a teacher, as a woman navigating her worth and as a mother, trying to set up a good life for herself as for her daughter. Partly she (thinks she) has to rely on Earn and his company for this, but luckily there are instances in which she holds her own without even thinking about him or being reliant on a man.
“The thing that I’m most proud of with this show is that we got away with being honest. The things that people are most attracted to online are the things that are the realest, the most honest. We tried to do that on the show because I feel like that’s a part of being black that people don’t see. I’m trying to make people feel black.” Donald Glover
Trying to make people feel black
Atlanta shows us a city. And the many layers of navigating life as someone with black skin. We get glimpses on society, the rules of class struggle, race and its implications, gender, mistreatment of the mentally ill, the prison system, being a stereotype and playing the game, transphobia, expectations and lifestyle. It mirrors the way social media has an influence on our lives and how a woke bae might linger in a white liberal optometrist.
It also makes us laugh so hard and is weird as hell. Donald Glover and the cast are a delight. And I haven’t even told you about the whole episode (B.A.N.) that’s set up like an afternoon on BET (Black Entertainment Television, a tv channel), including various advertisements, a black teenager claiming to identify as a middle-aged white man called Harrison, the concept of trans-racialism applied – differently (think of Rachel Dolezal for that matter) (Also: Who did it better, Mr Robot or Atlanta?). Nor did I tell you about Earn’s wonderingly but also stone-cold and matter of factly placed observations at a party celebrating Juneteenth.
You never know what is real and what is not, the loose structure of the events doesn’t make it a coherent series that’s made for continuity storytelling purposes. It’s not made to make a point or to point the finger. I love it for that. In times of Beyoncé making Lemonade, Solange claiming A Seat at the Table, the first Black President and his wife spending their last weeks in the White House and Hamilton mixing up perceptions across the board, Atlanta is a delight. It’s funny and sad, it’s high and low, it’s brutal and tender – it’s Atlanta.
Editor’s note: Donald Glover is not only the new Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars universe, but will appear in Marvel’s Spiderman Homecoming. A new season for the renewed Atlanta might be a while. Damn it, you super likeable and talented Donald Glover.
image credit: Erda Estremera, via unsplash.com