The real world is always a fascinating canvas for a television series, and with the right mix of precision and imagination any show in that particular light could be depicted as more than the sum of its parts while retaining a striking authenticity. But in order for that kind of show to work, it needs to embrace its nuances – which doesn’t necessarily mean following a typical TV show format. For the typical viewer, the greatest challenge in experiencing Atlanta is acknowledging that it doesn’t follow a typical TV show format: anything can happen, and you have to just accept that as Gospel. However, those who quickly come around to this approach and simply go along for the ride will realize that FX’s latest life-chronicling comedy relies on its inherent unpredictability to broaden its thematic flexibility, which lends to its relatively grounded trappings. There is a living, breathing world in this new series that feels just as real as yours or mine, but it’s not confined to a specific tone or a method of storytelling. Atlanta portrays the subtleties of everyday life by playing by its own rules, allowing the viewer to interpret the proceedings however he or she interprets them; that alone is enough to warrant its freshman season a resounding success.
Following the earnest exploits of – ahem – Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover), his cousin and sort-of client Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), and shockingly enlightening realist Darius (Keith Stanfield), Atlanta presents the daily happenings of everyday life under the perspectives of three ambitious African-American males (and one African-American female who I will delve into later) struggling to thrive amidst their surroundings. About three or four episodes in, after their dynamic together is cemented, we get a surreal sense of the world they live in and the hurdles it leaves in their wake. For Earn, his hurdles include making ends meet: he’s a child-caring father with little money to his name, carrying a disposition that appears even smaller than his pockets. Alfred does a particularly better job gathering cash, but his “Paper Boi” hip-hop persona generates an entirely different wave of trouble he combats throughout most of the season. Darius, however, is more or less just there – but in the best possible way imaginable. From his insights to his incredible relatability, he quickly justifies his presence by being far and away more likeable and down-to-earth than anyone else I’ve seen on television in quite some time (a good portion of that is the result of Stanfield’s performance, but the character himself is fantastic all the same).
I cannot stress enough how important it is to understand these characters, particularly because a large portion of the season revolves around their perceptions of the real world. For example: “Streets on Lock”, the worthy extension to a rather fantastic pilot offering, is largely a showcase of Earn’s many different deadpan reactions to the endless array of personalities he either bumps into, or, in this particular episode’s case, is confined to a police precinct room with. Despite virtually saying a few lines and resorting to facial expressions, Glover’s performance opens us up to the realization that his character simply does not fit in with the environment from which he’s been brought forth – but the real magic in “Streets” is how it perpetuates this notion through setting. The police precinct plays as much of a character as Earn or Alfred, and through the drag queen, the mentally unstable jailbird, the abrupt police brutality and the number of masterfully-written conversations in-between, we are given an incredibly vivid sense of Atlanta the city through Earn’s eyes.
Through Alfred, Atlanta not only gives way to the rest of Atlanta’s underpinnings, but exercises a media outlet that offers some considerably strong social commentary. One of today’s biggest stereotypes in the music industry is the belief that the typical rapper is little more than a tunnel-visioned gang-banger with minuscule disregard for the influence his or her work may have on society; Atlanta both counters and slightly bends towards this through the gradual upswing of “Paper Boi”. In order for Alfred’s hip-hop lifestyle to seem plausibly adjacent to the personality of his everyday ego, the show needs to properly establish that dynamic and “The Big Bang” and “Go for Broke” both expertly parlay the musical talent (Alfred’s mixtape rightfully making waves on the radio in the former episode) and the hustle (Alfred’s drug-dealing shenanigans in the latter) necessary to do so. As a result, his ability to stay afloat financially while his music career continues to ascend doesn’t counteract with the credibility found elsewhere in Atlanta. However, these factors alert Alfred of his surroundings to the same extent that up-selling, exasperating waitresses and evasive club owners remind Earn of the significance surrounding his own monetary progression. The way he reluctantly obliges to take photos with the police officer in “Streets on Lock”, as well as his subsequent attempts to clarify his stance on violence to influential children, are prime examples of the plight he must undergo as a byproduct of his career path. When he’s tussling with a Black Justin Bieber in a celebrity basketball game, or facing a Twitter war with a multi-cultural personality who’s true roots of nationality are undefined, Alfred also has to fight for and/or defend his reputation in an uphill battle with the media.
Even though this season plays off as more of a collection of individual episodes than a serial story arc, it gives characters like Alfred ample room to develop, with life experiences like these quietly molding into a game-changing moment later on. This is where installments like “The Club” come in. A breathtaking portrayal of the Atlanta club life scene, this particular episode finds Alfred losing his shit, as the frustration of playing second-fiddle to a more popular public figure leads to an act of pure “gangsta” instinct that redeems Earn and rejuvenates the ideal that “Paper Boi” deserves his due. The actual scene that perpetuates all of this is as fascinating as it is hilarious, but that could be said of a couple dozen other brilliant moments throughout season one that help define everyone else. In “Juneteenth” Earn dishes out his own comeuppance to a married couple who’s devoid of any emotional attachment to the culture they label themselves under, and that comes after his inability to handle the situation that sparks Alfred’s “oh shit” moment from “The Club”. For Earn, this scene appears to be his own coming out party, with the unflinching awareness of his personality finally catching up to the heaping load of bullshit he’s taken from society. By confidently speaking his mind to Monique and Craig over quietly filtering his thoughts, he’s proving to the viewers at home that he’s tired of playing a pre-determined role (I.E. showing up to the Allen’s Juneteenth in a pseudo-happy guise with Van just to maintain a certain appearance) and, as with the fast-food clerk in “Go For Broke” and the aforementioned, evasive club owner, being short-changed by others.
Atlanta was certainly in no shortage of wonderful characters this season, but none of which were as brilliantly-conceived as Van. Subverting nearly every trope in the “cranky spouse/budding love interest” comedy book, this woman faced the toughest of obstacles among the four leads (living with Earn, taking care of her daughter with Earn, bailing Earn out of prison, losing her teacher’s job over an admittedly failed drug test), and never before have I seen someone so honestly tackle the lows and continue marching on. Given the unusual living situation between her, Earn and their child, she’s constantly living a life filled with regret and crushed ambitions – but none of that deters from her own personal pride and determination. Van also keeps it real, and the dinner scenes in “Go for Broke” and “Value” are surefire indications that she doesn’t believe in compromise. Zazie Beetz does excellent work here, exhibiting Van’s wide range of emotions with a startling pragmatism – but, again, Van keeps it real, and when the script’s calls for Beetz to react to the absurdity of others we see her at her absolute best. Furthermore, the dynamic portrayed by both Zazie Beetz and Donald Glover is given exceptional nuance through Van’s soft spot for Earn; a negligible character arc centered around the structural fortitude of parenthood that gets a pair of perfect payoffs at the tail end of the season’s final two episodes.
As I mentioned earlier, Atlanta is a very non-linear television show, and with that approach the show doubles down on enveloping viewers with its unique take on the real world. Whether it’s a casual afternoon stroll through Atlanta’s shady underground markets, or an actual guest appearance from Migos, there’s an innate sense of realism in each scene that’s extremely arresting; every opportunity Glover and company get to characterize this city through scenery or one-off encounters with other civilians is proudly taken. Like most other shows with the TV-MA label, Atlanta‘s also prone to violence, but even those brief instances of death and belligerence are handled carefully enough to feel tangible and immersive. These things come together outside of the main action to not only perpetuate Glover’s view of Atlanta, but to also let us know that this city is as essential as the characters who live in it.
From a interpretive standpoint, this season carries a whole lot more meat than you’d think, and part of that is because of the directional approach allowing for a number of moments that ignite the variable responses viewers probably have while watching Atlanta. Sometimes, we get strange little occurrences like the man in “The Streisand Effect” who’s pleading on the phone before a herd of baby goats, and the white-faced student in “Value” who exudes one of the creepiest smiles a child could ever exude. The rest is either filled with rewarding levity (who can ever forget the “lightsaber”-wielding valet from “Go for Broke”?) or woeful reality (the police shooting in “The Jacket”). Even with repeated viewings, these instances appear to only exist as singular events or images: the show doesn’t even bother giving them much context, and when they do have context the intention comes off as open-ended. (The mysterious outcome of the shooting in the pilot episode is a prime example of this, and I’m absolutely certain that it will be a talking point for years to come.) Ultimately, they simulate the immediate, unorthodox and inexplicable nature of real life, giving Atlanta an added depth that gives it a distinct edge over other offerings in the genre.
If there’s any true concern that certain viewers may or should have with Atlanta, it’s most likely its loose narrative structure. Because it relies on a boundless form of storytelling, we never get a crystal clear idea of what the show is building up towards, and I could see that rubbing off on some folks the wrong way. Sometimes, it’s good to just know exactly where things are going, but Atlanta is far more content with expressing its characters and its talking points. The BET spoof “B.A.N.” is loaded with keen pop culture references and sight gags that not only poke fun at the network the show is directly insulting, but provide a strong argument base for some of America’s most undervalued political issues. Alfred may have not gotten paid for his time on “Montague”, but at least he participated in a heated exchange that has him saying things stored in the back of many people’s minds (like, for example, how little some individuals actually care about Caitlyn Jenner, and how laughably insulting they find cross-racial identity crisis). This is also an uproariously hilarious half-hour of television, maximizing the potential of telling many different stories about race, gender, equality and pure common sense through a variety of meta-heavy commercials. Where “B.A.N.” polarizes the Atlanta fanbase is in its lack of narrative progression; you’re either on board with this one-off approach and enjoy it for what it is (like I did), or become innately frustrated with its level of stagnation.
Everything this season eventually circles back around to Earn, whose personal plight throughout the season culminates in the reassurance of his “outsider” persona. The reveal that his personal home is a storage room tells us he’s slowly figuring out how to survive on his own, while the slight bit of cash to his name represents a promising start for better things. All season long, he’s had to overcome the adversities society has laid in his path, and the heartwarming catharsis he gets from both Alfred and Van in “The Jacket” bring the character arcs of those three individuals together beautifully. Suffix to say, season two will most likely handle the task of showing us whether or not the new status quo – Earn’s “house”, Paper Boi on tour, Van’s job search – will lead to better things for these folks. Even if it somehow doesn’t, and the entire concept of a narrative is thrown out the window, we’d get to continue exploring their socially conscious misadventures in Atlanta – and still be all the better for it.
Atlanta, if nothing else, is a confirmation of Donald Glover’s expertise and versatility as an entertainer. His vision here proudly exudes social commentary with a raw accuracy, tackling the nuances of race, gender and social stature in remarkably refreshing ways. In addition, the trials and tribulations of life in Atlanta is captured with an authenticity that breathes life and character into both the show’s setting and its character beats. It also helps that the cast is outstanding, with Glover and Beetz in particular giving us honest portrayals of human beings who are constantly navigating their way towards a promising future together. The lack of a true defined narrative may be a bit off-putting for certain viewers, but given the amount of creative freedom as a result it’s hard to argue with the unusual approach this show decides to take.
Personally, I loved just about every minute of Atlanta this season. The show is such a breezy watch, but it doesn’t overindulge in its distinguishing qualities. Every episode offers something substantial the writers have to say, but never did I get the sense that I was being forced to agree with the perspective. Above all else, it’s so darn striking in its execution – regardless of whether the mood is comedic, tragic, or enlightening – that it truly feels like an enthralling escape from an actual real world to one seen through someone else’s eyes. 2016 has been a great year for television in general, but it’s television series like these that transcend our expectations – and prove that shows don’t always need to follow a set structure in order to succeed.
+ Casting, script, and performances
+ Realistic portrayal of Atlanta
+ Loose, non-linear episodic structure makes each episode feel fresh and unique
+ Unexpectedly weird, violent, cathartic moments