Struggling rappers. Single parents. Discussions about racial slurs. The difficulty of buying a Happy Meal when you’re a grown man who can’t afford a Big Mac. These are just a sampling of topics mined for laughs during the course of FX’s new original series Atlanta. Suffice to say, this isn’t your average sitcom. The creation of Donald Glover, who left his starring role on the cult-favorite NBC series Community to strike out on his own, Atlanta provides a different flavor of TV comedy that’s much-needed and has been long-awaited.
Glover left his old show all the way back in 2013 to work on his “hip-hop comedy,” which it’s premiering some three years later is a relative snail’s pace in the fast-paced world of modern television. Sometimes these things take time. The prolonged period of marinating has produced a show with a rock-solid foundation that allows it to take exhilarating flights of fancy and surreal diversions in its pursuit of laughs. Glover stars as Earn, a young man struggling to support his baby daughter whilst maintaining a fractious relationship with Van, the girl’s mother. An answer to his prayers appears to come in cousin Alfred. Working his way up the ladder of fame under rap name Paper Boi, Alfred takes Earn on as his agent.
From there…well, all manner of things happen. Drug deals go wrong. Twitter beefs are forged. Justin Bieber has a cameo (sort of). There’s an entire episode framed as a fake talk show. Police brutality is examined. The struggle is confirmed, at last, to be real. And amidst all that, the jokes come thick and fast. Here are eight reasons you have to stream Atlanta through your VIDGO service this Fall.
Obviously, the most important part of any comedy is if it makes you laugh. Preferably out loud. Thankfully, Atlanta isn’t short on the LOL-worthy material. Before the series premiered, Glover pitched it as “Twin Peaks with rappers”. Thankfully, dead homecoming queens wrapped in plastic have been few and far between (so far), but the surreal air of the show’s comedy feels of a piece with that cult series. Weird, esoteric gags thus far have included an Instagram star who poses with an “invisible car” he got from Google in his photos. Which amount to a man pretending to lean on nothing. Or is he…?
When it’s not trading in such offbeat humor, Atlanta is turning a sideways glance towards aspects of popular culture and identity politics. “Justin Bieber” appeared in an episode as a player in a charity basketball game, played by a black actor, examining the pop star’s white privilege and co-opting of rap culture. It was a riot. As was an episode filmed entirely as an episode of a talk show airing on the B.E.T.-spoofing “B.A.N. Network”. Without ever falling prey to the dreaded phenomenon of “clapter”, Atlanta is both funny and categorically woke.
The jokes come thick and fast, but there’s a reality anchoring Atlanta even when it’s at its most whacked-out. So far the show hasn’t shied away from depicting the often bleak realities of being a black member of the working class, especially in the southern states. The second episode, in particular, saw police brutality put under the microscope. A topic which has never been far from people’s lips — let alone the media both traditional and social — this past couple of years crashes down onto the happy-go-lucky comedy world of the show with serious consequences.
After being witness to his cousin pulling a gun on a rival, Earn finds himself up in a holding cell. During his overnight stay, he meets a series of colorful characters. The whole thing is very dream-like, very surreal, and very funny. Earn even learns a thing or two about trans rights and gender fluidity, something which returns as the main topic for a later episode. That reverie is broken when a mentally ill inmate gets brutally attacked by one of the officers on duty. The sudden incursion of realistic, chilling violence causes a visceral reaction. The rest of the episode goes back to the laughs, but the point has been made. Such unprovoked violence can interrupt the lives of these characters at any moment.
Atlanta could have easily been a vanity project for Donald Glover. He certainly wouldn’t be the first comedian given carte blanche to create his own show, to then go and make it a vehicle for his enormous ego. Fortunately, it’s anything but. In fact, two of the best episodes of the first season so far haven’t featured Glover’s Earn as an on-screen presence at all. Credit where credit is due, Glover also resists the urge to make the soundtrack a showcase for his own music, produced under the name Childish Gambino. Instead, it’s a characteristically deep dive into the music of the real-life Atlanta.
Georgia’s capital city has a diverse hip-hop culture that has produced musicians as varied as Outkast, T.I., Gucci Mane and Usher. With Future a notable exception, so far Atlanta’s intro and outro music have highlighted tracks by lesser-known Southern MCs including Kodak Black, Yo Gotti and OJ da Juiceman. Other episodes have reached outside the genre to soul legend Billy Paul and saxophonist par excellence Kamasi Washington. FX likely have the sort of cash that could bestow Atlanta with wall-to-wall Billboard chart hits. Instead, Glover and music supervisor Jen Malone craft a carefully-curated musical introduction to the vibe and tone of the show’s world.
Stories of rags-to-riches rap stars aren’t hard to find. In fact, you could go into a record store, randomly select a hip-hop record from the racks, and there’s a good chance the lyrics will spend most of their time chronicling the rapper’s rise to stardom. Fictionalized depictions of said journey are equally as common, with FOX’s Empire being amongst the most popular and star-studded currently airing. Atlanta’s premise is similar to this hip-hop hero’s journey, at least on paper. The slow rise of its rap star, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, may take a while before he gets to limos, boardroom disputes, and Grammys.
That’s because Paper Boi is a rapper at the very start of his career. In the first batch of episodes, he’s achieved a level of local notoriety for a single that got radio play and a well-received mixtape. Outside of Georgia, though, he’s still a nobody. And he’s not making enough scratch from the music business that he can give up his side gig of dealing drugs and living that authentic gangsta lifestyle. For a genre of music so associated with glitz and glamour, it’s fascinating to see Brian Tyree Henry’s nuanced performance as a musician who is still just trying to get by, testing the boundaries where fame and a criminal record intersect.
Every comedy has its break-out star. More often than not it’s one of the oddball supporting characters. You have your Ron Swansons (or even Jean-Ralphios) from Parks and Recreation, your Kramers from Seinfeld. Whilst it does reinvent the wheel in many ways, Atlanta very much adheres to this traditional sitcom trend. And like many of the best break-out characters, Keith Stanfield’s Darius is a true oddball. Paper Boi’s right-hand man drawls non-sequiturs and goes on crazy adventures that make for some of the most laugh out loud moments in the first season.
So far, if you’re catching up on VIDGO, you can see what happens when the perpetually-stoned Darius goes to a shooting range (and gets in trouble for taking aim at paper targets of animals, instead of people) or winds up at a fancy nightclub. Stanfield’s performance is absolute comedy gold, with a deadpan delivery even when delivering the most outlandish lines. Already a familiar face from small dramatic roles in Snowden and Straight Outta Compton — he played Snoop Dogg! — Darius feels like the first part that lets Stanfield totally run away with every scene he’s in.
Already Atlanta’s star/creator/writer/director/producer has an impressive fan following. As a comedian, he slowly built an audience through online sketches produced with his sketch group Derrick Comedy, along with his solo stand-up specials. As a rapper, he’s released two albums, two EPs and seven mixtapes under the moniker Childish Gambino, achieving crossover success by collaborating with the likes of Chance The Rapper, Azealia Banks and Beck. TV fans love him for his role as the absent-minded nerd-jock hybrid Troy from cult sitcom Community (currently in syndication and expected soon on your VIDGO app).
Mark our words: 2017 is the year Donald Glover’s bonfire goes supernova. Having already racked up impressive supporting turns in the likes of Magic Mike XXL and The Martian, news has just come through that his next movie appearance will be even bigger. Glover was recently cast as Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo film, playing a younger version of the classic Star Wars character. If Glover isn’t already a household name, between Atlanta and a trip far, far away, he certainly will be soon. Be there at the beginning so you can brag to your friends that you were into him before he hit the big time.
Fox’s previously-tiny cable channel has proven itself to be amongst the most original and consistent providers of new comedy airing at the moment. After dipping their toes in with experimental fare like Louie and crowd-pleasers like The League, FX has expanded its line-up of new series and added a spinoff channel, FXX. And they’ve continued to add tons of great shows to their stable. Louis C.K. has helped shepherd regular collaborator Pamela Adlon’s brilliant Better Things to the airwaves, and unconventional rom-com You’re The Worst has made headlines for its gags and sensitive handling of mental health issues alike.
At this point, FX’s brand is a name you can trust. Much as AMC is synonymous with quality, high-budget drama and NBC with solid sitcom fare, so is FX now linked with the high concept comedy that takes risks. Risks which more often than not work out. If the company you keep speaks volumes about you as a person, the fact that Atlanta airs on the same channel as the likes of Archer, Better Things and You’re The Worst (along with original dramas like Fargo and American Horror Story) should be recommendation enough. There are plenty more reasons you should be lining episodes up on your VIDGO service, of course.
The writers’ room of Atlanta is distinct from most others on television. For one thing, most of the team Donald Glover assembled for his first series as the creator haven’t actually really worked in TV before. Rather than get veterans of scripted comedy, he decided that you get a fresher angle by employing outsider viewpoints from comedians, musicians, and friends. It’s also the only all-black writing team working on a show. There are a refreshing number of black-lead shows on the airwaves right now, from Blackish to Empire, but that diversity doesn’t always carry through to behind the camera.
As such, Atlanta gives audiences a look into experiences and situations that don’t often appear in television shows. Something else unique about the series? It’s not filmed in Los Angeles or New York. Atlanta is actually filmed in and around Georgia, meaning that when you fire up an episode on VIDGO you are literally seeing somewhere you don’t normally see on screen. The Atlanta, GA surroundings have their own particular vibe, and the show very much plays into that, along with the city’s real-life cultural history of hip-hop and socioeconomic makeup. There’s a novelty value to that, plus a whole lot more besides.