The Deadpan Passion Of Donald Glover’s ‘Atlanta’

In the new FX series Atlanta, Donald Glover plays Earnest “Earn” Marks, a twentysomething striver stuck in a dead-end sales job. When Earn’s cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry), starts to make his mark as a rapper, Earn hears opportunity knock. Earn believes riches are in his future if he can hitch his wagon to Paper Boi. But as Atlanta unfolds over the course of its first four episodes, a more urgent concern looms: Earn lives on the edge of poverty. As he explains in one episode, “Poor people don’t have time for investments, because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor.”

If Atlanta were only a TV show about people who live paycheck to paycheck, it would be an important anomaly. Whether it’s cable, network, or streaming, the vast majority of television shows depict the troubles and triumphs of upper middle class (or plain old rich) people. Those in the lower tax brackets, meanwhile, are virtually invisible. So, it’s refreshing to watch Earn, Paper Boi, and Paper Boi’s drug-dealing sidekick Darius (Keith Stanfield) deal with the myriad indignities of being young, black, and cash-strapped in America, which in the first four episodes range from the relatable (going on a date with only $62 in your pocket) to the absurd (like a storyline about bartering that involves a samurai sword and a batch of $2,000 puppies).

But what truly sets Atlanta apart as one of TV’s most appealing new comedies is how it nails a tricky (and highly effective) balance between gentle, discursive storytelling and sardonic commentary. It doesn’t tackle race, class, and cultural issues head-on so much as cleverly doodle in their margins.

In the first two episodes airing back-to-back for the series’ premiere on Tuesday, topics such as gun violence and police brutality are broached. But rather than make a grandiose statement about the state of the union, Glover (who is also Atlanta‘s creator, executive producer, and co-writer) is more concerned with the tragicomic minutia of how these harsh realities affect the lives of the characters. When Earn winds up briefly imprisoned, Atlanta lingers on the particulars of the prison conversations and the specifics of the regional accents; that Earn is surrounded by black inmates and white police officers is presented matter-of-factly, without comment.

At heart, Atlanta is a hangout show, kind of like Seinfeld only now with a gang of friends who riff on Kendrick Lamar and whether black people know who Steve McQueen is (the actor, not the 12 Years a Slave director). While Atlanta is hardly a show “about nothing,” it’s not especially concerned with plot or exposition. Rather, the focus is on the characters and tracing the twisted contours of their conversations. Glover holds the center as the surprisingly weary and quietly desperate Earn — surprising because it’s a far cry from the meta-goofiness of his role as Troy on Community.

While Glover is funny and engaging in the role, he’s content to let Henry and especially Stanfield (who steals even more scenes on Atlanta than he did as Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton) get most of the laughs. Henry oozes confidence and authority as Paper Boi, though in accordance with Atlanta‘s tone, his rap career is essentially a backdrop for exploring the eccentricity of the character, which include a weakness for “magic ribs.” As stoner-philosopher Darius, Stanfield is typically the funniest part of every episode, even when Atlanta hints at his darker side. (One of my favorite scenes from the first four episodes involves Darius hiding a gun in a cereal box. “There’s probably a bullet in here somewhere,” he deadpans.)

Earn’s time is split between Paper Boi and Darius and his complicated home life with his ex-girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz), and their young daughter. The scenes at home are a slight comedown from the group dynamic with the guys; when the typically sharp writing (handled in the early episodes by Glover and his brother Stephen) slips, it’s usually with Van, who thus far hasn’t been developed much beyond the “disapproving woman” archetype. The purpose of Van and the child for now is mostly about providing Earn with stakes for his burgeoning music career.

The other important character in Atlanta, of course, is the titular city in which it’s set. Beautiful and blighted in equal measures, the Atlanta of Atlanta is a wondrously multifaceted place that feels more authentic and specific than most TV settings. The credit for that, again, goes to local native Glover as well as director Hiro Murai, who previously made his name as a video director but on Atlanta demonstrates an excellent proclivity for infusing what might normally be mundane scenes — eating, shopping, even parking — with local color that add to the show’s singular perspective.

In an interview with New York‘s Rembert Browne, Glover said that with Atlanta he “wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.” While that quote subsequently became the focus of New York‘s story, it’s not entirely reflective of what Atlanta actually is. In fact, Atlanta hardly seems concerned with white people at all. A doofy radio station DJ who’s a little too loose with his use of the n-word in the pilot is one of the only white characters in the first four episodes; otherwise, Atlanta presents a world where whites might as well not exist, a sly reversal of how most TV shows operate. But for Glover, this seems less political and more about staying true to the world that he’s exploring. With Atlanta, he’s made a show that should appeal to all audiences, so long as they’re willing to meet him on his very particular wavelength, rather than expect him to conform to them.

Atlanta premieres with back-to-back episodes Tuesday, September 6, on FX.