If there’s anyone currently in pop culture with an idiosyncratic personality and perspective on life, it’s arguably Donald Glover. The 32-year-old wunderkind actor/rapper first rose to prominence on YouTube, and then as a young writer for NBC’s “30 Rock” before scoring a role on the cult hit “Community.” But around 2011, Glover began an unexpected route into the world of hip-hop, releasing a multitude of EPs and mixtapes under the Wu-Tang generated moniker Childish Gambino. Though most critics didn’t initially take him seriously, Glover developed a loyal fanbase and continued to perform as Childish. He toured, released his second studio album Because the Internet in 2013 and his EP Kauai in 2014.
As he eventually cut ties with “Community” and his stand-up background, Glover gradually went from being known as the goofy Troy on “Community” to a serious, hard-working and occasionally self-deprecating artist. Glover puts his knowledge of hip hop and comedy to good use, intersecting them beautifully and almost seamlessly as the writer, producer and star of the FX sitcom “Atlanta.”
Blessed with an incredible cast, breathtaking visuals and authentic writing, the refreshing “Atlanta” achieves a rare balance between witty, deadpan humor and pathos that most comedies about success and the American Dream struggle to attain. Next to “Master of None,” “Atlanta” is the Goldilocks of socially conscious comedy: thought-provoking without being didactic, eccentric but not alienating and intelligent without trying to be high-brow.
Among the few exciting TV programs showcasing more diverse storytelling — “Master of None,” “The Get Down,” “The Carmichael Show” and the upcoming “Insecure” — “Atlanta” is a huge standout, presenting the modern day Black experience with both hilarious and sobering results.
Glover leads as straight-man Earnest “Earn” Marks, a Princeton dropout struggling with a dead-end job at the airport and a complicated home situation with Vanessa (newcomer Zazie Beetz), his best friend and the mother of his infant daughter. But once he discovers his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry, “Boardwalk Empire”) is an up-and-coming rapper named Paper Boi, Earn sees an opportunity to manage him and make something out of his own life.
Plot-wise, “Atlanta” can seem like another conventional coming-of-age story, and in a sense, it is deceptively simple. However, with Glover’s deft sensibilities and keen observational eye, “Atlanta” spins the formula in a thoughtful and entertaining way, making us laugh in one scene and pensively reflect during another.
Directed by music video filmmaker Hiro Murai, “Atlanta” ’s first two episodes make the most out of developing the characters and story, even showing the city itself as a character. Murai adopts a visual style as unconventional and intriguing as “Mr. Robot” ’s, utilizing the city’s spacious exterior with beautiful aerial shots and gorgeous wide shots and the interiors of city complexes with soft focus and intimate framing.
While the pilot, “The Big Bang,” spends most of its half-hour setting up the story, as any first episode would, it quickly establishes each main character’s voice and personality, illustrated by the dynamic of Earn, Paper Boi and his soft-spoken assistant Darius (an excellent Keith Stanfield, “Straight Outta Compton”). At first, Paper Boi is reluctant to bring Earn aboard his burgeoning rap enterprise, believing that he’s only trying to manage him for the money. Both Earn’s persistence and Paper Boi’s hesitance seem genuine, thanks to their witty banter and Glover and Henry’s acting chops. However, once Earn gets Paper Boi’s song on the radio, they join forces. Things seem to turn for the better until a hostile encounter with a hater leads both Earn and Paper Boi to jail.
In the second episode, “Streets on Lock,” Earn and Paper Boi each experience the aftermath of that encounter to an equally gut-busting and terrifying effect. Uncomfortable with the early trappings of fame, Paper Boi attempts to divert his fans, but can’t seem to escape his notoriety. Simultaneously, while Earn waits in processing, he witnesses the mistreatment of the mentally ill, police brutality and transphobia in three blistering sequences. His awkwardness in these situations provide some much-needed levity, but these scenes will nevertheless render you speechless.
The beauty of “Atlanta” is that it never once feels like it’s trying so hard to showcase why its observations on societal issues are important; it just does. The camera simply captures Earn, Paper Boi and Darius journeying through mundane, everyday situations in the trenches of the Georgian capital. To sum it up: “Atlanta” is definitely one of the best (if not the best) shows of the fall season and truly captures the peak of Donald Glover’s career as an artist and voice of our generation.