S1E01 “The Big Bang” and S1E02 “Streets on Lock”
Rapper, actor, writer, and now showrunner Donald Glover was raised on two cultures. On the one hand, Glover was known for his writing on 30 Rock and his acting on Community. Casts and writers for both shows were predominantly white, and both shows attracted young, white audiences. On the other hand, Glover raps under the moniker Childish Gambino. His 2013 album Because the Internet (accompanied by a short film, Clapping for the Wrong Reasons) was met with critical acclaim.
Atlanta is a natural step forward. The show introduces Earn Marks (Glover) and his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry). Paper Boi had become one of the hottest new rappers in the Atlanta hip-hop scene overnight. Earn, wanting to enter the hip hop scene himself, offers to manage Paper Boi.
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The first thing you notice about Atlanta is that it looks like a Childish Gambino music video. It’s no surprise that both episodes were directed by Hiro Murai, who also directed the music videos from Because the Internet. The result is pretty. Music videos from this decade tend to be overly artsy and only have about three colours, but it kinda worked for Clapping for the Wrong Reasons (Murai directed that too); it only gets better in Atlanta.
However, Childish Gambino music videos aren’t really funny. Atlanta is. It isn’t a laugh-a-minute-show like 30 Rock or Community; rather, it’s very situational and surreal. Characters often end up in ridiculous situations and aren’t afraid to call each other out on their bullshit. Earn confronts a local white jock-type radio DJ in the first episode and finds himself in a hyper-aggressive police station in the second. None of those situations are ideal in real life, but they still end up being funny while keeping it real.
Keeping it real; maybe that’s the most important thing about Atlanta—that it provides a quality portrayal of a non-white perspective on television. Atlanta’s hardly the first show to do this, but it’s still an honest premise. Much like all of Glover’s other works to date, it’s business and personal. Henry bemoaned that people tend to pick and choose how others view their lives, but praised Glover for showing his perspective on the hip-hop scene—warts and all. Glover himself noted that he “wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.” The show has an all-black writing team and Glover’s own experiences in the hip-hop scene are put on full display. The Paper Boi song you hear in the first episode sounds like Royalty-era Childish; it doesn’t help that his brother provides the rap vocals.
Yet Atlanta isn’t inherently political. It isn’t meant to be. Glover grew up in the projects with comedy, and said that he “never wanted this shit to be important… all that shit is wack to me.” Although Atlanta introduces a side to hip-hop culture that we don’t know about very well, it is first and foremost ridiculous, raw, and pretty. I grew up in suburbia but I’m also a first generation Korean immigrant; it’s great to see some different faces through Atlanta, but the show is more humour than history.
So is Atlanta a comedy or a gritty and conscious cultural work? Despite Glover’s comments above, it does an excellent job portraying both. This is perhaps the upside to growing up with multiple cultures—perspective. If that’s not really your thing, these episodes at least show a promising premise for a fun show to come.