While Donald Glover’s excursions into rap music and stand-up comedy have both been rather divisive endeavors, Atlanta, his first foray into running a television show, is the most universal wellspring of support for the multi-hyphenate since the internet arbitrarily decided he should be Spider-Man years ago. Despite being purposefully niche in its execution, the half hour dramedy succeeds at appealing to the outer edges of Glover’s constituency. As ubiquitous as the term has become, Atlanta is an unequivocally, unapologetically black show, and while it doesn’t exactly wash away the litany of tracks he’s recorded stuffed full of cringeworthy Asian fetishism, it goes a long way towards repairing his reputation with black audiences.
Atlanta follows a really basic premise. Glover himself plays Earnest “Earn” Marks, a perpetually broke Princeton dropout trying to provide for his daughter while crashing with his best friend/co-parent Van (Zazie Beetz). Earn finds out this hot new ATL rapper everyone’s talking about is his cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and decides to ingratiate himself into the emcee’s nascent entourage, which currently only consists of spaced out eccentric Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). While that pretense makes for an easy logline, the series’ first four episodes each stray from that set-up to focus more on esoteric slice of life narratives that blend relatable humor with non sequitor asides. Glover’s been quoted as calling the show “the black Twin Peaks” and though some of the weirdness is vaguely Lynchian, Atlanta exists in its own universe, a curious facsimile of our own with heightened stylistics.
Atlanta has also been compared to another FX show, Louie, largely for its sense of magical realism and the discomfiting tonal whiplash that occurs when scenes dramatically shift from funny “ha ha” to funny “fucked up” real quick. Louis CK loves to play in that realm of awkward humor that forces audiences to confront situations and subject matter they find unsettling. It’s that queasy brand of comedy that preys on your sense of comfort, ripping a rug of false tranquility out from under you and softening the fall to the ground with a well placed punchline. Atlanta doesn’t trade in weaponized awkwardness. Atlanta derives its humor and its pathos from the irreconcilable nightmare that is being both black and breathing in America.
Even if you haven’t caught the first few episodes, you’ve no doubt heard of the “toilet water” scene, a microcosm of deft comedic storytelling that functions as the series in miniature. After a climactic “when keeping it real goes wrong” moment at the end of the pilot, Earn spends much of the second episode in jail, where a series of tragicomic interactions offer a sobering look at life behind bars. A prisoner with obvious mental health issues is seen dancing around in the background before he dips a cup into a toilet bowl and begins to drink the water to a chorus of schadenfreudian laughter from the other men, including the guards.
Earn points out that someone should help this man and the other brothers tell him to shut the fuck up and let them enjoy the show. A white guard (at this point in the series, only the second white person with a speaking role) smiles in the Toilet Water Man’s face, only to have that water spat at his grin. With no hesitation, the guard hauls off and decks him with a nightstick, as the other guards pile on, with the Toilet Water Man’s pained screams replacing the laughter. The show flits back and forth between various narrative strands, but there is one constant. Atlanta is hilarious until it isn’t. Then it’s just fucking heartbreaking.
That central theme is what makes Atlanta the blackest show on television right now. It’s not the kind of blackness you’ve seen on Empire that’s largely curated by hip white writers aspiring to be memes on the brown skin side of Twitter. It isn’t centrally designed for white consumption. I grew up with shows like Living Single and Martin, but Atlanta is perhaps the first predominantly black show that I feel on a spiritual level. When Earn opens the third episode arguing with a fast food attendant who won’t let him purchase the kid’s meal he needs to eat because he’s too broke for the real menu, I felt that. When Paper Boi gets slid a box of wings at a local eatery made special by the cook in solidarity for his recent gun charge (“Lemon pepper wet?!”), it reverberated in my soul. Watching Earn cringe at the breezy way his white friend says “nigga” to his face, but calls other, more intimidating black people “my dude”, the show ceased to feel like fiction. It’s the closest distillation I’ve found thus far of what my experience has been with this skin color on this continent.
Being black is not a one size fits all culture and Atlanta succeeds by not pigeonholing any of its well drawn characters into minstrelsy stereotypes, allowing everyone to live as their own respective strand of black truth. It’s early days and the season isn’t even half over, so there’s still plenty of time for Glover and company to fuck up and fumble on the thirty yard line, but for right now, this is a show I’m so grateful to get to see on TV every week.
I wonder, is this how white people felt when they first saw Friends?
Atlanta airs on the FX Network, Tuesdays @ 10:00pm