Television Tuesdays: Atlanta

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Atlanta is the brainchild of Donald Glover. You may know him as Troy on Community or his rap-persona, Childish Gambino. I don’t know what, exactly, put Donald Glover on my radar seven years ago, but I’ve been lowkey obsessed with him for about that long. When FX announced its collaboration with Glover, I was excited. And seeing his show come into fruition, that excitement remains. I wasn’t sure what, precisely, to expect of this show. It’s nothing like 30 Rock, for which he wrote when he was still a student at NYU. Nor is it like his Derrick Comedy sketches. Instead, it’s something unique and new. Atlanta just finished its first season on FXX.

Overview

Donald Glover plays Earn, a broke guy living in Atlanta. He’s struggling to support his toddler daughter and bounces between staying with his girlfriend, his cousin, or at the house of whatever party he attended the night before. So much of Earn’s story revolves around the fact that he’s broke, but the show never pities him for it. Instead, it depicts the reality of trying to make ends meet.

When Earn needs a new job, he turns to his cousin, up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi. Paper Boi is wary about giving his cousin a job, especially since it’s been a hot second since they last talked. But he acquiesces and makes Earn his manager.

One of the things that I really loved about this season and I think worked well was the tendency to take one topic or situation and examine it closely. It happens again and again, from “Value”, to “B.A.N.” to “Juneteenth”. The examination and exploration of different themes gives the show a certain depth and perspective that most half-hour comedies don’t get the time or breathing room to play with.

At times, the show struggles as it moves from broad episodes about Earn and Paper Boi’s lives to these highly specialized episodes. If I had one wish for the show it would be for it to find a better way to integrate these two types of episodes because they are so radically different at times (especially “B.A.N.”) that they are hard to parse in the scheme of the show. Glover excels at creating these deep, interesting scenarios, so I hope they don’t disappear, but in the instance of “B.A.N.”, playing a little bit with the characters outside the scope of the fake show may have worked better in the Atlanta‘s favor.

I will be the first to admit that I’m not fully equipped to talk about the nuance of race on this show. But as an audience member, it’s riveting. Atlanta is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, preferring instead to play with perception. It delves deep into race and sexuality, especially how they’re viewed in the black community. In an early episode, Paper Boi shoots a man in a parking lot. Throughout the season, he must then ascertain if that’s how he’d like to be known. “Juneteenth,” the penultimate episode, is also an interesting look at black culture, shown from the perspective of a Afro-studies obsessed white man. Earn’s increasing alarm and disbelief with the tone deafness of this man is relatable and well-executed.

The episode “Value” deftly examines female friendships, especially when you’ve known someone for years but have grown in opposite ways. Earn’s girlfriend, Van, deals with trying to balance that familiarity and loyalty to your old self with new responsibilities. Van is a great character, overall. She’s a foil to Earn, in a lot of ways, but she’s always her own person apart from him. I think one of the reasons I like her, and the show, so much is because the show took the time to pay attention to her as a character, apart from her relationship to Earn.

Atlanta is still finding its feet, but it had a promising first season. The writing was phenomenal and the direction was well done. You can stream the first season on FXX now.

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