FX's Atlanta is Must-See Television
Rappers need managers? I'm just trying to get paid real quick. - Alfred Miles
After seeing the pilot months ago, I decided to wait until the week before Atlanta premiered to sample the other three episodes provided to critics. I enjoyed the opener, but by the end of the fourth episode, not only was I hooked, I was ready to proclaim to the world that FX's new series might be the best new show on television.
Long before Atlanta was even conceived, Donald Glover was writing for Tina Fey on 30 Rock, creating his own stand-up comedy act, plus hanging out with a group of affable scamps (John Oliver's word) on Community, doing a few bit roles in movies like The Martian, and trying to launch a rap career as Childish Gambino. Some of those efforts were more successful than others, but what's always been perfectly obvious to anyone paying attention is this is a young man who has no interest in what's conventional or expected.
The best way I can describe the way Atlanta made me feel as I got into it was that this is Donald Glover's Master of None. It's his Louie. It's his Legit (which didn't make it, but was awfully good). But, because of the crossover appeal that could accompany it, there's a good chance it could be a much bigger ratings or raw numbers hit than any of the aforementioned shows. With the hip hop influence, the laughs, the serious tone underneath that humor, and characters that take very little time to wholly ingratiate themselves with the viewers, this show is that rarest of television commodity.
It's impossible to label.
Which, incidentally, is also a good description for Donald Glover's show business career. He makes it difficult to pin him down on anything, and he's willing to go in the opposite direction, even at the height of a particular product's life cycle. In that way, perhaps he has some Dave Chappelle in him, where there may be a hidden recluse trapped within an artist who is never fully satisfied with the ground on which he stands. He's not interested in what people think either, because after Pitchfork pilloried "Camp," Childish Gambino just kept on pumping out music, including two halves of a concept album and a second full-length effort, Because the Internet.
Atlanta is the project that encompasses everything Glover has done in the public eye, and it finds him at his creative zenith. Here, he's able to use the hip-hop to drive a story with depth, as well as surface humor, finding a way to mix the likability of Friday with almost anything imaginable, including a character that made me think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Just like with Community, though Glover shines on screen, he's not alone, and his writing makes almost instant stars out of Bryan Tyree Henry and Lakeith Stanfield. We don't see enough of Zazie Beets to place her with the top three, but what she does do is executed well.
The basic plot isn't difficult to grasp. Earn Marks (Glover) is struggling to make ends meet, and though he's sleeping with Van (Beets), the mother of his daughter, the two aren't married. She doesn't entirely trust him, and, even before he thinks of helping with rent or bills, his job is barely enough to afford one nice dinner. His cousin, Alfred Miles (Henry), is a drug dealer who releases a mix tape under the rap pseudonym, "Paper Boi," and the song goes viral.
Marks sees an opportunity to join with Miles, help manage his career, and hopefully use the music to pull the men and their families out of a tough spot and an even tougher life. Alongside them is Darius (Stanfield), who is Paper Boi's sidekick, more or less, and he and Earn end up growing closer as the series moves along. They engage in various stages of legalities and illegalities, and Earn works to prove to Van that he can provide for her and his little girl.
The best shows often take a simple concept and layer whatever they want on top of it. Think of it like a pizza crust, where for example The Wire is about cops and drugs in Baltimore, but then comes the pepperoni of the corruption, the sausage of the lack of care, the pineapple of No Child Left Behind, and the ground beef of the media. That's just one example. For Atlanta, the show is very much about the music, but to limit or cease the discussion there would be an extreme disservice to the product. It's also about its characters, about trying to find a way out of poverty, about a search for identity, and about the hardships for blacks in Georgia (but is technically applicable to a wide variety of groups anywhere in the country.)
The dialogue isn't dumbed down for an unfamiliar audience. Glover and his team remain genuine and expect you to catch up to them, not the other way around. If that's how it's said in the streets, then that's how it's said in Atlanta. There's an authenticity to it that could easily have been lacking, and it shows that those involved have a vision for what the series could become. You will laugh a lot, and generally you'll be busting far more guts over Alfred and Darius than you will Earn, but everyone gets their figurative time on stage at the Improv.
The balance of what's real with what's ridiculous helps Atlanta separate itself from comedies that can only play one or the other. There are occasions where the story, in an attempt at humor, will go further than you'd expect, but it's always reigned in, and just about everything thus far has been believable. It has the charm you want, mixed with enough creativity to fill an entire major network slate, with some left over.
In just the first four episodes, you'll see crimes committed, weed smoked, trolls trolled, a murder, an attempted murder, and a dude in a stolen traffic vest, plus a lightsaber and a foul-mouthed eight year old. The title sequences are varied, the intro songs as well. It's what you'd hope it would be. It's not boring. Atlanta is the exact opposite.
I'll leave it at that, and keep the context out of the above teases, but it all works. I laughed a lot, I thought a lot, and when the fourth episode was over, I was disappointed that I didn't have a fifth.
FX already has a comedy foothold, as You're the Worst remains one of TV's best, as does Louie, but Atlanta, just as YTW did, bridges the gap between drama and comedy in a beautiful way. These two series couldn't be more different (and neither is like Better Things, which is also pretty good), but both are essential to a proper viewing schedule. I've said this before, but I'd rather cut the review short, thus preserving as much of the experience for you.
What I've said is what you need to know. You must watch Atlanta. Set your DVR. Get ready for something unique, fun, and potentially game changing for you as a fan of television. You haven't seen anything like it before, and that's only because we may not have ever had someone quite like Donald Glover around before. To call Atlanta refreshing doesn't do it justice. It demands your attention, and once the series gets it, you'll be all in. I know I am.
Nothing else this fall, with the possible exception of Westworld, has its clenches in me like Atlanta. There are some new shows to keep an eye on, several I'm excited about, but this one? It's right at the top of the list. It was before I saw it, and after seeing a show live up to the hype you placed on it, you know you've seen something more than worthy of your time.
Now what the hell am I going to do for the next month until you guys catch up? Oh, I'll just watch the episodes again. That's a plan.
I'm @GuyNamedJason. I'm all about that paper, boy.