Atlanta is a wonderful piece of experimental television – and one of the most creative comedy series in years.
“What? No this is a *great* environment for you…”
For a moment there I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Atlanta. Despite growing up a big fan of hip hop, I’ve fallen out of love with that world lately. Those fears were dispelled within the show’s opening five minutes. In the end, all it took was a little bit of that trademark Donald Glover/Childish Gambino charm to win me over.
What’s seemingly made Atlanta so appealing to so many people is how original it feels. Following an era of television dominated for so long by stagnant, repetitive network comedies like The Big Bang Theory, audiences are starting to demand more creativity from their entertainment. Shows like Parks & Recreation and Community (on which Glover arguably had his big break) represented an industry-wide shift in direction during the late noughties, introducing more diverse characters in major roles and quirky, often meta-humour – rather than the same-old recycled ‘middle-class white people plots’ we’ve seen time-and-time again.
Atlanta feels like the next big step in this evolution. It’s an experimental piece of television that began as a passion project for a very small team of creators (led by Glover, his brother Stephen and his frequent music video director Hiro Murai). There are times where it feels like it has no direction, and the characters flit in and out of various bizarre, lowkey scenarios – but that’s ultimately what makes it so charming. The writers prioritise dialogue, characters & themes over anything else – while playing around with an entire range of storytelling devices and concepts to make each episode feel like a unique piece of entertainment.
There’s an entire episode devoted to a talk show format, which serves as an exploration of ‘black media’ and a critique of the kind of advertising specifically targeted towards black people. At one point, the show’s protagonist, Earn, finds himself behind bars, offering an opportunity to touch on things like police brutality and transphobia within the black community. Earn’s best friend, Van (portrayed magnificently by Zazie Beetz) takes centre stage for an episode – taking her from a peripheral character to one of the show’s greatest successes. This kind of storytelling diversity keeps things fresh, yet never undermines Atlanta‘s core message. It is, at heart, a minimalistic, inventive comedy about young black people trying to find their place in modern American society.
The show relies heavily on its four-man-strong ensemble, and each performer rises up to the plate. Brian Tyree Henry does a great job adding an endearing incompetence to an otherwise unlikeable wannabe star in Paper Boi. Keith Stanfield is oddly captivating as the perennially spaced-out Darius. The aforementioned Beetz does a wonderful job infusing the show with a little heart as well as humour, while Glover is as affable as ever as the hapless and hard-working Earn. He blends the cool confidence of Gambino with the adorable goofiness of Troy Barnes to create what is arguably his most relatable character to date.
I read somewhere that Glover & co. approached Atlanta‘s freshman season as if it was its only season. They wanted people to look back and appreciate it as a cult classic in the event of its likely cancellation. I feel that’s what helped elevate the show from surreal sit-com status to a legitimate hive of creativity. Hopefully they’ve got more ideas in reserve, because Atlanta looks set to be a success for years and years to come.
Highlights: Nobody Beats The Biebs | Value | B.A.N. | The Club | Juneteenth | The Jacket
I initially struggled to develop a routine with watching this show. I had a lot of other commitments at the time, and Atlanta‘s lack of a through-line plot made me less desperate to catch-up. Now I’ve had more time lately, I just sat and binged the rest of the season – and was able to appreciate each episode more as a result.
I find it interesting to think that the show, which currently broadcasts weekly on FX, might actually be more conducive to the Netflix model…