One of the reasons that FX continues to stand out from the crowd is its ability to give money and opportunity to talented and creative individuals. Donald Glover has proven over the last five years to embody both those characteristics across multiple forms of entertainment. Glover first broke onto the scene as a member of Derrick Comedy, a sketch comedy group that became an internet sensation in 2007. Shortly after he began writing for “30 Rock” and starred in NBC’s cult favorite “Community” as Troy Barnes. While on “Community,” Glover launched a successful career as rapper artist as well through his alter ego Childish Gambino. The Gambino persona proved to be more than a vanity project though, as Glover was nominated for two Grammy’s in 2015. His eclectic career led FX to give Glover his own show based on the rap scene his hometown, and the result is “Atlanta.”
Taking a multi-medium talented individual like Glover and giving him full reign over a show is a risk for any network. Creative individuals are sometimes too ambitious, believing their show can address every issue at once. At the same time, this is FX’s M.O.; they give talented individuals space and time to create the best shows possible. Last night, audience’s finally got to see the fruits of Glover’s work with the two part premiere of “Atlanta,” and discovered one of the essential series of 2016.
“Atlanta” follows Glover as “Earn” Marks, an Ivy League college dropout who attempts to manage his cousin’s budding rap career. His cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (played by Brian Tyree Henry) is skeptical of Earn’s motives, but agrees to collaborate. The show also features Keith Stanfield as Darius, and Zazie Beetz as Van, Earn’s best friend and the mother of his daughter.
The first episode introduces the characters quickly and starts in on important character development. Earn is unhappy with his day job at the airport, and with his cousin’s success, he sees a way out. It’s revealed through the course of the episode that Earn was once at Princeton, but dropped out due to unexplained events. When Alfred and Earn first reconnect, Alfred questions Earn’s motives. The two became estranged, with Earn’s only motivation to reconnect stemming from Alfred’s success.
The second episode follows Earn and Alfred as they deal with different sides of an alleged shooting. Alfred’s newfound fame grows quickly, especially after some in the community believe that he shot a rival. Simultaneously, Earn is left in jail awaiting processing. The episode is layered with problems that plague the community, including gun violence, homophobia, mental illness, and police brutality. However, the show turns these issues into normalized experiences, which strengthens the narrative effectiveness of the episode. In one instance, Earn watches a mentally ill man stumble through the jail as comedic relief. While Earn questions why he’s in jail, the inmates and cops laugh at the man’s antics. However, things turn quickly, juxtaposing the humor with intense violence. It’s a lot to take in for the audience, but is ultimately an effective tool in the show’s arsenal.
From the opening scene, the show establishes a tone that blends comedy with low level drama. The show quickly establishes a quick joke rate, with some of the best one liners on TV. The influence from Glover’s past work is obvious, with asides and tangents blending into realistic conversations. What takes the show from good to great is the mixture of comedy available. Rather than relying on verbal humor, the show also utilizes visual comedy extremely effectively. In “Streets on Lock,” there’s even a visual gag that references “Pulp Fiction.” It’s rare to see TV comedy use visual storytelling for humorous purposes, and “Atlanta” might the best to do it since “Arrested Development.” Through simple shot composition, “Atlanta” has left me reeling on more than one occasion, a tough feat for any show.
However, Glover’s not willing to simply let the show’s comedy overshadow its ability for social commentary. Each of the first four episodes is layered with commentary about the difficulty of getting out of the inner city. Beyond that, the show acknowledges the place we’re in as a society, and seeks to normalize it for the characters. The first two episodes handle their subject matter with a seriousness that adds weight to the comedic elements.
Perhaps the best aspect of the show is the amazing characters that Glover’s used to populate this version of Atlanta. They are characters we want to spend time with, which should keep audiences returning to the show. All the characters on the show are funny, but rely on different comedic styles. Glover utilizes solid one liners throughout each episode, and remains as funny as he’s ever been. Henry is one of the surprises of the show, fluctuating between straight man and deadpan to huge success. Stanfield covers most of the weird comedy, also fluctuating between highly intelligent jokes and the role of the idiot best friend. The three are absolutely dynamite together, but can carry their own storyline if needed. It will ultimately be the strength of these characters that makes this show a critical and audience favorite.
All of this is to say that Donald Glover crushed this show like Giancarlo Stanton. When I wrote my review of “You’re the Worst” last week, I thought the show would run through the next two months as the best comedy on TV. I was wrong. “Atlanta” is a beautiful and essential show in 2016, one that blends genuine humor with the stark realities its characters face. It doesn’t shy away from what will surely be controversy, and instead takes itself extremely serious in these moments. “Atlanta” establishes Glover as a creative voice that found lightning in a bottle. “Atlanta” is my favorite new show of the Fall, and looks like it will take the crown for best comedy of the season.
What did you think of the “Atlanta” premiere? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Let us know in the comments below!
“Atlanta” airs on Tuesday Nights on FX at 10 P.M.