FX’s marketing campaign in the lead-up to tonight’s premiere for ATLANTA, the Donald Glover vehicle for which he operates as creator, EP, director (of episodes 6 and 7, at least), writer and star, was absolutely brilliant. Ambiguous, sleek, cool, chill. On TV and streaming sites, we’ve all been treated to wordless 30-second promos with our heroes ambling around the grittier sides of the ATL. Billboards, bus stops, and banner ads have been strategically plastered with posters boasting the sleekly apathetic faces of Glover and his co-stars Brian Tyree Henry and Keith Stanfield, with Georgia peaches shoved in their mouths like they’re a 1978 art-punk band with Southern predilections. Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, chic proto-nerd-rap superstar, had taken the next step in his evolution as a multi-hyphenate, ditching NBC’s floundering sitcom Community (which died a slow, painful death on Yahoo sans its breakout star) to focus on concocting Atlanta with another network. This weekend, Glover also debuted a new Childish Gambino LP, PHAROS, during a three-day Joshua Tree listening event. Both his new concert experience and his new TV show have been the beneficiaries of rabid raves. Donald Glover is having a moment. Atlanta was cool before a nanosecond of it was even broadcast.
And that’s the problem. Everybody is pre-disposed to love it already. I just watched two airings of the first two episodes twice in a row, and I’m not sure I can tell you exactly what “it” even is yet, because I’m not sure it knows. Glover and co. are more interested in creating a mood, evoking an ambiance, than in telling a story. The show is ostensibly a comedy, but it’s trying really, really hard not to be too funny. Which is a huge shame, because it should be a comedy. The comedy is where it flourishes. Of course, it’s hard to take the show’s best off-kilter humor lightly when it’s drastically overshadowed by such a morbid turning point moment (more on this later). Seasoned music video helmer Hiro Murai (Childish Gambino, Queens of the Stone Age, Flying Lotus, Earl Sweatshirt) directed these first two episodes — and the next two. Visually, Murai designs his frames with elegance; a lot of shots could be album covers if they were still frames. The show is rich in crisp, saturated greens.
I actually really dug the chill-wave ambient vibes the two premiere Atlanta episodes were purporting to put out. I dug the basic set-up, too. Let’s run through that, shall we?
College drop-out/reformed DJ Earn Marks (Glover) has fallen on hard times. He has been shuttling between his parents’ house and his ex’s apartment, which also houses their toddler daughter, and freeloading off both parties. He works a dead-end sales job, making $5.15 an hour plus commissions as he tries to sign people up for credit cards at the airport. Neither residence particularly wants him there, because he’s broke and seemingly directionless. His ex Vanessa (Zazi Beetz), whom he still fools around with regularly, has started seeing other men — and his own mom is actually happy to hear this news.
When Earn discovers that his cousin Alfred Miles (Henry) is making waves in the local underground hip-hop circuit under the alias Paper Boi, with his debut single “Paper Boy,” no less, Earn (very transparently) tries to hop onto the Paper Boi gravy train. He spends the majority of the first episode, “The Big Bang,” pitching himself to Alfred and Alfred’s esoteric compadre Darius (Keith Stanfield) as Paper Boi’s manager, on the basis of Earn’s flimsy record label and radio station connections. Alfred and Darius are holed up in a dubious apartment complex, dabbling in drug dealing as they wait for Alfred’s rap career to take off. So these are the initial stakes: everybody has given up on Earn, including every sentient person in his immediate family. He has a daughter to support and no means to support her with. At one curious point in the first episode, while on a late-night bus home with the kid asleep on his lap, he waxes futilely philosophic with a dapper, reserved man in an old-fashioned, perhaps out-of-time suit. This is the mysterious, sandwich-loving Stranger (Emmett Hunter), and whether or not he was actually on that bus at all or is just a pep talker in Earn’s head seems open for debate.
But this first episode is wrapped up in an Inciting Incident that triggers (ahem) a sudden boost in Paper Boi’s stock. I enjoyed the show’s slow-burn, herb-enhanced pseudo-naturalism, but the violent parking lot shooting that bookends the first episode and sets the second into motion changes the DNA of what the show could be. Obviously, violence is a part of life on the fringes. But making it the thing that nabs Paper Boi shout-outs in Complex and XXL and serves as the core mystery of the show thus far means I can’t ever enjoy Darius’s musings on messy rat phones as much as I reasonably should. Maybe that’s on me, though. Regardless, it’s clear that Glover wants to use Atlanta (albeit in a roundabout, somewhat stoned way) to comment on the fetishization of violence in hip-hop culture.
Back to the shooting — while celebrating Earn’s throwing a local radio station (106.5 The Jam) enough kickback coin to play “Paper Boy” throughout the night, Alfred/Paper Boi hollers at a taken woman. Circumstances escalate. Guns are drawn. An aimless canine stirs shades of deja vu in Darius. The aggressor, boyfriend of the hollered-at, has destroyed Alfred’s driver’s side window. He is shot for his trouble. Shot so badly, apparently, that Earn for one isn’t sure he’s still alive later that night. But we never see the actual shooting or anything immediately following it. We don’t know who shot the man, because Alfred and Earn both had guns drawn. And that’s a clever conceit. It’s a two-cousin whodunnit, wrapped up in a slow stoner comedy, wrapped up in a hip-hop social drama, covering a slice of a life that many of us don’t see.
In episode two, we watch the fallout from that night in the parking lot. It turns out the victim, the boyfriend, fled the scene and was never picked up. The offending gun, conveniently, was never found either. Alfred and Earn are thrown into a holding cell. Alfred posts bail. Earn, who’s never been in the system, has to wait while his information is processed… which takes more time than he’d like it to. Alfred has mixed feelings about the new uptick in his violence-spurred popularity in the hip-hop community. It does, however, come with a few perks: extra add-ons to Alfred and Darius’s chicken teriyaki (including a great Pulp Fiction shot, which you’ll recognize when you see it) and the phone number of a pretty neighborhood MILF (although she can’t be much older than early 30s, let the record show). But it also has its drawbacks, as Alfred and Darius decide by the end of this episode (I’m not going to spoil them for you, don’t worry).
Darius was, by far, the most entertaining thing about this show. In addition to some choice rodent-phone ruminating, he also offers perhaps the single-greatest explanation for Flo Rida’s unyielding popularity this critic has ever heard (“I dunno man, I like Flo Rida. Moms gotta enjoy rap too.”) and is the kind of guy who will eat a plate of freshly baked cookies in one hand while brandishing a knife with lethal intent in the other. I want to see more of this guy. The chemistry between the Earn, Alfred and Darius characters is pretty great, too. I’d like more of their weird off-kilter wit and less of the show’s socially-aware Clue storytelling components. Again, it’s a cool device, but it shouldn’t be the story’s through line. That’s the key here: finding the best element of “Atlanta,” its three leads and the way they behave together, and recalibrating the screen time devoted to our heroes. All the roles have been well-cast thus far, but Darius, Alfred and Earn are the standouts. I don’t think I’ve ever met a TV character quite like Darius, a guy prone to deep introspection when piling salt and pepper shakers on top of each other. This is not a great show, not yet, but it’s a fresh one. And its three strange leads are certainly worth a look as Atlanta develops in the weeks ahead.
Season 1, Episode 01-02 (S01E01-02)
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10PM on FX
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor