Pilot Review: Atlanta is something truly special

Did you know there’ve been a lot of movies and TV shows lately that have been set in Atlanta? I mean…not really. They’re set in Washington D.C. or Lagos, Nigeria or San Fransisco or Los Angeles. But rather generous tax breaks and a surfeit of different possible filming locales in the area have made the ATL a very attractive location.

But we’ve not been given much in the mainstream that actually set itself in Atlanta and used the life in this city to tell a story. Okay, Constantine ostensibly did, but it was hard to tell outside of a few street names. And Triple 9 did, but that basically sucked.

So along comes Donald Glover, better known as Troy Barnes from Community or Childish Gambino depending on the circles of fandom you run in, with Atlanta, FX’s new show about the life of a young black man in Atlanta.

Summary:

Well, I mean, that pretty much covers it. Donald Glover is Earnest “Earn” Marks, a young dropout drifting through life who’s recently moved with his best friend and mother of his daughter, Vanessa (Zazie Beetz). His life can be kindly described as on-hold, his parents won’t even allow him inside the house anymore as “they can’t afford it.” During one more attempt at holding down work, he finds out his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) is Paper Boi, a rapper on the rise. Seeing an opportunity to pull out of his current less-than-ideal situation, Marks gets back in contact with his cousin and sets out to prove that he can become Paper Boi’s manager.

Yeah, but what’s it about?:

Donald Glover, at least for me, is what Drake always kind of wishes he could be, or at least a Drake that hasn’t just gotten sad at this point. His best work always relies on his emotional openness, think the end of “That Power” where he asserts that he “make[s] it all for everybody” because “everybody can’t turn around and tell everybody, everybody already knows, I told them.” Artistically, Glover is an open book, letting us into the problems he feels as an outsider to culture, an undercurrent of lonely melancholy that always rests under every work he makes, and makes often even the slickest or most braggadocious thing have an undercurrent of rawness.

All of which is to say that this is obviously going to carry over into the show which has him writing, producing, and starring. Atlanta is a show about a lot of things, but it’s a show that wants to show life in a muted way. Not grim, not sad. Just muted. Honest. Finding how we often really do feel the joys and losses in shades rather than in highs and lows. It’s that willingness to stay open and let honest feeling out that ultimately makes that succeed.

At one point, Earn asks of a man sitting next to him on the bus “Are there some people here on Earth who are just her to make things easier for the winners?” It’s a show asking the difficult questions about what life takes, about how we earn success, there’s a heaviness not to the themes, but rather with how they’re addressed.

It’s also of course a show about the black experience. Glover wanted to show “white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.” As a white writer, I understand my own limitations in being able to attach any cultural knowledge to this show and moreover, that I’m exactly here to listen to what Glover and his all-black writers’ room has to say about the black cultural experience. There’s a nuance here though, already detectable. Not overly noble, not tragic, just what it is. There’s a phenomenal scene where Glover talks with a white radio DJ he’s trying to get to play Paper Boi’s track that begins to jump into that headfirst, with the mission statement of Atlanta still in mind. The pilot puts these things in place and I look forward to seeing how it develops.

How’s the craft?:

Honestly, phenomenal. Atlanta feels unique to TV, something resembling more music video or innovative short film than TV show or TV show aping film. That honest emotionality extends into the work of director Hiro Murai, who made his name working on Childish Gambino videos. Atlanta feels alive in its own unique way, a place of life and history, as little of it as we ultimately see. The city informs the show, rather than merely being a setting.

And so far, the cast is great. Glover in his first major dramatic lead role is a born star, wearing weariness and heart in equal measures, feeling naturally commanding. I’m also a huge fan of Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Paper Boi’s sidekick, who gets most of the comedic beats within this and is likely to be a quiet show stealer in the future.

It’s a well-made show, even with the little taste we get. A slice of life that rests well in the slices we get.

For fans of?:

The most obvious comparisons are Master of None and Louie, both similarly auteurist half-hour comedy shows with plenty of sterling dramatic work. Hell, Master of None also featured a nuanced portrayal of the life of a minority group in America. Atlanta differentiates itself with a different tonality and what I suspect will be a little less autobiography as the show continues, but it rests there.

I would also recommend it for fans of the film Short Term 12 or the films of director James Ponsoldt (a Georgia boy who actually did work on Master of None). Both have a similar melancholy undercurrent and a rawness to the way they portray the lives of their characters.

Do I Want to See More?:

I’ve lavished nothing but praise, do you have to ask?

ATLANTA EPISODE 1: WATCH NOW

Note: As I develop my TV ratings (this may be the first of a few recaps), just know this is my highest ranking without being an all-timer. Think of it like my A on my film reviews.

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