Why Atlanta Is The Best Thing On TV Right Now
Mr Lakeith Stanfield and Mr Donald Glover in Atlanta, season 2. Photograph by Mr Guy D’Alema/FX
If you watch nothing else this summer, tune in to Mr Donald Glover’s comedy-drama.
Last month, visionary polymath Mr Donald Glover reached his largest audience so far with “This Is America”, an incendiary state-of-the-nation rap against police brutality directed by film-maker Mr Hiro Murai. It’s had 266 million views on YouTube. If you like what you saw (dense imagery, cryptic ambivalence, cross-fertilisation of artistic forms) and are unfamiliar with Mr Glover’s work, let it be a gateway to Atlanta, his masterful comedy-drama, also directed by Mr Murai. In the UK, the first season of Atlanta is airing on BBC Two and the second season, which is even stronger than the first, starts on Fox UK on 17 June. Not yet a fan? Here’s why you should catch it while you can. Already fully on board? You might find yourself nodding in sage agreement with the following.
Mr Glover once half joked that Atlanta was his attempt at “Twin Peaks with rappers”. With an almost entirely African-American cast, it’s TV’s most nuanced expression yet of modern American black identity. Among so much else, it deconstructs racial profiling, gangs, drive-by shootings, fame, the hierarchy of rap, black TV channels and trans-racialism with a deadpan-absurd lyricism. Largely shot at the honeyed magic hour, even a dilapidated sofa on a lawn looks like a painting.
The ensemble characterisation is rich and complicated. Mr Glover’s Princeton dropout Earnest (angrier and more lost than he lets on) quits his job at a bank to manage his deadpan cousin Al (Mr Brian Tyree Henry), aka rapper Paper Boi, with the help of their dizzy friend Darius (Mr Lakeith Stanfield). Earn has a refreshingly ambiguous on-off relationship with Van (Ms Zazie Beetz), with whom he has a young daughter. Beyond their friends and secondary circles, the show consciously makes time for the background characters, such as binmen, toilet attendants and the homeless, that most shows overlook.
Mr Glover and Ms Zazie Beetz in Atlanta, season 2, 2018. Photograph by Mr Guy D’Alema/FX
At a little over 20 minutes, each episode of Atlanta tends to say more than entire seasons of other shows. Its tone meshes the trivial with the deepest social concerns. At the lighter end, season 2’s Barbershop episode is the sort of shaggy-dog farce Mr Larry David might construct. Several episodes have the distilled potency of a modern fable. When Van goes for dinner with a boasty school friend, she absent-mindedly smokes weed, forgets she has a drug test at work the next day and is fired from her job.
Atlanta is particularly good on the melancholy of parties. At a decadent mansion in Champagne Papi, Van loses her friends and is pestered by an overfamiliar male guest on her futile search for Drake, the rumoured host. Earn and Van struggle at a white bourgeois-appropriated Juneteenth, a holiday to celebrate the abolition of slavery, and a spooky German folk-party called Fastnacht, a racist carnival of masks, monsters and games that challenges the couple’s relationship and individual identities.
Unrestricted by the ordinary TV rules of logic or structure, Atlanta has a dreamy texture that makes it even more lucid. In a charity basketball match, Al plays against a brattish African-American version of Mr Justin Bieber called Justin Bieber. There’s a formal invention, too. One entire episode takes place on a fictional talk show, Montague, with fake adverts and a reworking of the case of Ms Rachel Dolezal (a Caucasian woman who claimed to be African-American). Yet each frame has the anxious pulse of danger from forces beyond the characters’ control, including the police. Violence – for example when Al is mugged by three fans or Earn is beaten up in a fight he starts – is filmed in a disconcerting mix of close-ups and wide shots, as if from the perspective of indifferent passers-by.
Mr Glover and Mr Matthew Barnes in Atlanta, season 2. Photograph by Mr Curtis Baker/FX
The scariest moments, however, are often laced with comedy. Seconds after police shoot dead a man wearing Earn’s favourite jacket, he asks a policeman if there’s any chance he can get the jacket back. Another night, having fled a gig at a college campus, Earn, Al and Darius seek refuge in a fraternity draped in Confederate flags, halfway through a hazing ritual for naked freshmen with bags over their heads.
The most haunting episode so far, and the one that’s ignited the most theories online, is Teddy Perkins, an instantly iconic 40-minute maze of disquiet about a Mr Michael Jackson-type recluse who offers to give Darius his piano for free. Haunted house unease, terrifying masks and the ethics of parenting a genius are capped with the perfect song, Mr Stevie Wonder’s “Evil”.
Atlanta is a show in which to lose yourself, a patient, mesmeric, marijuana ramble that’s as interested in directionlessness and the difficulty of combining friendship with ambition as it is in prejudice, gun crime and poverty. Mr Glover, who wrote 30 Rock when he was 23, has won a Grammy under the moniker Childish Gambino and played Lando Calrissian in the recent Star Wars spin-off Solo, may be the most versatile American artist working today, but we hope he keeps coming home to Atlanta.