The city of Atlanta exists in a strange space geographically and culturally. Burnt to the ground during the American Civil War, rebuilt and exploded into a major hub in the Southeast for manufacturing and the civil rights movement, now a diverse and constantly shifting urban space. It’s one of the largest cities in America, but it’s surrounded by lush, verdant hills. It’s the place where the city meets the country. It’s a place where rappers hang out in the woods wearing their hunting camo. Donald Glover wasn’t born here, but he was raised in the contradiction that Atlanta is, and he understands the true wonder of that beautiful, messy conflict of ideas.
Earn (Glover) doesn’t so much as live in Atlanta, as he exists there. He dropped out of Princeton. He lives with the mother of his child, but their relationship is complicated, and she sees other men with no argument from Earn. He works a dead-end at the Atlanta airport. Even his parents won’t let him in the house because they know he’ll ask for money. When his cousin Alfred releases a regional hit as the rapper “Paper Boi,” Earn sees this as an opportunity to make something of his life as Alfred’s manager. But that’s not really what the show is about; Atlanta spends the next nine episodes challenges the viewer’s’ notions of just what the show is and what is it about.
Glover plays with traditional television structure, partially inspired by the work done by Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Louis C.K. on his FX series. The success of the latter show has opened doors for creators like Glover and Pamela Adlon’s Better Things not to be forced into typical three-act sitcom structure. Atlanta has no loyalty to any one character and will allow the focus to meander depending on the interest of the moment. Sometimes we have Earn hustling for Alfred. Others we follow Alfred’s right-hand man, Darius as he goes through a series of deals and bartering for some unknown purpose. On the show’s most interesting episodes it highlights a day in the life of Vanessa, Earn’s on again/off again after she makes a career ending mistake. There’s also an entire episode framed as a local program on issues in the black community, where Alfred is confronted over transphobic comments.
The play between relationships is what makes Atlanta so engrossing. Earn and Alfred are arguably the show’s core relationship, and they don’t behave like a typical performer/manager. Their familial connection seeps into every aspect, and Alfred makes concessions that you would not see a performer do for someone that is going to take 5% of their paycheck. And Earn looks after Alfred in a more intimate way than most managers.
Even more interesting is the relationship between Earn and Vanessa. From their first scene together, waking up in bed and beginning their morning routine there is a palpable tension. As the series goes on, we get two spotlight episodes with just her and one crucial episode about the next stage of she and Earn’s relationship. Vanessa is a highly educated woman who has ended up sidetracked with a child and undefined relationship. We see her interact with peers from college who have made their living in possibly questionable ways and Vanessa ponders other paths.
What kept me coming back to Atlanta was the magical realism of the series. Smartly, Glover and company don’t go overboard in the first couple episodes, hinting at the less familiar elements of the series. Glover has described the series as “Twin Peaks with rappers, ” and this comes through during Earn’s encounter with a strangely stoic man on the bus offering him a Nutella sandwich before exiting the bus and wandering off. As episodes roll up, we find Justin Bieber played by a young black man, the quirky inhabitants of a police lock up; an opportunistic social media-driven pizza delivery man, a slimy club promoter who escapes through secret passages, and many more strange and interesting side characters. Glover believes Atlanta is a magical place and works to convince us of the same.