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Donald Glover's career has been anything but ordinary in the last decade. He entered adulthood with a writing gig on 30 Rock, joined a sketch group and released an acclaimed feature film, landed a regular gig on the fanbase-fueled Community and put out a handful of mixtapes and albums, earning Grammy nominations in the process. Now, he has created the FX comedy Atlanta, a hilarious and poignant slice of life that is so stunningly realized, it could serve as legal proof that Glover can do no wrong.
While some of the humor may be offbeat and hidden in weed smoke, the name of the show offers no opaqueness. Donald Glover is giving audiences the relatively rare TV glimpse into his home turf of Atlanta, and the even rarer glimpse into the lives of black people in Atlanta, particularly Glover's Earnest "Earn" Marks, his stern-faced rapper cousin Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), and the latter's laid back cohort Darius (Keith Stanfield). When the series kicks off, Paper Boi's mixtape has just dropped, with his catchy eponymous single getting the buzz rolling, and the show's core thrust is the three men aiming to turn that sub-fame into something bigger. But the episodes don't hash out a biopic's worth of struggles coupled with tireless club shows and promotion, and perhaps the biggest conflict is between dreams of overnight success and the reality of day-to-day mediocrity.
In fact, it's reductive to go by any logline-ish description here, because Atlanta doesn't make it easy to pinpoint its comparison-friendly handholds. As an FX comedy with an endlessly moldable concept and an adherence to a central location, it's comparable to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Louie, though lacking the former's broad cruelty and the latter's excessive turns. As an introspective, surreal and unblinking comedy focused almost entirely on black people, though, it's essentially unparalleled. And though its story is serialized, the pacing is more meditative than kinetic, subverting at least one expectation in nearly every scene.
Earn is the quintessential main character who can't climb out of his woe-filled hole, but lacking the ego or affronting nature most are imbued with. Paper Boi and Darius could easily have their own broadcast network buddy comedy together, but then both have their standalone moments and aspects that convey way more untapped depth than you normally get from the lead roles in mass media contributions.
Not that this is solely a boy's club. Zazie Beetz stars as Van(essa), the foundation of everything that could be good about Earn's life. She's his best friend in a way, as well as the mother of his child, and there's definitely a deep affection that tethers them together, but it's another side of Earn's life deadened by his immaturity and professional foils. Only having appeared in a couple of short films and indie features, Beetz is a prize in Atlanta, showcasing few stereotypes employed by the majority of fiction's exes and baby mamas, and you do get the feeling she would prefer a life with Earn if it would guarantee stability.
Great performances abound in Atlanta, really, and we'd expected nothing less on Donald Glover's part. Brian Tyree Henry's biggest role to date has been a handful of Vice Principals episodes, but you'd swear he'd been typecast into a thuggish brute in dozens of projects. (A joke sadly rife with realism.) It's through the prism of Paper Boi that Atlanta looks at the different levels of fame, resulting in riotously uncomfortable situations involving people losing all couth and sense when meeting him. In particular, the episode where he deals with Freddie Kuguru's social media star Zan is sharply insightful about how modern media is set up to consume itself. But the show knows not to make Paper Boi too brusque, which leads to excellently silly moments like one involving some specially prepared chicken wings.
And Keith Stanfield, who has been killing it in films like Dope and Straight Outta Compton, is just as important to the ensemble's success. As the possibly freeloading friend, he could have easily been a douche like Ballers' Reggie, but Stanfield gives Darius a fully-formed personality that fits somewhere between a zen (read as: stoned) hip-hop kung fu master and an idiot savant (read as: a stoned idiot savant). Breakfast cup!
Created and written by Donald Glover (with the project's origins first announced over three years ago), Atlanta definitely feels like the work of a single voice that's both frustrated with the way things are, but fascinated by them nonetheless. In the episodes available for review, there are scenes that take left-of-center approaches to hot button topics like police brutality, transsexuals, gun violence, the influence of rap music on children and more. So many moments juxtapose laughter with jarring tonal shifts that than make the viewer reflect on how indefinable humor can be. Even something as seemingly slight as an amusing convo about black people not knowing who Steve McQueen is can lead to sobering realizations.
I could probably champion Atlanta for more time than it would take to watch the entire season, as there are many other topics to cover. Glover does some directorial duties here, along with others, that give Atlanta a simplistic but still lovely aesthetic, full of wide shots that capture the city and its unique sights. The music, also, is worth all the commendation I can muster, as we finally get a show that takes full advantage of how big music is to black culture, and Atlanta uses soul, R&B and rap beats to draw emotions from viewers in a variety of ways. (Waiting on Luke Cage to boost that trend, too.)
For a show about a city that I've only spent a brief amount of time in, Atlanta makes me want to permanently move into its universe. With cutting (and often NSFW) humor that never hurts and an empathy for its characters that never pities, FX's newest series is easily the best new comedy of 2016, and if the second half of Season 1 is as strong as the first, then Atlanta just might take all the top honors. Now, somebody hand my some headphones so I can jam to this Paper Boi track right quick.
A show that is destined for every end-of-year Top 10 list out there, Atlanta is set to kick off its 10-episode first season on FX with a two-episode debut on Tuesday, September 6, at 10:00 p.m. ET. To see when everything else is coming to the small screen later this year, check out our fall TV schedule.
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