If you are approaching Atlanta as you would any network dramedy and are hoping for belly laughs from jokes or major plot twists … well, you will probably be disappointed.
Atlanta is something else altogether. The show eschews conventional rules of TV: It has no structured narrative and at the end of the season (10 episodes), you find yourself wondering what the plot is in the first place. But somehow, it doesn’t really matter.
Show creator Donald Glover sets out to make Atlanta as real as he could. Characters are depicted as real people with imperfect lives that perhaps don’t get fixed by the end of a season.
Atlanta is rich with humour, but its comedy is deadpan and set against a backdrop of characters who are all stumbling through life either trying to make a living in the big city, trying to make it big or just trying to live one day at a time.
Glover himself plays the lead character Earn Marks. Earn quits his job as a sales person at a booth at the Los Angeles International Airport to chase his dream of discovering and managing Atlanta’s “next best rapper”.
Earn sees a window of opportunity when his cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles or Al (Brian Tyree Henry), breaks into the music scene with his catchy rap, Paper Boi. Al isn’t too convinced that Earn can do the job but he lets him have a go anyway – it can’t hurt to try, right?
Earn isn’t just poor, he’s almost in dire straits. A dropout from Princeton (we’re not told why) and recently kicked out of his family home by his parents who’ve grown tired of him mooching off them, Earn moves in with Van (Zazie Beetz), his ex-girlfriend (it’s complicated) and their young daughter, both of whom he tries his best to make right by.
But without a job and very little savings, it’s hard for Earn, and Van’s patience is running thin. In one episode, Earn pawns his mobile phone to get enough money for his daughter’s subsistence that month.
When Al’s best friend Darius (Keith Stanfield) invests that money, promising to get Earn 10 times more in just a few months, Earn is devastated: “Poor people don’t have time for investments … poor people are too busy trying not to be poor”.
So how is this situation funny?
Well, here’s where the brilliance of Glover (he is also the executive producer, writer, director and executive music producer of the series) kicks in. The show strikes a clever balance between its commentary on the lives of these cash-strapped African-Americans in the not-so-glamorous parts of Atlanta with an easy storytelling style and subtle but sardonic humour seamlessly woven into the dialogue.
Atlanta doesn’t tackle a single issue head on although race, poverty, drugs, class and culture are all issues that surface through the tragicomic lives of its characters, as a matter of fact.
Even without structure, the episodes flow easily and we grow to know and understand the characters somewhat. And it’s not like there is no story line, there just isn’t a grand story arch to which the episodes build up to.
And, Glover intersperses the episodes with standalone ones that lampoon popular notions which really have nothing to do with the overall story. They are funny though and cleverly executed. Almost too clever that I often re-watch it to make sure I haven’t missed any references. Even so, I’m sure I have.
One example is in the episode B.A.N where Paper Boi goes on a talk show called Montague aired on the Black Access Network or BAN. This is one of Earn’s strategies to make his artiste more visible.
But things quickly go south when the show’s host, Montague brings up a tweet by Paper Boi about not wanting to sleep with Caitlyn Jenner. Montague makes Paper Boi out to be a representation of how the rap community is intolerant of the transgender community and his appearance turns into a sort of public shaming.
Al finds this ridiculous, of course, and tries to explain that he doesn’t have anything against the trans community; he merely doesn’t want to sleep with Jenner. Simple as that.
“Isn’t your lack of a father the reason you hate trans people,” probes Montague.
“It’s hard for me to care about this when nobody cares about me as a black, human man,” responds Paper Boi.
Much of the humour of the show comes from Paper Boi and his stoner sidekick Darius, both of whom sell drugs for a living (because rappers don’t make money, says Paper Boi).
There is no cliffhanger, no big dramatic moment that take us by surprise. But there is closure and development and you come away knowing these characters a little bit more. Enough to be cheering that there will be a second season.
Atlanta airs every Tuesday at 11pm on FX HD (Astro Ch 726).