2016 has been a banner year for content (in both the positive and negative sense) – movies like Ghostbusters and Suicide Squad proved that not every reboot or comic book film deserves to be made, and then shows like Stranger Things and The Night Of made “event binging” a thing – as media companies continue to struggle with the fact that appealing to the streaming and binging generation might be more difficult than originally assumed, that is, until a show like Donald Glover’s Atlanta comes along and further confuses network execs in the best way.
You may or may not be familiar with Donald Glover, the 32-year old Stone Mountain, Georgia native who got his start in show business as part of the comedy trio Derrick Comedy at NYU, before signing on as a writer on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock at 21, then going on to star as Troy Barnes on the NBC cult sitcom Community, and the 2015 blockbuster The Martian. While Glover has an impressive resume when it comes to his acting career, his other job as the eclectic rapper Childish Gambino had appeared to be more fruitful prior to Atlanta. As Childish Gambino, Glover has released countless mixtapes and two full-length records via Glassnote Records – Camp and Because of the Internet – the latter of which garnered him two Grammy nominations in 2015.
Now, you might be asking yourself, “Is this article about Donald Glover? I thought it was supposed to be about his TV show, Atlanta?” Well you’re wrong and you’re right – the article is not directly about Glover, and it is technically about Atlanta – but to understand Glover’s TV show, you must understand where Glover came from. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, Glover was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, and attended Stephenson High School in a predominantly white neighborhood, where he was voted “Most Likely to Write for The Simpsons.” In his music as Childish Gambino, Glover makes many a reference to his upbringing in the sense that he seemed to exist in this peculiar grey area between the predominantly black and predominantly white sections of a highly segmented Greater Atlanta area.
Glover’s struggles were being black and nerdy, “talking like a white dude,” amongst other things. So, if you watched episodes one and two of Glover’s FX series Atlanta, then you would have recognized the direct references to Glover’s formative years when the show’s protagonist, Earnest (played by Glover) – a man on the verge of dead beat – approached a white acquaintance at a radio station about playing his cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles’ single. During the interaction, Earnest’s white acquaintance, Dave – with whom he interned with at the station – recounts his comings and goings the night before, and ends with a hilarious (to him) story where he told the DJ not to play two Flo Rida songs in a row, or as Dave put it less eloquently, “Come on my n****.”
The casual use of the “n word” on Dave’s part then became a subplot in Earnest’s quest to find some sort of purpose by becoming Paper Boi’s manager, as his exchange with Dave finished, Dave walked into the station and acknowledged a group of young black men exiting the station as “my dudes,” and later, after Earnest had gotten Dave to play the track on the station, he meets up with Earn, Alfred, and their existential and spectral gazing pal, Darius (Keith Stanfield). During this second meeting, Earn casually presses Dave to retell the same story, and in this version, Dave does not drop the “n word.” The use of the “n word” in case and to not use it in another shows Earn’s standing in Dave’s eyes. It also illustrates a fairly prevalent problem amongst certain privileged groups, something most other shows, much less network shows, wouldn’t dare to place a magnifying glass to.
To be honest, there’s a lot of Atlanta that is like that. In the series’ second episode, Alfred and Earn are arrested for a shootout that happened at the end of episode one, between Alfred and an unnamed man who kicked the side view mirror off of Alfred’s car. During the altercation, as Alfred and the mirror kicker are exchanging barbs and pointing guns, someone off screen keeps screaming “worldstar!” in reference to the fight videos that appear on Worldstarhiphop.com (and is referenced in Childish Gambino’s “Worldstar” track), something almost all of us have done at one point or another.
Atlanta exhibits a subtle style that is highly uncommon and disarmingly refreshing, whether it’s showing a man learning the woman he loved may actually be a man, the thought that meteoric rises to rap stardom might not be as sweet as once assumed, and the ever present existential crises of any “creative” or “unique” person in the world. When it’s all said and done, Atlanta is going to be one of the best shows of the year (if it isn’t already) and its only going to further confuse network executives as they clamor to figure out just what it is that makes Atlanta poignant in so many different ways.