Donald Glover’s vision for Atlanta was simple--he wanted to showcase what it felt like to be black. Other shows on cable such as ABC’s Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat attempt to showcase the lives of groups often not dramatized on television, but often in a diluted, disingenuous fashion. Atlanta, on the other hand, pulls no punches when delivering a three-dimensional, grating, and authentic experience. Undoubtedly must-watch television, the show thrives in its portrayal of struggle, a universal concept that permeates all walks of life. Fellow artist J. Cole raps in “Love Yourz,” “There’s beauty in the struggle, ugliness, and the success.” There is arguably no better tagline for this show, which despite having a loose, fluid storyline with non-linear episodes, charts a beautiful journey through life’s ups and downs.
Glover, who also directs and writes a handful of episodes, has shed his rap persona Childish Gambino to star as Earn, a Princeton drop-out who juggles the role of manager, father, and on-and-off boyfriend. After his cousin, Paper Boi, becomes a viral sensation following his song which repeats “Paper Boi/Paper Boi/I’m all about that Paper Boi,” Earn signs on to manage him to provide for his girlfriend Vanessa and his young daughter. Along the way, Earn must look out for Paper Boi’s best interests, while dealing with his own cynicism towards the state of modern rap and youth culture.
Early in the season, Earn is in desperate need of money. He tries to pawn his cell-phone, but off the advice of his friend Darius, ends up exchanging the phone for a rare samurai sword. Darius then flips the sword to a friend that owns and breeds dogs. At the end of this merry-go-round, Earn is set to earn a sum worth much more than his initial phone. However, he would only see the fruits of this process after a few months. Angry, Earn exclaims to Darius, “poor people don't have time for investments because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor.”
In one of the season’s most memorable episodes, Paper Boi hosts a night at a club for a few thousand dollars. Earn has to manage the entire night, making sure that they do their job, gain more followers, and have fun without foolishly spending all their money in an attempt to impress the ladies. Earn realizes how much he hates the club and the people there for their shallowness, predictability, and lack of substance. While it would have been easy for Glover to create Earn as this perfect, prescient character, he is also called out on his bullshit throughout the season. As he complains about his situation to the Bartender, she says that he is no different from or superior to any of the other club-goers. Isn’t Earn also trying to put up a façade and distance himself from his daily struggles?
At times, the show masterfully crafts both comedy and serious social commentary into one. In the Donald Glover-directed episode B.A.N. (Black American Network), Atlanta tackles topics such as homophobia in rap and “trans-racial identity” through a variety of TV skits and commercials. For those wondering, “trans-racial identity” refers through a news segment on Antoine Smalls, who despite being a seventeen-year-old black teenager, believes he actually is Harrison, a 35-year-old white man from Colorado. Harrison reflects on the loneliness he feels, and the lack of support he receives from his mother, who claims that just because she might wake up one day and say she is Rihanna, “she ain’t.” This segment clearly offers a ridiculous parallel to the transgender struggle, which is mentioned shortly thereafter. Harrison is later interviewed again, after his ‘surgery’ to complete his transformation, and critiques the trans community harshly. What initially seemed to be an absurdly funny skit takes on a larger meaning. Why is Harrison, who himself struggled with society’s definition of him and his own identity, lashing out against those with a similar opinion? Perhaps he has always felt that way, or that may just be a side-effect of his surgery. “Atlanta" offers no easy answers.
One of the show’s most interesting choices is the lack of backstory for the main characters. For example, even the fact that Earn is a Princeton-drop out is a detail one could easily miss if preoccupied for even a second. Instead of focusing on why these characters are in the situation they were in at the show’s opening, Glover and company are only interested in the present and specifically analyzing how the show’s numerous characters cope with life’s daily struggles. As such, the roles in Atlanta are conducive to sparkling performances. For example, Earn’s girlfriend Vanessa shines in episode six, also directed by Glover, when she must interact with a gold-digger friend whom she now feels apathetic towards. We again do not know how these two women became friends or what their relationship once was; rather, we see two women whose views on relationships and families are totally disparate.
At the conclusion of the season, while the plot in terms of Paper Boi’s career has not advanced much, we see a great deal of transformation in every character. At the same time, the poignant closing shot (that I won’t spoil here) makes us realize that Glover is only able to capture certain parts of life in Atlanta. Earn’s story is unique, as is Vanessa’s, as is Paper Boi’s. For a show to prosper while not caving into television’s usual dependence on plot and other tropes, it must make the audience care deeply about its characters. By showcasing the difficulties each character faces in life, we gain not only an understanding of but also a deep respect for his or her journey. Despite emphasizing black life in the town, the show does not alienate those from all walks of life. Unfortunately, the second season of Atlanta won’t air until 2018 due to Glover’s commitment to the next “Star Wars” film. The good news? The first season offers enough comedy, drama, and entertainment to quench one’s thirst for quality television until then.