In just two episodes, it’s abundantly clear that Atlanta, Donald Glover’s mesmerizing new half-hour on FX, was worth its lengthy inception. The show was in development back when Glover was building Howard Roark-esque pillow forts on Community, and though it seemed for a time like it would never come to light, Atlanta has emerged confident and fully-formed. The initial offering, which consisted of a one-hour block, gave the feeling of tuning into a program that’s already great and that’s been thriving for years, not one aspiring for accolades and rooting out an audience.
The background information about protagonist Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover) is doled out carefully in clever shots and bits of dialogue. It would’ve been easy to telegraph that he was a Princeton dropout by having his mother or father throw it at him during an argument, but that info is saved for a jab by Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), his cousin whose newfound regional rap success Earn hopes to steer towards stardom as his manager. With Alfred and his right-hand man Darius (an off-the-wall Keith Stanfield) in tow, he hopes to recapture some momentum for his own rudderless life, and provide for his daughter and her mother (Zazie Beetz, whose disappointment when she picks Earn up from jail is visceral enough to make the viewer feel like they’ve broken the law themselves).
Glover’s character feels like a natural extension of the persona he’s honed as Childish Gambino; he’s intelligent and witty, yet also prone to existential angst and anxiety. He has a weighty background and a defined disposition, so he isn’t a pure audience conduit, but he serves as a perfect two-way mirror for some of the show’s more bizarre scenes or street culture snapshots. His thousand-yard stare during the holding cell scenes is priceless, along with his meek “Sexuality is a spectrum” comment to a man grappling with his “girlfriend” being transgender. Atlanta clearly wants to handle most of its hefty material with at least some comedic deftness.
Darius will receive the broadest laughs, but Henry as Paper Boi displays flawless timing; he’s perfectly cast as a rapper who’s clearly smarter than the lukewarm trap tunes he’s peddling. His exasperation when he’s asked to explain the concept of “Muckin'”, one of the tracks on his Postal mixtape, or when a child doesn’t believe he’s actually Paper Boi, is just a few notches below a George Costanza-level eruption.
The show’s inherent confidence is evident in the early narrative strokes. The shooting scene that opens the series is a flash forward to the event that colors most of the second episode, and it’s the kind of easy, stereotypical hip-hop drama that a more conventional show would save for a season finale cliffhanger. Technically, Hiro Murai’s camerawork is fluid and pairs perfectly with Christian Sprenger’s cinematography to capture the shifting mood of the characters. Small moments, like cloaking a backlit Darius and Alfred in shadows when they hear a foreboding knock on the door, or zooming upward to make the exact details of the shooting ambiguous, are strokes of brilliance.
For better or worse, the label of “Rap Louie” has already been bandied about in reference to Atlanta. There’s certainly truth there — both shows offer surrealist, understated humor, memorably off-kilter background characters, and a generally jaded sensibility — but Glover’s deconstruction of the southern rap scene could also be seen as a hip-hop Party Down. Its characters aren’t transcendent talents; they’re older, weathered, and simply looking for something better than their current situations.
Some of the rap-centric humor may be lost on the completely uninitiated — Paper Boi’s mixtape has 30 tracks, including skits he refuses to cut, Earn panics when someone yells “WORLDSTAR!” during a confrontation outside of a club — but the universe here is so immersive that anyone willing to stick with the show will come to understand its rhythm and lexicon quickly. Plenty of it is also broad enough to land for anyone who has even a suburban parent level of hip-hop knowledge, like Flo Rida being labeled “mom” rap or a Gucci Mane-loving cop asking Paper Boi for a photo op in jail for the “Insta-sluts” and referring to him as “Paper Man” (or is it Paper Mane?).
It’ll be fascinating to see how Atlanta‘s quirky structure (leading with the shootout scene dulled its impact a bit) and eccentric pacing shade the show’s more dramatic moments, since things have mainly been played for comedy so far, with the exception of a grim police brutality incident in the second episode. Still, after just 44 minutes in the show’s world, it’s hard to imagine anything less than sterling execution from Glover and the rest of the team.