Donald Glover had a very successful 2016 in what was the most terrifying, confusing year full of unexpected events and shocking celebrity deaths. He created a universally critically acclaimed television series, was cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming (though not as Spider-Man) and as Lando Calrissian in the untitled Han Solo Star Wars spin-off. He also held a festival/listening event for fans at Joshua Tree and released a well received soul/funk album titled “Awaken, My Love!” and oh yeah he had a baby boy! It has been wonderful to see someone so talented succeed in so many aspects of their life and career in what was a very punishing year for many of us. In 2015, Glover had performed supporting acting roles in The Lazarus Effect, Magic Mike XXL and The Martian. With Atlanta, Glover is the star, creator, writer, director and executive producer. When it was announced in 2013 that FX would be developing a new show about the Atlanta rap scene, created and starring Donald Glover, I was excited and expected something good but was also a little sceptical. Although I still haven’t seen Empire I feared it would be the kind of typical portrayal of the hip-hop world which is so often glamourised. While, I’ve been a fan of Glover for several years since watching him as the goofy former jock Troy Barnes on the cult sitcom Community and as a fan of the self-conscious indie hip-hop music he made under the moniker Childish Gambino (chosen from a Wu-Tang name generator). Glover took a complete left turn with “Awaken, My Love!” and Atlanta. I had no idea what Atlanta would be and yet it completely defied my expectations of what I thought would simply be a “good” show and turned out to be an understated but revolutionary work of art.
However, I shouldn’t be surprised at all. After all, Glover is an extremely talented, multi-hyphenate individual. He began his career as a staff writer on Tina Fey’s sitcom, 30 Rock at just 21 whilst still studying at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Over a decade since his stint on 30 Rock, Glover has taken many left turns and has always shown his talent in whatever he does. Yet in 2016, I was really impressed by Glover who created some of the best works of art I enjoyed that year and there was very stiff competition. Vulture critic, Matt Zoller Seitz, described 2016 as “hands down, the best year for scripted television since I became a critic of film and TV 25 years ago.” While such a bold comment might seem hyperbolic I couldn’t disagree with Zoller Seitz. Although I’m not a professional television critic, I have watched a lot of television in my 20 years of living and have never experienced a better year of television watching in my life. In writing this review of season one of Atlanta, although I think it had the best season of television I watched last year, it had very strong competition coming from The Americans, Silicon Valley, BoJack Horseman, Fleabag, Veep, Casual, Catastrophe, You’re the Worst, Better Call Saul and newcomers such as Insecure, Queen Sugar and Luke Cage. The latter of which along with Atlanta make up a quartet of freshman shows from black creators and stars and dealing in some way with black issues in interesting and creative ways. Out of all these shows however I think Atlanta succeeds the most because of its confidence in experimenting with form and style, its subtle yet sharply written authentic dialogue and its atmosphere of realism and surrealism.
Atlanta is beautifully shot. As an aspiring screenwriter, I can’t rave enough about how incredibly well written the show is but knowing very little about cinematography I have to say that the show is incredibly well shot and directed. Long-time director of Childish Gambino music videos, Hiro Murai directs every episode of this season with the exception of “B.A.N.” (directed by Donald Glover) and “Juneteenth” (directed by Janicza Bravo). The very first scene of the first episode titled “The Big Bang” is a cold open, the camera quickly follows Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover) as he chases after his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry). Someone off screen shouts “WORLDSTAR”, this is the first indication that the show will explore social media and Internet culture in our current time which it does brilliantly with the character of Zan, an Internet troll in “The Streisand Effect” #zanlivesmatter. The way the scene is lit is extremely well done, it is shot at night with use of low-key lighting, there is a film grain quality and a good amount of exposure. The camera moves slightly in between the characters creating the effect of the viewer intruding on the conversation. Darius (Keith Stanfield) interrupts the conversation and says something random about a dog in typical Darius fashion. Alfred is insulted by the people they arguing with, who expect him to be rich because he’s a rapper and call his music bad, he pulls out a gun, Earn replies “nigga what are you doing?” and pulls out a gun and the man they’re arguing with also pulls out a gun. Darius looks at a dog and says “so weird” cut to an aerial shot, the camera pulls out and there’s a loud gunshot. “No Hook” by OJ Da Juiceman plays as the camera cuts to different aerial shots of Atlanta. In its opening two minutes, I knew Atlanta was going to be unlike any other show I’ve ever seen.
For example, the word “nigga” is not often casually used on television but it’s frequently used on Atlanta by its black characters – “free sandwich day nigga.” And humorously it is omitted by a white character retelling a story at the end of the pilot who Earn exposes for being comfortable using the word around him but not around Alfred and Darius, strangers who he is probably intimated by. I immediately relate to Earn but I can see why some white viewers may be made uncomfortable watching Atlanta, it exposes their own insecurities about being white and trying to relate to black culture. In creating Atlanta, Donald Glover said in an interview with Vulture “I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.” This comment proved to be controversial and some people took offence when this was posted on Reddit perhaps believing it was a racist attitude or a false statement, who knows. The point is this outrage was people grossly misunderstanding Glover’s intention, it was not to teach white people what it’s like to be black but show them what it’s like to be black and allow them to imagine themselves in that world. Although most people in the Western world live in an integrated, multicultural and intersectional society and we are all connected by the Internet it doesn’t mean we understand each other any better as proven in this post-truth, alt-right (neo-nazi) and Donald Trump era. Each individual has their own unique perspective and someone else can understand and empathise with them but will never know what it feels like to be that person. Well to be black is to have a double consciousness, a term coined by African-American sociologist, W. E. B. Du Bois, which means always looking at one’s self through the eyes of a racist white society. There is no universal black experience across the world, there are a lot of differences between being an African-American living in the United States and more specifically in the South in Atlanta, Georgia and like myself being British-Nigerian living in the UK, yet as a 20-year old black male I’ve never related to characters on television as much as I related to the characters on Atlanta. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing and direction of Atlanta that I was so fully immersed in the world of Atlanta. Upon finishing the season I immediately craved more and quickly went back to revisit the entire season. On a second viewing, Earn, Alfred and especially Darius felt like old friends and I couldn’t wait to hang out with them again. And I eagerly wait their return.
There’s so much to love about Atlanta. I love everything about it, the writing, the directing, the cast, the characters, the setting, the soundtrack etc. I love how artsy, weird and black it is. I love how there are things that are very specific to the city of Atlanta and how they were things that are relatable to most black people anywhere. Donald Glover has said “I just always wanted to make Twin Peaks with rappers” but he achieved far more than that. He created a show which was authentic and realistic and showed what it’s really like to be young, poor and black in America and there are some surrealist elements in the show. An invisible car, Justin Bieber being inexplicably but brilliantly black and Migos making a cameo as themselves. These moments are hilarious, surreal and enjoyable but I appreciated the moments in between more. The attention to detail on what it’s like being black in America and in the world. In the season finale “The Jacket”, Earn, Alfred and Darius wait inside a car because Earn has lost his jacket and is waiting for an Uber driver who has it. Alfred realises that there’s something weird about the situation, the previously empty street is then surrounded by police cars and a S.W.A.T. team who point guns at them. The Uber driver who Earn was looking for is shown running and is quickly shot down by the police. Although from the pilot we know that there will be guns and violence in the show, this scene is genuinely shocking. It shows what it’s like to be a black male and to be aware of your mortality as well as being seen by society as a target and a threat. What I understood from the brilliant debut season of Atlanta is that to be black in America (and in Western society) is surreal in itself. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate Atlanta and how much I’ve enjoyed watching it. I’d like to thank the cast and crew for their work especially whoever made Darius, now one of my favourite characters ever, Nigerian this has made me very proud.
Written by Emmanuel Omodeinde
Season Grade: A