Donald Glover’s Atlanta is an Ambitious Success

Written by Christopher Diggins

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Atlanta Plot Summary:

College dropout Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover) senses an opportunity to get his life back on track when his cousin Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) makes a splash as rapper “Paper Boi.” But things quickly become complicated for both of them after a late night confrontation.

Donald Glover is one of those people with a surprisingly impressive resume. A writer for 30 Rock, lovable jock-turned-nerd Troy Barnes on Community, and a music career as rapper Childish Gambino, Glover has achieved a level of success that makes perfect sense once you see the sterling quality of his work. Now he adds his own show to that list, the comedy-drama Atlanta. Drawing on his own experiences growing up in Georgia and trying to find success as a rapper, Glover has delivered a new kind of show told from a perspective we too rarely get to see.

Avid fans of shows like Louie or Master of None may recognize the offbeat sensibilities on display in Atlanta, but there’s a low-key confidence to them here that gives the show a different feel. It never feels like what’s happening is a joke in a TV show, but instead some off-kilter version of reality where things are just a little bit stranger (and funnier). This type of humor is not for everyone, and it rarely produces the kind of belly laughs you might get in other comedies, but it’s certainly unique and feels refreshing to witness. It also allows for a truly seamless blending of comedy and drama13731647_1121017624635967_6677619785697429809_n that even the best dramedies rarely achieve; there are multiple scenes in this premiere alone that make the shift from pure comedy to pure drama while never ceasing to feel totally natural.

But more than just the type of comedy, there’s an amazing specificity to what Glover does with Atlanta that makes it really compelling. In the second premiere episode, his character Earn spends nearly the entire time in a prison waiting room talking to other people waiting for their paperwork to be processed. The many scenes of him interacting with them accomplish little in terms of the show’s plot, but the interactions are so rich because the personalities he encounters are so specific, and make full use of that “just a little stranger than reality” sensibility. He doesn’t just talk to someone complaining about how he got arrested, he talks to a hard-to-understand motormouth badmouthing his friend who happens to be right in front of him. There’s not just a crazy guy, there’s a strange, likely mentally ill person who drinks out of the toilet then gets brutally attacked by the guards in one of the show’s most surprising and poignant moments. Encounters like these are the soul of the show, and they’re often as thoughtful as they are entertaining.

In fact, Atlanta is a show where all the details feel just as important, if not more, than the actual plot. That Earn manages to get Paper Boi’s song played on a local radio station feels less meaningful than the conversations he has with an old acquaintance who works there and a janitor outside the building, and what they reveal to us about Earn’s character and his experiences. There’s always a danger that this type of show can become meandering or pointless, but for now it’s just highly compelling.

The big reason this show works so well, though, is because of how well it puts us into the minds of its characters.Earn, philosophical and ambitious but aimless, non-confrontational without being spineless,  is the show’s anchor, the character we most identify with. He is significantly buoyed by Glover’s charm, allowing Atlanta to unsparingly show us all of Earn’s flaws and the lack of faith even his own family has in him while still keeping him likeable. Paper Boi’s struggle with his newfound fame and his clear discomfort over how being involved in a shooting has enhanced it already paints a nuanced picture of the character that could easily fill the rest of the season. Seeing where these two go from here, not to mention how the show expands on the rest of its cast, would be well worth keeping up with this series even if it wasn’t one of the most interesting experiments in recent memory. As is, this one deserves to be on your radar.

Rating: 8 out of 10