By Todd Neece
Let’s just get this out of the way from the beginning; I like FX’s new show Atlanta, and you should too. The best word to describe the show is unique, and the show’s creator Donald Glover accomplishes this feat in the most attractive manner. Too often, shows attempt to be different or quirky without purpose. This results in unrealistic characters and events so outlandish they alienate some viewers. In contrast, Atlanta successfully blends unique characters and events laced with truths that render them familiar and accessible.
The premise is simple and is set into motion within the pilot episode. The show’s protagonist, Earn (Glover), is a broke Princeton dropout with a child, a dead-end job and a failing relationship with Van, his daughter’s mother. Fed up with a job he doesn’t enjoy and isn’t particularly good at, Earn discovers his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles has gained local notoriety for a self-titled underground rap single. After initially being rejected, Earn convinces his cousin to let him manage his burgeoning career. While watching I get the feeling that Glover has created a show that directly appeals to my demographic, and I’m a middle class white kid who grew up in suburbia. Unlike Earn, I don’t have a cousin who is a traphouse rapper, and I’ve never sold credit cards at an airport. But everyone can identify with the feelings associated with the intersection of fading youth, a dwindling bank account, and the creeping nature of unrealized dreams.
I’ve heard recently that critics enjoy this show because it seems to “break all the rules” of standard television. I couldn’t agree more. Although Glover weaves common themes throughout the show, each episode stands alone and tackles various issues from multiple points of view. In the middle of the season an entire episode centers around Van, who up to that point is a minor character, and with only a brief three-second appearance by Earn. Most other shows would flop if they had to rely on a supporting character to carry an entire episode. Atlanta thrives. Similarly, another episode is set around a fake public-access show, complete with fake (yet appropriate to the plot) commercials.
One of the most endearing feelings associated with the show belongs to those viewers without residence in the city of Atlanta itself. This lack of experience makes it impossible to understand every detail of the show. However, the quality of Glover’s work gives even those with a surface understanding a pleasurable experience. As an individual who has only briefly visited the city, my first hand knowledge of the landmarks, inhabitants, and culture is limited at best. As such, the ‘96 Olympics, the “Hotlanta” rappers of the mid 2000s, and their perpetually mediocre sports teams shape the majority of my understanding concerning the area.
And yet, I’m hooked. Watching the show is most similar to listening to two of your friends share a humorous joke you don’t completely understand. You know it’s funny because the parts you do comprehend make you laugh, but you simultaneously realize that you’ve failed to grasp the entirety of the punch line. It’s like watching The Office without having worked in the corporate world. The individual characters are funny on the surface, but unless you’ve lived in a cubicle you have no idea how accurate those caricatures can truly be.
The most powerful aspect of this show is the ability to make a statement without preaching at the audience. Many episodes involve heavy issues like racism, poverty and police brutality. Glover doesn’t gloss over these concerns or pretend they don’t exist. He tackles them head-on with entertaining satire. Atlanta’s refreshing capacity to make viewers simultaneously laugh and ponder the dilemmas facing members of our country is a much needed respite.