In an era of peak TV, there is opportunity aplenty, but only a few ways to pop. FX has built itself into the most exciting network on television with a mix of strategies suffused with strong authorial vision, and Donald Glover’s Atlanta fits right in. It’s an offbeat story about being young, poor, black, and desperate, and a satirical allegory about authenticity, art, and chasing fulfillment by living through others. It’s risky, it’s weird, and it’s one of the best new shows of the year.
You might remember Glover as Troy on NBC’s cult classic Community — and for famously leaving the series to pursue his music career as Childish Gambino and develop the show that would become Atlanta. Now he’s playing Earnest Marks: bright and decent, broke and homeless, a Princeton dropout living adrift in a low-rent, crime-ridden black Atlanta neighborhood. His parents don’t get him, and they won’t support him. His closest friend and baby mama (Zazie Beetz) will sleep with him but is wary of dating him. He wonders if his destiny is to balance out a world of winners: “I just keep losing,” he says. When the cousin he hasn’t seen in years, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Bryan Tyree Henry), gains some grassroots fame as a rapper, Earnest’s dormant passion for music reactivates. He becomes fixated on managing Paper Boi and wants immediate success, on his terms.
Shot with confidence and cohesive style by director Hiro Murai, Atlanta tells darkly comic stories with a blend of realism, absurdity, and off-kilter framing that recalls early Tarantino. The premiere’s eerie opening sequence establishes a vibe of low-watt dread and floats the notion of déjà vu, as if Earn, Paper Boi, and moochy pal Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) are stuck in a time loop. The mood befits themes of men trying to take control of their stories, even as the culture pushes against them. Paper Boi is a fascinating character. He’s oblivious to his own cliché as the weed-dealing wannabe rapper; it’s just a way to make a wage, an Everyman’s profession. When tragedy imbues him with a sexy, hard gangsta image, Paper Boi isn’t thrilled — he’s baffled. His nemesis is a stranger named Zan (Freddie Kuguru), a social-media star who subverts Paper Boi’s already flimsy brand with snarky Instagram posts, simply for the likes and giggles. Can’t a guy just be a generic weed-dealing rapper and live in peace?
As star and center, Glover, who was raised in a suburb of Atlanta, is enormously appealing as a self-sabotaging rom-com hero and our deadpan guide through a mad, lightly surreal world. As showrunner-writer, his satire and his scenarios for struggle are inspired, if occasionally too abstract. But the cast know their characters to the bone — Stanfield is a slow-burning breakout — and the show’s humanity is deeply affecting. “We need a chance to fail,” says Earn, bemoaning a one-chance (or no-chance), perfection-or-bust culture. Atlanta — a triumph of risk taking by its network and creator — moves you with this truth and others. It’s the kind of resounding on-my-own-terms success that Earn yearns to earn. A-
Atlanta debuts on FX on Sept. 6 at 10 p.m. ET.
A version of this story appears in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now.
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