Why Atlanta ditches 'the PC world'
Writer Stephen Glover talks the Emmy-nominated FX comedy's success — and why it surprises him
In the age of Peak TV, specificity is key — and thankfully, Donald Glover’s surreal daydream comedy Atlanta has it in abundance. Delightfully weird, the series is nominally about three friends — penniless Princeton dropout Earn (Glover), his rapper cousin Alfred (the scene-stealing Brian Tyree Henry), and their pal Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) — trying to break into the titular city’s rap scene.
“We used to talk about how this show shouldn’t be a show about rappers; it should be a show for rappers,” story editor Stephen Glover — Donald’s Emmy-nominated younger brother who made his TV-writing debut on the series — tells EW. “I feel like our show wants to go a layer behind [the usual music-industry story] and show it from a different perspective. With the tone, we just wanted to make something that felt scary and funny and weird and Atlanta at the end of the day.”
This year, the FX comedy received six Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Comedy, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, and two nods for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. Below, Stephen looks back on the, well, outstanding first season, explains why showing the “PC world” wasn’t a priority, and shares his hopes for season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on the Emmy nomination. How are you feeling?
STEPHEN GLOVER: It’s crazy. A lot of people have been really excited about it. When it first happened, I didn’t know how to take it in, but everybody else has been super excited, which has made me even more nervous, I guess. It’s just been a crazy year, and it’s crazy that people enjoy the show and we’re being recognized because we didn’t expect that.
Why didn’t you expect people to enjoy the show so much?
Because we’re weird. I didn’t think anybody would understand what we were talking about at first. We have very weird tastes, especially Donald. We felt like maybe people might not get it and it’ll be something that’ll have to grow on them. But it’s been the exact opposite of that. Everybody seems to be like, “Nah, I like this. This is cool,” which makes me feel not so weird.
This is especially a big deal for you since it’s your first TV writing job, and you also wrote almost half of the first season. What was that experience like? Was it hard getting used to TV writing?
The thing was, I think Donald and I, because we’re brothers, we had spent so much time talking about the show that I just had a good idea of the tone and how we wanted to make this show feel and what we wanted the episodes to be, which made it easy for me to write a lot of the episodes, or write a good amount, just because I had a better handle on it than, I guess, everybody else. It was a weird experience because, to me, it felt easier because a lot of this was things that I’m used to; I was writing about being at home in Atlanta and getting that sort of feeling was easy for me. It was weird because it was my first writing gig and everything felt kind of non-traditional: We were meeting at Donald’s house; we had a lot of other first-time writers working with us; we were all from Atlanta, and it all kind of just worked that way where it felt really organic, but at the same time, it never felt hard. It’s good that it worked out so well.
You and Donald have collaborated on music in the past. How was this experience different than your past collaborations?
I think TV felt a lot less like work because me and him do this all the time where we just sit around and bounce ideas off each other and riff on things, and then talk about ideas for sketches or movies or just jokes, or sit around and laugh about things. That feels super natural. Music, Donald’s always doing music, too. He’s always walking around singing or coming up with something. Donald’s music IQ is way higher than mine. He has other people who he’s kind of tuned in with on the music side more. But for TV and creative ideas and writing, that’s kind of my and his thing where we’re able to just understand each other and we both have very similar tastes. So it’s a little bit easier.
Which ideas in the first season were just a result of you hanging out and talking?
The “B.A.N.” episode, which a lot of people really like. It has the fake commercials in it. Our thing in the writers’ room is that we’ll just talk about stories or talk about things that happen just in our regular lives and go from there. That [episode] started just from the idea of the Caitlyn Jenner arguments on Twitter, seeing that whole breakdown happen, and then talking about that and being like, “Every time something happens, there’s always, like, a rapper who has to go on TV and has to defend everybody.” They always find a rapper whose job it is now to defend something or to be the voice who enlightens everybody — [it was] just us playing around with that.
The commercials were literally just us joking around about, “Yeah, commercials on BET are blacker than everywhere.” A lot of our ideas are literally just us joking around about funny ideas: “Yeah, they should make a Swisher Sweets commercial. Why don’t they advertise Swisher Sweets?” and then do what it would be like. Or like, “What else needs advertising? Yeah, AriZona Iced Teas. They’re the greatest things ever. Everybody knows what they are. They have no advertisement. Why is that?”
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You wrote the Emmy-nominated “Streets on Lock,” which features an effective tonal shift midway through the episode. What did you draw on to write that episode?
Back in the day, Donald had said something that people kind of ran with, which was [he wanted to make] a show that lets you know what it feels like to be black. I think there’s something to the idea of, like, yeah, a show that makes you understand a little bit what it’s like to feel black, but not in a 12 Years a Slave, “Aww man, this is what it feels like to be black” way. We all know what that means. But in a way, to me, [this is] very specific. Growing up in Atlanta, which is one of the blackest places in the world, if you think about it. [It’s] one of the only places where you really get that identity and that idea of like, “It’s black, and there’s black and there’s white.” I feel like there’s something that happened that white people would never think of or that they don’t think happens.
There’s a scene where the guy is talking to the transgender woman who’s his girlfriend, and one of the funniest lines in there to me is, “This dude’s gay as hell,” because that’s something you would hear in your classroom. We live in a world now where people are so super PC and they’re like, “That shouldn’t happen, and in my world, that doesn’t happen.” It’s like, “Yeah, this is how it happens,” and if you grow up in Atlanta, you’re gonna see all types of things: You’re gonna see the good; you’re gonna see the bad in people; you’re gonna see that the PC world is not something that exists in Atlanta in a real space. There’s rawness there, there’s real s—t that’s happening. There’s a homeless man who’s in jail and he’s got mental disabilities and we all know this and he’s in there all the time. We all know this. We can all laugh at him, too, but if he gets out of line, he’s also expendable. These are realities in the world that are funny to me just because I’m like, “Yeah, this is how the world really works.” We can talk about the ideal that we have and what world we want to live in, but here’s the world that we live in today. Atlanta, just the city, is a real representation of that. There’s some dark realities that we have to face as people, which is a heavy thing to say in an interview.
Would you say that was an overall theme or ethos of the show, was to touch on those dark realities whenever possible, but not to hit you over the head with them?
I don’t think that was necessarily the point of the season or that was an overarching theme, but I think that’s something that goes back to what Donald said of what it feels like to be black, of getting that idea of what it feels like to live in Atlanta or to live in this world, which is like, “Yeah, you see messed up things happen a lot.” You know how they say, “You gotta laugh to keep from crying.” As black people, we see a lot of [messed] up [things] where it’s like, you just gotta kind of move on. I might see a racist thing happen today, and it’s like, “Yeah, it happened. My life goes on.” That’s what being black is. It’s not always like a huge event that changes something crazy. You’re just forced to move on with that. So a lot of the episodes have moments like that.
Donald is also nominated in the best comedy actor category. What do you think he brought to the role that no one else could?
Donald, of course, he grew up in Atlanta, and he also specifically knows what it’s like to grow up in Atlanta and feel like you’re kind of floating around in this weird sort of space. There’s definitely that thing in Atlanta where you’re either black or white, and some people fit in this weird [space] where it’s hard to put their finger on it, where people are just like, “You’re one of those weird black types.” Donald understands that role of being somebody that’s kind of an outsider — a little bit everywhere, but definitely in Atlanta. People from Atlanta know that type of person and what that feeling is, and because Donald’s from Atlanta, he’s able to bring that emotion to it. I think it really feels true to him.
What can you tease about season 2?
What I’ll say about season 2 is that we’re trying our hardest to make it better than season 1. I think with season 2, you’re just going to get the feel of Atlanta, like we set out for with the first season, trying to make it feel like you’re actually in the city of Atlanta and you understand the flavor of the city and the people there. Hopefully, people will know what it’s like to be in the city of Atlanta without having to set foot in there.
Atlanta is expected to return in 2018.