Best of 2016 (Behind the Scenes): How Donald Glover's Atlanta captured the city with its music
Donald Glover’s had a big year: He launched his own musical festival in Joshua Tree, released his third studio album as Childish Gambino, and debuted his critically beloved new FX show, Atlanta (which nabbed two Golden Globe nominations Monday). His music background shows in the comedy-drama, which features tracks by artists ranging from up-and-coming rappers to big names in old soul. During the show’s fall run, Glover and Atlanta staff writer Fam talked to EW about scoring the series. As part of our year-end coverage, revisit that story below.
Right after Atlanta’s cold open, aerial shots of the titular city take over the screen as OJ Da Juiceman’s “No Hook” plays on. The song is loud and enticing and immediately makes you feel like you’re walking down a busy street as a guy speeds past blaring the music from the speakers. Then the title card pops up, and “No Hook” becomes muted. We’re still in the city, but now we’re listening to the track through Earn’s (show creator Donald Glover) headphones. The show’s called Atlanta, yeah, but right away, it becomes clear: This isn’t necessarily Atlanta; this is Earn’s Atlanta.
And Earn loves music — at least enough to help out his cousin, Alfred (The Book of Mormon alum Brian Tyree Henry), a rapper whose track “Paper Boi” begins gaining steam early on in the FX drama-comedy. (The possibility of getting some paper of his own is solid motivation for Earn, too.) That original song was penned by Glover and his brother Stephen, but most of the series’ varied, Southern-inspired soundtrack is made up of already-released tracks that the Georgia-raised Glover hopes together will create a picture of the city he knows.
“We wanted it to feel like what it felt like when we were on the street in Atlanta. No matter where you go, there’s a constant barrage of music coming from cars and from shops,” Glover tells EW. “It was important to me that it represented a vibe of Atlanta that was true, something you couldn’t get from everywhere.”
For “Paper Boi,” that meant making something that felt as realistic as possible. “The hook is super playful, super repetitive, which is like a lot of Atlanta trap music,” Fam, a staff writer on the show and Glover’s manager on the music side, says. “As much as it’s a joke, you can still leave an episode singing, ‘Paper boi, paper boi, all about that paper, boi.’ It sticks with you.”
“We based Alfred on an old school, Southern rapper,” Glover says, adding that they used “a lot of tropes that were very classic” including “the synth trumpets, the rapper using his name as the hook.” “It needed to feel familiar and honest,” he explains. The end result is a catchy ode to a subgenre that defines these characters’ lives.
And much of that style of rap originated in Atlanta, a current mecca for hip-hop. The city’s responsible for plenty of big names — OutKast, Goodie Mob, Gucci Mane, T.I., Ludacris all hail from the city — along with more recent standouts like 21 Savage and Migos.
“All the music for the last seven years on the hip-hop side, it really starts with Atlanta,” Fam, a Los Angeles native, says. “In L.A., our identity still ties so much into what everything was in the past. It’s hard to escape that. Anybody that’s buzzing out of L.A., they have to have a Dr. Dre association or they have to look like they were in Straight Outta Compton. In Atlanta, you get a bunch of varieties. Atlanta allows that creativity to be cultivated a little more and you can stretch a little more.”
Fam references Glover himself as someone from Atlanta who, like OutKast’s Andre 3000, represents someone “weird but also accessible.” As Childish Gambino, Glover’s released three studio albums — 2011’s Camp, 2013’s Because the Internet, and the just-released “Awaken, My Love!” — along with EPs EP and Kauai, but Glover says his character won’t be taking the stage on Atlanta — for now, at least.
“My character doesn’t rap. I felt like that would be kinda wack,” Glover laughs. “So definitely not this season. Something worth it would have to come up for him to have to start rapping.”
Instead, the show’s giving a spotlight to some artists who could use the extra attention. “There’s a bunch of choices, specifically in episode 3, where you’re like, ‘Man, I haven’t heard this before,'” Fam says. “I think people are going to have some Shazam moments for some of these songs.”
There’s also music that likely won’t require Shazam: One especially poignant moment in the second episode features Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands,” one of the soul singer’s bigger hits, playing right after a frustrated Van (Zazie Beetz) picks up Earn from the police station, their young daughter babbling away in the backseat.
“Bill Withers is just like a feeling,” Fam explains. “I don’t know any rapper that can give you what Bill Withers gives you. There’s just times where rap didn’t fit, and you want to evoke this certain emotion to lead people with. Because of the placement of ‘Grandma’s Hands,’ you leave the episode like, ‘Damn.’ I don’t know if you could do that with a rap song.”
Created by and starring Donald Glover, this absurdist FX comedy follows two cousins and their best friend as they try to make it in the titular city's rap scene.