Atlanta: why Donald Glover’s rap show is well worth a watch

You might know Donald Glover as Troy from Community. You might know him as the quirky scientist guy from The Martian. You might know him as the rap star Childish Gambino. You almost certainly know him as the chap that’s about to portray the young Lando Calrissian in Han Solo’s Star Wars spinoff. But one thing those of us in the UK may not know him from, yet, is Atlanta.

Over here, the TV series Atlanta arrived to very little fanfare. It did well enough in the USA to warrant its Fox-owned home network FX ordering a second season, but the splash on this side of the pond felt considerably smaller.

Atlanta didn’t seem to be a part of the public consciousness, perhaps because Fox UK – which hosts the show over here – isn’t a channel that everyone has. This is a shame because Atlanta is something really special…

Atlanta is a show that’s hard to categorise. Its episodes are sitcom length at twenty-ish minutes, but the content therein isn’t remotely sitcom-y. There’s no procedural element where the central characters go on a wacky adventure each week before slumping back into their preordained sofa spots at the end as if nothing ever happened. No, this is a show with a story that develops and grows as it goes. It’s also funny, but it’s not about catchphrases or one-liners. BoJack Horseman is probably closest comparison point.

Like Netflix’s equine animated series, Atlanta deals with fame. But instead of chronicling a fall from grace and a desperate need to snatch back former glories, Atlanta follows three young men who just want to break into the music industry. Between them, they probably have the talent, but translating that into success is a tricky task that pushes bank balances and comfort zones to breaking point.

It’s obvious that Donald Glover, who created Atlanta and writes a lot of it along with his brother Stephen Glover, is drawing on autobiographical experiences. But this isn’t the story of his life in particular; it’s simply a story of struggle, one that it’s very easy to relate to whether you’re into rap music or not. Living the dream, or aspiring to, isn’t easy. That’s what the show is about.

In a nice piece of plotting, Donald Glover’s protagonist, Earn, is actually ancillary to the main action. He’s a college dropout and low on cash, but he’s determined to help his cousin, Al, realise his full potential. Brian Tyree Henry plays Al, better known by rapper moniker Paper Boi, with a blend of brash bravado and subtle sincerity. Earn decides to be Al’s manager in the pilot episode.

Then you’ve got Keith Stanfield as Darius, Al’s best bud and a devout stoner, and Zazie Beetz as Van, Earn’s girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. Those two come across as a little bit generic at the start, but they are both built up and fleshed out by the time first ten-episode season draws to a close. All the performances in Atlanta are great, with nuance and complexity knitted into the characters.

Noticeably, none of Atlanta’s core characters are caricatures. Nor are any of them supporting players who are just there to prop up the leads or provide a gag to break the tension. They’re real people, and real issues affect all of them. They lose jobs, they feel fear, they fall out, and they make bad decisions. You just want them to do well, but Earn and Al’s endgame goal of superstardom seems such a long way away.

Since that last paragraph felt a bit a serious, now is probably the time to point out that this show is funny. The humour in Atlanta draws on everything from the arid to the absurd, all of it filtered through a wry and socially aware lens. There are belly laugh-inspiring lines, and scenes that will really make you think, often occurring at the exact same time.

Winningly, this show never disappears up its own arse, despite prodding at some big topics. The scripts approach racism, class struggles, social media trolls, American gun culture, policing and many more topical issues, but there’s never a sense of a sermon starting or a high horse being mounted. The characters in Atlanta don’t claim to have the answers; they just know the systems in place around them couldn’t care less for their wellbeing.

To get us to the point of empathising with Earn and the gang, the show takes us to a number of different events and locations – a charity basketball match, a TV talk show, a prison, a sponsored appearance at a nightclub, a couple of fancy restaurants and the streets of Atlanta provide a variety of engaging backdrops, teeing up scenes both serious and silly.

I would love to list some favourite scenes of mine here, the ones that had me chuckling the most, but I don’t want to spoil any of the show’s surprises. A couple of the episodes introduce really zany concepts, and knowing them ahead of time could take away some of the fun. Without spelling out why, the basketball game and the talk show are probably the highlights of season one for me. Suffice to say, there are some real treats to discover here.

The thing that took me most by surprise about Atlanta is that it’s not actually about rap at all. The entirety of the first season passes without a concert being performed, or even a single track being played in full. It’s not really about the art, it’s about a group of people who’ve been living on the breadline for quite some time, and the options presented to them as alternatives.

These include drugs, crime, changing who you are, and the vague intangible allure of stardom. Essentially, the path the main gang are on is a combination of all those things. The show asks us ‘how do you get to the top?’ It seems to involve gambling everything you’ve got, putting up with a lot of crap, and schmoozing with horrible people.

It’s lucky that the comedic hit rate is so high, because this downpour of difficulty could get really depressing if the jokes didn’t land. Thankfully, that wry humour rubs off on you, and you can’t help but laugh at impossible-to-navigate road connecting talent and success here. If it’s not promoters refusing to pay, or rivalries getting heated, it’s trolls getting their kicks by kicking our beloved leads while they’re down.

Atlanta discusses all these things without actually discussing them, utilising that age-old adage that showing is better than telling. The situations that the characters get into, and the utter arseholes that they meet, suggest repeatedly that Earn and Al will have to fight – often literally – to get a seat at the table. Against this adversity, those aforementioned excellent performances really shine, and Atlanta’s huge heart shows itself. The powers-that-be behind the programme clearly care about their characters, and you will too. It doesn’t take long to get drawn in.

Bravely, this is a show that refuses to play to formula. It’s a show based in the music world that barely has any music in it. It’s a show about a rapper and his cousin, which takes almost an entire episode out to explore the life of the cousin’s girlfriend. It’s a show that throws in fake adverts just to check you’re paying attention.

It’s a comedy where the lead character spends a lot of his time in a funk, and barely has the cash to stay afloat. It’s a show where the central relationship is a mum and dad who are seeing other people. And it’s a show where people suffer, fail and come up against brick walls on the regular, delivered in often-hilarious twenty-minute chunks.

Atlanta is also a show with a real flow to it: no episode starts or ends in the same way as the last, but the themes of the series grow in a clear and satisfying way throughout. It’s like a song where the verses are wildly different, but they’re all connecting to the same earworm of a chorus.

Its characters are infinitely likeable, and their struggles are unfalteringly watchable. The performances never waver from excellence, and neither do the scripts. The direction is simple but solid, refusing to be showy and distract from the matters at hand.

By the end of the first season – which, if you’re like me, you’ll race through in under a week – you’ll be begging for season two to hurry along onto our screens. Sadly, this won’t happen until 2018 because of Glover’s Star Wars commitments. The upside of that is this: you’ve got plenty of time to catch up. Enjoy!

Atlanta season 1 is currently available in the UK on Now TV until the 16th of April.

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