Better Late Than Never: Atlanta
Donald Glover has always had the capacity to being one of the great talents of whatever medium he said his mind to: as a staff writer on 30 Rock, as the lead talent on the cult hit Community, and stealing scenes in The Martian. Halfway through his turn on Community, though, he attempted to launch a career as a rap star under the name Childish Gambino. Meeting with only a mixed level of success, in the fall of 2016 he turned that experience into the making of Atlanta, a comedy that received some of the most extraordinary reviews of any series in 2016. To date, it has been one of the biggest award recipients of any show in the 2016–2017, winning the Golden Globe for Best Comedy, a Peabody award, and winning Glover awards for acting, directing and writing from the Broadcast Critics to the NAACP. I wish I had a better excuse for taking nearly a year to getting around to see it, other than being too fricking busy, but I had a feeling based on the descriptions, that I was the complete opposite of the audience FX and Glover were aiming for.
Atlanta is the story of Glover as Earn Marks, a thirty-ish African American living in the title city. Actually, the better term would be ‘surviving’. He is a salesmen trying to get by on commission. He has a girlfriend, Van, who he has a very messy relationship, and seems to be staying with mainly for the stability of their baby daughter. His parents won’t lend him any more money. In a desperate attempt to try and emerge from the fate he seems doomed to, he tries to help a local rapper/drug dealer Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) get his most recent single ‘Paperboy’ on a local radio station. Even though he manages to succeed, his career to launch him as a rapper seems to make his future worse. In the pilot, he tries to prevent his talent from getting shot outside a nightclub, only to end up getting arrested himself, then having to endure a nightmarish day in jail when his girlfriend spends an entire day before posting bail for him. He tries to buy a kids meal at a fast food joint and is thwarted by a harpie manager. He tries to take Van out to a nice dinner, gets bamboozled by the waitress into ordering an expensive meal, and ends up broke by the end. He has to pawn his phone for money, gets involved in an elaborate deal in buying a samurai sword, and then finds out he won’t get paid till September.
Life isn’t much better for Alfred either. Though he becomes a local celebrity, with no real income from his rap, he has to maintain his career as a drug dealer, not aided by his co-runner Darius, (Lakeith Stanfield), a man who remarkably manages to have stayed alive for his level of incompetence. (During a drug deal, he handcuffs a suitcase to his wrist, and forgets the keys.) Alfred and Darius witness a near shooting, and Alfred is still trying to get over that when he finds himself being trolled on the internet by a follower of indeterminate race and income named Zan.
Atlanta is a funny series, but it has the kind of queasy comedy that is associated with so many of the best comedies on FX, such as You’re The Worst or Louie. The comedy is surrounded in humiliation, only because of the dark history associating with much of the situation, there’s a dark focus to it, that one would expect to see on The Wire. Indeed, considering the level of profanity and N-words used, the comparison is a good one. And yet, through the pain you can see some very funny jokes, mostly shown through Darius, who shows the Peter Principle apparently doesn’t apply to drug dealers. (In one sequence, he says that no black man knows who Steve McQueen is. When we go to a pawn shop with a poster for ‘The Sand Pebbles’ and Earn asks the owner about it, he tells them any time a black man shows up and asks about McQueen, he knows its an excuse for him to rob him.).
Much like Transparent or the recently cancelled Carmichael Show, one gets the feeling that Atlanta is only considered a comedy in that sense. It looks at social issues in a painful and funny way that only David Simon and his ilk were capable of doing at times. It’s definitely not going to be for everyone’s taste, but it definitely deserved the nine Emmy nominations it got, and well deserves to be considered for the grand prize,
My score:4.25 stars.