'Atlanta' Breaks The Mold
“Nobody’s stuntin’ on anybody here.”
In Atlanta, Ernest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover) doesn’t bother to dream of stunting. With a baby daughter to feed, a frustrated girlfriend,* and parents wondering where they went wrong, that’s a luxury delayed for the “technically homeless” Princeton dropout hawking credit cards at the airport for $5.15 an hour.
*Perhaps “girlfriend” is a stretch. She dates other men right in his face.
Opportunity arises when Earn discovers his cousin, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), is an up-and-coming rapper named Paper Boi, whose mild street buzz is one gunshot away from the lowest rungs of local fame. Manage Alfred's fledgling career, Earn thinks, and reverse the disappointment held by just about everyone in his life.
Atlanta's brilliance lies not in its concept ("two dudes just trying to make it" is hardly groundbreaking) but in its rich, unpredictable world that is at once all too real and disorientingly bizarre. Through just two episodes, the show has managed to be piercingly funny while presenting hard truths about violence and barriers to prosperity. Paper Boi is not a blazingly talented rapper, and Earn has zero management experience. Their success — should it ever arrive — will be the result of hard work, clever scheming, and a whole lot of luck.
Take Earn's encounter with an overenthusiastic (and far too comfortable) white DJ acquaintance in the parking lot of a local radio station. Instead of bending to the DJ's pay-for-play demands, Earn befriends the building's custodian, scrapes together the last of his cash, and slips Paper Boi's single under the door of the station manager, bypassing the greedy DJ. That night, Paper Boi hears himself on the radio for the first time.
As Earn languishes in jail overnight (just watch the show okay?), Paper Boi wrestles with his new taste of fame: a nerdy police officer acts too chummy, a restaurant server pins his hopes on Paper Boi's authenticity, kids unflatteringly imitate their new role model, and a mother changes her tune when she realizes who she's barking at. Thankfully, Paper's hanger-on friend Darius (Keith Stanfield) brings valuable levity.
Darius breaks the mold of the typical stoner sidekick, peppering in unexpected quips without distracting from the scene. In response to the DJ's lame story with a Flo Rida punch line, Darius says, “I don’t know man, I like Flo Rida. Moms need to enjoy rap too.” At one point, Darius asks Earn's dad (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) if he can measure one of the trees in his yard. His disappointment pops with adorable sincerity.
As the trio sets out on a journey not to achieve Drake-level fame, but to simply live comfortably doing what they love, one assumes each rung of the ladder will introduce new sets of challenges and shady characters. Earn must balance fatherhood with fast-life hustle of the music industry while trying to escape utter squalor. Paper Boi is forced to confront the spotlight. And Darius ... Darius has to measure these trees, dammit.
It's for this reason that Atlanta works so well. Glover and Co. do not present a fantastical rags-to-riches story at warp speed, but rather something perceptive, funny, and unflinchingly honest: young people reaching for a little more than what they have.
Nobody is stunting on anybody here. |ES|
Header image: FX