The titular city of FX’s Atlanta is defined by strip malls, fast-food joints, prisons, low- and middle-income housing, and one mostly empty pad that signifies the recent accumulation of wealth for its occupier. The glamour of this Southern city is pointedly out of sight because the protagonists can’t afford it, though Atlanta doesn’t fetishize poverty so as to condescendingly broach topical points either. This Atlanta is simply and matter-of-factly allowed to be in a fashion that recalls the setting of Louie, which casually upended prior sitcom portrayals of New York City as solely a moneyed white person’s playland. As in that series, the intensely textured setting here invests jokes with an omnipresent formal tension. The African-American characters might be arguing about something conventionally funny while sitting nonchalantly in a prison holding cell for their involvement in a shooting. Their unflappability is haunting: A middle-class Caucasian’s worst nightmare appears, for these guys, to be just another day at the office.
In Atlanta, creator and lead actor Donald Glover forges an extraordinarily contemporary comic style that blends sitcom, character study, urban thriller, vérité, and nebbish absurdism together in a tonal stew that mirrors the varying fractured identities of the American populace in the age of 21st-century social media. Atlanta is concerned with how people market themselves, ironing out their stray eccentricities and molding their personalities into a deliberate assortment of clichés that they can sell to others as easily digestible media figures. For instance, an ascending rapper can’t be seen as simultaneously imposing, goofy, shrewd, and even compassionate toward those in his inner circle. He must only be imposing, deliberately sanding himself down into a menacing black stereotype that can be seen in clips shared on YouTube and Twitter.
The rapper in this case is Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who goes by the name Paper Boi, and is enjoying the word-of-mouth success of a video that recently went viral. Big, imposing, often clad in black garb lined with gold chains, yet with a subtle gentleness and quicksilver intelligence, Paper Boi is trying to capitalize on nostalgia for 1990s-era rap, especially that of Notorious B.I.G., which ambiguously mixed troubling misogyny and a glorification of gang violence with searing explorations of ambition and longing. Like his heroes, Paper Boi is the real McCoy: a drug dealer who lives well from his trade and carries weapons and gets into gang-affiliated scuffles, such as an altercation over a rear-view mirror that opens the series, which is carefully elided to cast over the narrative a sense of the mythology that grows out of the incident, rendering the reality moot. Atlanta might be the first TV comedy to repurpose the “print the legend” thematic of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Glover and his collaborators frequently spin hilarious and narratively economic comedy out of the difference between how Paper Boi markets himself (as iron-willed thug) and how he actually lives (as a violent yet nuanced human navigating the petty banalities of life). Even Paper Boi’s entourage is prone to confusing fact and fantasy. Darius (Lakeith Stanfeld), a wiry flake given to unpredictable bouts of empathetic acuity, hides a gun in a cereal box, presumably because he’s seen tough guys do it in movies. Fishing the gun out of the cereal, he advises Paper Boi to watch out for bullets when eating. Paper Boi’s estranged ne’er-do-well cousin, Earn (Glover), asks him if it’s actually so bad getting busted for possessing weed, presuming that, for a rapper, this is small potatoes. With delectable common sense, Paper Boi tells Earn that this is still worse than not getting busted for weed.
We largely see Paper Boi and Darius from Earn’s point of view. Earn is an unusual character who’s somewhat reminiscent of many of Key & Peele’s protagonists, as he’s an African-American uncertain as to what sort of black masculinity he wishes to embrace. It’s Earn who serves as Atlanta’s emotional center, providing its strand of nebbish humor. He’s a sensitive college dropout who glorifies his floundering as a sign that he’s an artist type waiting to bloom. Earn decides that he wants to manage Paper Boi’s career in a hail-Mary attempt to jumpstart his life after exhausting most of the favors his friends and family are willing to extend. Earn’s fantasy of self-actualization is understood by Glover to represent yet another embrace of stereotype: of the late-bloomer who achieves transcendence that arrives on convenient cue, a la the third act of a middle-class coming-of-age story.
Throughout Atlanta, Earn, Paper Boi, and Darius ping-pong off one another with a spontaneous sense of vitality that reflects the war of images governing their assorted identities as well as the cumulative mythological self-identity of America. Like Louis C.K., Glover and his collaborators frequently set up punchlines, only to suddenly spring vignettes that revel in an acute and despairing awareness of systemic hypocrisy.
When Earn regards a mentally disabled man in a prison holding cell, for instance, we’re initially primed to accept the latter as merely an eccentric textural flourish, intended to intensify the prison setting. But other prisoners continue to ridicule the man, who’s revealed to be in and out of the prison so regularly as to be taken for granted as a fixture. The scene grows increasingly uncomfortable, climaxing in a shocking bit of violence, as a guard needlessly and mercilessly beats the inmate down onto the floor. The encounter illustrates yet another form of rationalization as sifted through identity and social institutionalization, as this guard is just “doing his job.”
The rationalization most prominently under Atlanta’s microscope, though, is black America’s unresolved relationship with violence, especially as it’s dramatized and marketed to consumers. When a mother catches her son playing with a toy gun, she chastises the child for emulating a violent real-life episode involving Paper Boi. But when Paper Boi appears, attempting to help the mother make her point, she quickly changes her tune, aroused by his fame and dangerous reputation. The scene’s implication, which is frequently landed by Atlanta with astonishing aplomb, is that violence is easier to denounce in theory, for the sake of comforting righteousness.
In reality, however, violence represents a tempting lure of empowerment for the disenfranchised and franchised alike, including whites, who’re vicariously enticed by the premise of black power because they don’t have to wrestle with the attending actuality of black oppression. (That’s an irony frequently embodied by the show’s virtuosic exploration of the subtexts existing underneath the word “nigga.”) Atlanta exhilaratingly explores the complicated intersections between pop culture, capitalism, and crime, revealing them all to be united by the notion of sales trumping morality and even reality.