Donald Glover’s innovative dramedy series Atlanta (2016-current, seasons 1 and 2 can be streamed on Showmax here) shines a loony light on what it’s like to be poor and black in the United States today. It’s raked in at least 20 major awards, including the 2017 Golden Globe and Emmy awards for Best Television Series, Musical Or Comedy, as well as Best Actor Globes and Emmys for Donald himself.
The basic story follows Earn (Donald), a Princeton dropout looking to make his name in the music business by managing his cousin Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) career as a trap artist and because you need a third man, they gang up with their marijuana-loving friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield).
It’s a show that creates its own new sitcom conventions as a way of making us question our experience. For example, when singer Justin Bieber appears on the show, he’s played by a black actor and this passes without comment. Entire scenes turn out to have been dreams. And some dream-like or nightmarish moments turn out to be real. And an entire episode focusses on a talk programme on the BET-like channel BAN, complete with ad breaks for somewhat suspect products.
You never quite know what the rules are in Atlanta, because you’re not making them, you’re just along for the ride. In this way, Atlanta turns that vein of absurdity in black lives in the United States back on itself. “You have to be able to laugh at the absurd, in order to keep from crying,” says Donald.