By Jennifer Ochieng17 October 2019
Inside the psychedelic, bizarre and thought-provoking world of Donald Glover’s Atlanta
Donald Glover, known as Childish Gambino in the music world, has been hailed as a polymathic genius. He’s been labelled a 21st century Renaissance man, a “woke bae”. A rapper (his Grammy-winning song This Is America went viral), comedian, actor and writer, Glover’s successful career has been based on his ability to be versatile, conscious and eccentric with his material.
And while many were already aware of his unique brand of creativity, it’s the comedy-drama series Atlanta that catapulted the multifaceted creator to stardom. (Fun fact: Donald Glover is not related to veteran actor and Lethal Weapon star Danny Glover.)
Atlanta, which Donald created, co-wrote, executive produces and stars in, follows Earn (Donald), a Princeton drop-out trying to make a living by managing his local rapper/drug-dealer cousin Alfred/Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry, Joker).
Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) also stars as the meta weed smoker Darius while Zazie Beetz (Deadpool, Joker) plays Van, Earn’s baby mama whose on-and-off relationship with Earn is never quite defined.
Every day they’re hustling
Atlanta portrays the authentic struggles and desperations of what it means to be black and try to make it in life, even in an industry like rap where black artists tend to thrive, and in a city long known as the hip-hop capital of the world.
It captures the struggles of jaded dreamers like Earn, a man who is too smart to be in the life he is – an Ivy League drop-out, homeless and broke – and who believes that managing his cousin will give him the break he needs, even to earn just enough to afford food.
“Van needed that money. My daughter needed that money, not in September but today. See, I’m poor, Darius, and poor people don’t have time for investments because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor. I need to eat today, not in September.” Earn laments in season 1 episode 4 “The Streisand Effect” after Darius invests the only money he has in a dog breeding venture.
And while Earn sees his cousin Alfred as the only escape out of his poverty, Alfred doesn’t see himself as the star everyone wants him to be. He grapples with his newfound fame as the reluctant rap star Paper Boi when his street single “Paper Boi” becomes an overnight hit. Atlanta dispels the notion that fame automatically equals success.
And so, we follow Paper Boi as he mumbles and grunts through fame that never actually translates to enough money to allow him to stop dealing marijuana. But Paper Boi’s problem isn’t just that his rap career isn’t earning him any cash; there’s also a conflict between his two personas, Alfred and Paper Boi, his desire to still be himself and keep it real in a world where to be a star you must conform to the glamour, vanity and the “fake it till you make it” rules of the game.
Darius, the third member of the group, is a man stuck in his own world; he’s the only one lucky enough to emancipate himself from the pressures of life and the weight that both Earn and Alfred carry on their shoulders. A weedhead sensei, Darius can sometimes be misunderstood as crazy for his deep, philosophical take on life, death, money, humanity and the world around him.
“Us humans are always close to destruction. Life itself is but a series of close calls. I mean, how would you know you were alive unless you knew you could die,” Darius explains to Paper Boi, who’s too uninterested to comprehend the complexity of his statement in “Streets on Lock.”
Thought-provoking, satirical and bizarre
Like the innovative show it is, Atlanta adapts and reinvents itself in ways we never see coming. Some moments are satirical, like in “Nobody Beats the Biebs” where we meet a black Justin Bieber, who’s introduced with a straight face. Or in “B.A.N” where we are faced with a black teenager who believes he’s a white man stuck in a black man’s body, in an episode where Atlanta parodies a news show and plays around with fake commercials.
Other moments are totally bizarre, mysterious and tragic. Like in the six-time Emmy nominated psychological horror episode “Teddy Perkins” where Darius goes to pick up a free piano at the mansion of the recluse and mysterious Michael Jackson-esque Teddy Perkins, played so chillingly by Glover. The creepy episode is loaded with pop culture references as it highlights how stage parenting can take a toll on child stars – eventually culminating in a murder attempt, an actual murder and a suicide. It’s an episode that also channels Jordan Peele’s Get Out (which Stanfield also stirred in), and gives Darius a chance to really display his range in his own solo segment, without Earn or Alfred.
Unpredictable, thought-provoking and still one of the funniest shows you’ll ever watch, Atlanta is loaded with weird moments, proving that there is no place that Glover will not go to capture the black experience in the most unfiltered way possible.
Powerful social commentary
While tackling issues that have become fodder for the TV world like mental health, police brutality, racism, cultural appropriation, pop culture and identity, Atlanta is not burdened by its consciousness or wokeness like other TV shows. Instead, it eases through life – jaded, hallucinatory and yet still grounded and vivid enough to deliver powerful social commentary and constant reality checks.
Atlanta is also great at making even the most mundane things look interesting, like Earn’s obsession with his lost jacket in “The Jacket” where he retraces his steps after a wild party that nobody can quite remember. As an audience, we wonder why he’s going to all that trouble to find a jacket, until it’s finally revealed that his interest actually lies in whatever is in the pockets. “Could you check his pockets?” Earn asks a police officer who’s just killed the man wearing the mysterious jacket in a drug bust.
You can stream the first two seasons of Atlanta now.