Donald Glover’s debut television production, Atlanta, is a refreshing take on Atlanta’s blossoming rap scene.
Glover plays an articulate and cunning wash-out named Earnest “Earn” Marks who has no substantial job or source of income. As his name suggests, Earn spends the majority of his time earnestly doing the best he can in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The show expertly juxtaposes tense situations with lively dialogue, which creates a realistic feeling of undulating ease and awkwardness. When Earn visits his old home, he finds that his parents won’t let him in the door. There is palpable awkwardness when he stands in front of his father’s imposing frame that fills the doorway. This sensation is diffused when his mother says that he forgot to flush the toilet last time he was home and that she was able to identify his byproduct by the junk food she saw in it. The playful comment releases some of the tension, but ultimately Earn walks away from the door with his tail between his legs.
The video quality and cinematography of the series is rather unique and contributes to the feel of the show. I was initially confused as to why the colors appeared unsaturated and video quality relatively poor (720p). The quality is a bit grainy, especially in low-light situations, and most of the scenes appear to be color-graded grey. There is a reason for this, though, as it gives off both a realistic and slightly depressed impression. There is little grandiosity, no sense of awe at the lush greenery or colorfully painted houses. The video quality emphasizes the normality of day-to-day interactions, which makes the show addictively realistic.
Earn is not a valiant hero with a tragic backstory, nor is he incredibly well liked by those in his life. His parents don’t trust him enough to let him into their house and the mother of his child fools around with him in the morning, but then coolly announces that she has a date that night with another guy. His own cousin, Paper Boi, is hesitant to allow Earn to be his manager. That being said, his quirky attire and quick wit make him a relatable character that you can’t help but root for.
The show incorporates a sense of magic that flickers through the grey scenery and bleak conversation. At one point, Earn is riding the bus with his baby daughter when a mysterious man dressed in a tan suit appears across from him. The camera cuts to a close-up of the man’s face, who then says, “Your mind is racing. Tell me, yo.” The man whips out a jar of Nutella and begins to make a sandwich as the two naturally fall in a deep philosophical conversation. Just as the man demands that Earn eat the sandwich, the bus lurches forward and the man disappears. Earn looks out of the window and spots him walking into the forest with a dog that had not been on the bus with him five seconds prior. The dog evokes a sense of déjà vu in the viewer as we had already seen that dog in the first scene. We remember that Paper Boi’s friend Darius had claimed to experience déjà vu as well right before pointing out the dog in the middle of a gun standoff. The double-layered mystery creates a moment of confusion and intrigue, which encourages the viewer to pay closer attention to the smaller, seemingly less important moments of the show.
After the characters and basic setting are introduced, Glover touches on a few controversial issues. When Earn is held at a police station, he sees a man in a hospital gown dancing around the room. The people waiting with Earn explain that the man’s name is Lee and he is a regular around the police station. Everyone gleefully watches as he fills his cup with toilet water and drinks it. The man clearly suffers from some mental illness, but Earn is the only one who suggests that the man needs help. The police officers playfully taunt and tease Lee as he dances around until he spits toilet water at the officer. He is immediately tackled, beaten with a billy club and dragged away. In the same waiting room, a man sweet-talks his ex-girlfriend, Lisa. Someone hears him call her “his girl” and says that Lisa is a man. The man insists that he’s not gay and we realize that Lisa is a transgender woman. This type of high profile visibility for a trans woman of color is rare in the media today and incredibly important given the tragically high murder rate of that community.
Atlanta succeeds in creating a unique mood and pace, which distinguish it from the hundreds of other TV shows you could be watching. It may not be as grandiose as Game of Thrones or as visually stimulating as American Horror Story, but it shines in its charming characters and intoxicating dialogue. Glover succeeds in crafting a dynamic plot line that calls attention to real-life, pressing issues that impact under-represented people everyday.
Atlanta plays on FX at 10 p.m. Tuesdays.