Most people may only know Donald Glover from Community, but he seems to be trying his hand at just about everything, and I don’t think he’s had to weather a lot of criticism yet. Well, Mystery Team wasn’t that great.
But, even if you get a feel for his acting, writing, composing, and soundtrack credits, you’re probably expecting anything with his name on it to lean toward the humorous. Atlanta bills itself as a comedy, and there’s a sense in which it is funny, hilarious even, but it’s a comedy of subtlety, and you’re going to want to leave your assumptions about the Community star and respected comedy writer at the door here.
The show is about two cousins who suddenly find themselves with a chance to break onto the Atlanta rap scene in a big enough way that they have to stop and actually pay attention.
Earnest ‘Earn’ Marks (Glover) is about as down as he can get, and his job trying to get people to sign up for credit cards (or loans, or whatever) is about as lucrative as you might expect. He stumbles upon the news that his cousin, Alfred ‘Paper Boi’ Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) is actually getting some attention as a rapper, and Earn figures he can make something happen with that.
As bad as that may sound, Earn is pretty honest about the theory. He doesn’t want to join the entourage, or get a handout. He wants to manage Paper Boi, and he has enough connections in the music industry to make that idea a little more than a complete pipe dream.
It may not sound dark yet, but Earn is out of money to a degree that is about to come crashing down on him, and Paper Boi supports his rap ambitions by selling drugs. Also, the first thing that happens in the show is that Paper Boi shoots someone.
As I said, there is humor in play here, but it’s mostly casual. It’s often just banter, and you have to know that Glover is going to play a character, in a show he created, who can throw out some lines. Beyond that, this is a show that capitalizes on putting the scene on display, and then backing away when other show’s would start looking for a punchline. It’s a difficult brand of comedy to pull off, like deadpan taken to a new level. The best deliveries the series offers are things like Earn saying, “Seriously man, I’m just trying to sit here,” or Paper Boi pointedly whispering, “Just… Just stop talking.” It isn’t comic exactly. It’s more like Bob Newhart blinking in disbelief at whatever just played out in front of him.
But, the meat of the show is actually serious, and it’s rather unique in its overall goal. Contrary to the golden rule of fiction, Atlanta proposes that reality isn’t boring after all, you just might not be as familiar with it as you think. Moreover, this is a show that wants you to laugh, or at least have a lot of fun, but also wants you to think about the fact that it’s possible for this to be funny every once in a while.
There’s something almost Fargo-esque about both the strange comedy dance, and the spiral of events. Though at first glance these are shows that are as different as they could be, both are after this very particular mind game with their audiences.
Best of all, nothing about the show feels like bites of comedy material sewn together into a show, and while that is something of a staple of the sit-com world, no one has done it well for a while, and everyone keeps trying to respawn another ages efforts. Glover works together something fresh here, and there aren’t many actors who can pull this kind of charisma out of themselves and weave it into a show this fun.