Atlanta Isn’t Just Funny, But Decidedly Mature
It's ability to stay tonally consistent while conveying what it does in the manner it chooses to is nothing short of impressive
There are plenty of spoilers for the FX show Atlanta. You’ve been warned.
Saturday mornings, I was greeted by breakfast and Dragon Ball Z and it’s probably one of the reasons I was super okay with doing martial arts as a kid. Most afternoons, I’d come home from school to a hodgepodge of programs on Cartoon Network with Ed, Edd N Eddy leading the pack. I credit that show with giving me the foundation of an imagination, a tool I’d desperately needed as a kid who was way too serious and lacked friends because of it. However, late enough into the night, what I’d see the most would be spanish soap operas or novellas, as I’ve always called them. This is the stuff actors were made for, or so I thought. Filled end to end with lengthy back and forths that were filled to the brim with dialogue and tension, subplots to die for, murders, murder mysteries, cheating spouses and enough unique monologues to supplement a whole Broadway company with fresh audition material.
If it wasn’t intensely dramatic action anime, it was intensely comic cartoons or intensely dramatic soaps. TV was always intense and seemed manic, almost like it was aimless. That is until I saw Atlanta, a revelatory hyper focused, comedy show that functions as a vehicle for Donald Glover to not only flex his comedy muscle but also showcase a sobering satire on the Black American experience, not unlike The Boondocks, a show I’ve recently learned to adore. It’s a show that displays an incredible sense of maturity in it’s ability to poke fun of real life inequalities, race relations and general sore points of life. Even more mature than that, however, is it’s ability to convey these things with a deft subtlety that is true to life and avoids the trappings of hyperbole. But let me back up for a second.
Between a hit record, a string of high profile movie gigs(Hellooooo, Lando) and having a kid, you’d think that Glover might want to take it easy. You’d be wrong. A few years ago he began spearheading production of his own show; That show would become Atlanta, which follows a presumably fictionalized rendition of himself named Earn and his cousin trying to make it big in the rap game in, you guessed it, Atlanta.
Atlanta is frequently laugh out loud funny, but delivers it’s humor like you would deliver any other line. In this way, it presents what it needs to talk about without ever letting up it’s tone. For example, in the first episode, a white man who’s a friend of Earns’ says a word you really shouldn’t say to a black person as part of a supposedly funny anecdote. He says it so nonchalantly that you would think they’re just that cool; It comes and goes so quickly, I died of laughter at how preposterous it was. A minute later, Earn asks another black man if he’s ever heard his friend say it to any other black person. The answer is no. Towards the end of the episode, they meet back up and this time Earn is accompanied by his cousin and his friend, two people who look decidedly more intimidating than Earn does. Earn sarcastically asks his friend to share the tale with their new company, which he does…except he leaves out the word. Apparently, if you don’t look or act in a menacing way, you can expect white people to say whatever they want to a black person. The deafening silence he gets in response to his lame story sans the word is the funniest part of the whole episode because the only thing better than a shook white dude is an unfunny one. Not only that but it brings the whole plot of the episode full circle in a way that’s different. The episode leads you to believe that this instance is an isolated incident played up for laughs, only to reveal it isn’t. Instead, it’s a product of years of reinforcements of negative stereotypes and emblematic of how people living under those stereotypes need to work around them, no matter who they sleight to get there. It’s layered but doesn’t present itself as such. In Atlanta, this is just life. No frills, no drama, no big blowout, just life.
Late last year, I played a game I thought was pretty good but whose uneven tone led to instances in the game where a comedic moment would almost immediately undercut the prevailing drama and made it feel lesser than it set out to be. I think I now realize why it came off as bad as it did. It’s because it never stood grounded in the same topic. In Wolfenstein II, the humor is in the things the characters say or do to each other, never about the world et al. It feels like two different worlds smashed together unevenly, each vying for your attention and neither one of them truly emerging victorious in that struggle. Atlanta, on the other hand, places it’s subject matter front and center and never strays. In Atlanta, the topics at hand are always being pointed at and laughed at in order to convey something, make things approachable or at the very least illustrate the complications inherent.
The entirety of the second episode functions as a proper illustration of this. In it, a whole scenario plays out where Earn is caught literally between a lovers’ spat, except the spat is in the middle of a jail and the ex-lovers consist of a man named Johnny and his transgender girlfriend, Lisa. The rest of the inmates are quick to lambast Johnny for being with a man, despite the fact that Lisa doesn’t identify as a man. It doesn’t help that Johnny is clearly not the most stable person. He’s quick to retort, whilst using derogatory terms, that he’s not gay. The whole time Earn is stuck wriggling for freedom in the seat between them because Johnny, in his infinite capacity for anger, doesn’t want to let him leave the awkward position he’s been put in. I mean, he’s literally at the intersection of jail as a means of oppression, mental health, homophobia, and transphobia and there seems to be no solution being put forth to resolve these things. It’s a laughable but nonetheless serious situation he puts himself in as the straight man of the show in order to convey the complexities and nuances of these things in the community that shaped him. He’s normal and messed up in his own ways but it’s less about him and more about the culture of ignorance on all sides. This compounds to make an episode that is simultaneously insanely funny and dramatic while never letting up in thematic resonance; this deft melding of genres and tones are what make up Atlanta.
What really helps sell it all is Glover though. Glover isn’t the intersection of those aforementioned problems; As I’ve mentioned already, he has his own problems to work through. Instead, he acknowledges himself as an outlier for the most part. As an observer, he merely functions as a set of eyes on the inside. It shows a tremendous amount of growth on his behalf as a performer to sort of put himself aside in the name of his art. While he is undoubtedly the protagonist, he is there merely to behold the growth of the characters around him. By the end of the season, he’s cheated on his girlfriend, made next to no money and has lost his house. While others are maturing and making the moves to be stable, well-rounded people, Earn is being set up to go out tragically…and that’s all just sort of going on in the background. In his infinite passiveness, Earn ends up embodying more of the problematic attitudes of his surroundings, surrendering his agency and becoming a victim of circumstance.
Early in his career, Glover always seemed…manic. Like as if the only way he thought he could communicate a message was to get bug-eyed on stage, flail around and scream it at his audience. He always needed to be the center of attention either in his performance as a comic or even as his musically inclined alter ego, Childish Gambino. Clearly that’s no longer the case though. The facade has faded and here stands the one true Glover, honest and unapologetic.