TV Review: Atlanta Series Premiere

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If you haven’t heard already, Donald Glover’s Atlanta is the best new show this Fall. Originally pitched by the multi-talented artist as something along the lines of “Twin Peaks but for rappers”, many have commented on how the show manages to brilliantly tiptoe around the conventions of similar non-comedy, comedy shows – like Louie and Girls – to offer up something more spiritually-offbeat and personal from a cast of characters we don’t normally get to see on the small screen.

The double-episode FX special featured Tuesday night rightfully set up the series as semi-biographical in its heightened and, at times, mythical depiction of the streets of Atlanta. The show itself is about the rise and fall of two distant cousins Earnest Marks and Alfred Miles – both played by Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry – and their absentminded entourage of one Darius – played by Keith Stanfield – who quickly find themselves on the verge of hip hop notoriety within a small community of growing fans and villains. There’s legitimate reason why everyone is so hyped about this new show. Here are five things Atlanta definitely has going for it.

1.) The city of Atlanta in the show is not only a place but a state of mind.

Atlanta had really positioned itself as one of the core hip hop meccas of modern American music after introducing us to artists like Gucci Mane, Future, Lil’ Jon, Ludacris, and OutKast. It’s also the beloved hometown of the two co-stars Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry, which seems so fitting that the stories surrounding Atlanta seems to be more about the attitudes of ordinary people with big dreams trying the best they can to live comfortably. With the rich array of oddball characters and set pieces, we’re tasked to give in to the wide-eyed chase that comes with living paycheck to paycheck to pay the rent, fund personal aspirations, and provide for those close to you. The trio’s seemingly directionless meanderings around the hood streets of the city and the misadventures that come from that is not all rags to riches, but a deeply human exploration of what it means to survive in the in-between.

2.) The voices of the characters are so distinctly different from one another that each could warrant their own individual spin-off.

It’s not a necessarily simple feat to pull off – in a pilot episode no less. It’s way too easy for burgeoning shows to muddy up the voices of characters when jokes and plot lines are given more of a priority as opposed to character and story. Though it always seems to be the shows that embodies a substantial sense of tone and atmosphere (like The Wire or Mr. Robot) that brings about such interesting characters – such as the ones we see in Atlanta.

Earn Marks is the “silent wild card” who’ll do everything he can to get the music business to pay attention to his talented older cousin Miles. Working as a part-time credit card salesman at a nearby airport – for a measly $5.15 an hour – Earn has been taking a year off from his studies at Princeton for about three years now. And while the reasons for his dropping out is still a mystery to his parents, family, and friends, he proves himself a savvy music manager when he gets his cousin’s music to play on the local radio station. Darius, Miles’ stoner roommate, is like Boomhauer and Dale Gribble from King Of The Hill wrapped into one. Though despite his borderline incomprehensible mutterings and scatterbrained observations/delusions of nonsensical inventions – the rat phone! – he’s also at times a loyally insightful visionary for Miles who at times spits out thoughtful, philosophical ideas about work, love, and the existential uncertainties of life. Miles – also known as the Crown Victorian-riding Paper Boi (a legitimately boss trap-rap name, by the way!) – spends most of episode two partly enjoying and anguishing over his sudden reputation for being “Atlanta’s Tupac”. His personal kryptonite is that he can be way too petty and temperamental when it comes to matters of right and wrong. It seems it’ll have to be the work of Earn to keep Miles on the straight and narrow from this point on.

3.) Hiro Murai.

Best known for directing music videos for several artists along with a slew of short films — such as Clapping For The Wrong Reasons which also stars Donald Glover in  the lead role – Murai fashions impressionistic and at times disorienting visuals even when it comes to simple scenes involving just two or three people walking and talking. Without trying to reinvent the wheel here, the first-time television director gives Atlanta a very dreamlike sense of place.

4.) The show employs elements of fantasy and surrealism.

I still do not know what to think about that sharply-dressed, intensely wild-eyed dude who randomly ends up threatening Earn with a sandwich before eerily vanishing deep into the bushes and trees of that woodsy bus-stop – like the hypnotized townspeople of the creepy 2010 horror flick YellowBrickRoad. Was he real or simply part of Earn’s subconscious? Like one of those nightmares you hope will never recur, it’s moments such as these that makes Glover’s initial reference to Twin Peaks so obvious.

5.) The show slyly addresses the elephant in the room – offering up some fresh commentary on the present controversies and social taboos of everyday race relations.

Two of my favorite scenes of the first episode concerns one of the more awkward and contentious subjects of our time – who gets to say the N-word? Earn catches up with an old acquaintance Dave, who is not black, though who freely throws out the N-word in his retelling of a “funny” story about an encounter he had with a DJ at a company party the night before – who supposedly would not stop playing Flo Rida back-to-back. Either not really knowing what to do about it or just being tired of having to know what to do about it, Earn chooses not to intervene and call offense. A few scenes later, Earn gets his perhaps one-and-only chance to finally send Dave a message by sarcastically encouraging him to restate the joke again– however this time in the presence of both Miles and Darius. The friend suddenly uncomfortable can’t seem to get himself to finish the story, and the point is made.

Perhaps the morale to gain from these two episodes – if there is a morale – has to do with choosing your battles. It’s a skill Earn is forced to rely upon even more when attempting to survive a couple nights in jail purgatory, and by the end of the second episode it also seems Miles may be coming to terms with the futility of escalating situations – the kind that only end in self-destruction. Atlanta has a way of reality checking such assumptions and behaviors without at all making it front-and-center. It is just a show first-and-foremost. The social commentary is entirely a byproduct of the jokes.

In case you missed the back-to-back double feature Tuesday night, FX is offering the first episode in full on its YouTube page for a limited time. You can check it out below.

Rating: 9.5/10

Jennifer Baugh is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and contributor for The Young Folks. She also writes and draws her own comics and other wonky illustrations over at her personal blog http://jenniferbaugh.tumblr.com.