Culture

Film & Television

‘Atlanta’: thrillingly subversive

By Craig Mathieson
Donald Glover’s uncommon blend of the everyday and the absurd makes a masterful return

In “The Club”, an episode from the first season of the thrillingly subversive American television series Atlanta, there’s a moment of seemingly minor character comedy. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), a deadpan disseminator of otherworldly theories, shows his friend and employer, drug dealer and rapper Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Bryan Tyree Henry), Instagram photos from the account of the basketball star across the room whose fame is extinguishing Paper Boi’s appeal at a nightclub. In the images, the millionaire athlete stands propped against what the captions claim is his invisible sports car. The oft-exasperated Paper Boi, seeing only empty space and an old visual gag, issues a dismissive snort.

But at the end of the episode, which has seen Paper Boi’s cousin and fledgling manager, Earn (Donald Glover, the show’s creator), trying in vain to collect their appearance fee from a nefarious promoter, shots are fired by an unknown person outside the venue. As bystanders scurry for cover, there’s a screech of tyres and high-performance engine whine as an unseen car swiftly exits the parking lot, knocking people aside. It’s an exact, unexpected punchline, but it also reflects Atlanta’s puzzlingly brilliant outlook. This is a show where the everyday and the absurd intermingle, where pleasure and risk permanently abut, and no situation ends as you might expect it to.

The second season of Glover’s show, which is currently airing on SBS with every episode to date available to stream via SBS On Demand, confirms the jarring, bittersweet potential it revealed on debut. But Atlanta is not merely about flipping expectations; instead, it uses those radical parameters to tell the story of black America in a way that nods to both social realism and self-aware surrealism. It’s about making sense of a world that is geared against you historically, legally and economically, and always has been. Under such Kafkaesque circumstances – invisible and initially impossible to believe, like the basketballer’s ride – what constitutes a valid response?

“Just try not to die,” Earn ritually cautions Paper Boi in an early episode. “Every day,” Paper Boi replies with weary agreement, and the show’s observations, which fly by with precise insight and tangential humour, reference the realities of being part of the underclass. Transgressions occur without moral judgment and living arrangements are matter-of-fact. Earn, whose poverty gets him hustling to earn commission from the rising Paper Boi, sometimes beds down with Van (Zazie Beetz), his on-off girlfriend and the mother of their infant daughter, Lottie. “I am all we have,” she reminds him, and as a grade school science teacher she’s painfully aware of grinding poverty’s threat.

Glover, a creative polymath who has a successful hip-hop career under the moniker Childish Gambino and will also play the young Lando Calrissian in the forthcoming Star Wars spin-off Solo, is a Georgia native, and Atlanta is an ideal setting for his show. The city’s population is majority African-American, and the episodes are built upon community interaction, regional argot and anthropological eccentricities; there’s no white interloper whose education by the black characters provides cultural exposition.

Presidential politics are ignored because the system’s residual traps are legion. After Earn is present when Alfred, aggrieved at his car being vandalised, shoots to wound another man, they’re both arrested. In the booking facility, inmates and guards alike laugh at a mentally ill man who is a weekly presence, until he spits water on a guard. Without hesitation, the guard brutally beats him. Earn’s bewilderment that the man keeps getting jailed instead of treatment isn’t a sign of compassion, rather inexperience. He’s never been arrested before. Earn’s eventually charged with marijuana possession with intent to sell – “half a joint”, he muses – and has to go to compulsory anti-drug classes. The cost is $375, and he’s told that if he doesn’t pay, a warrant will be issued for his arrest.

A country that consistently tries to incarcerate you creates a self-protective pathology. Atlanta never tries to hedge the character’s missteps. It creates sympathy for the Sisyphean tasks that confront them, but never resorts to moments – such as explaining why Earn dropped out of Princeton University – that would be considered emotional turning points on another series. Instead you start to sense how the various characters unconsciously adapted: Paper Boi is eternally wary, Darius sees life as a science-fiction movie, while Earn struggles with depression. “I just keep losing,” he confesses in the first episode, but it’s not clear if the conversation on the bus is happening or imagined, or which would be better for him.

The city of Atlanta is depicted as sprawling, with yards and green spaces alleviating images of urban congestion that too often become a shorthand for African-American crime drama. The majority of episodes have been directed by the Tokyo-born Los Angeles filmmaker Hiro Murai, another trusted Glover collaborator, who uses the space to find unexpected framing or an angle that recalibrates a scene’s dynamic. It matches the writing, which is always agile but can suddenly veer from the playful to the cruel. Conceptual humour and jarring social critique have rarely been this interwoven.

One of the sharpest arcs is the relationship between Earn and Van, which blooms and burns in ways that don’t get at what he wants, because that’s reasonably straightforward (bed, body and beyond), but rather her more complex desires (recognition, a sense of security, a partner ready to participate in her choices). Van doesn’t suffer nobly as a resilient black matriarch, or nag Earn to be better; she’s more intricately depicted than that. Zazie Beetz is exceptional at revealing the vulnerability that appears after a stress fracture, and Atlanta spotlights her with Van-centric episodes in both seasons that show how she relates to her female friends and wider culture.

There’s a confidence in what’s being made that allows for self-contained sidesteps. In the first season Paper Boi is the bored guest on a (fictional) Black American Network discussion show, complete with satirically askew fake advertisements, which dig into identity. A highlight of the second season to date is “Teddy Perkins”, an episode with Darius travelling to the isolated estate of the titular musician to retrieve a free piano, only to find himself in a self-contained horror tale that is Glover’s acknowledgment of Jordan Peele’s breakthrough feature film Get Out.

Teddy Perkins, as played by an unrecognisable Glover, is a riff on Michael Jackson, right down to the artificially sculpted face and whitened skin. His creepily polite personality, accentuated by a darkened mansion where the elevator invariably takes Darius to the basement, despite him pressing for another floor, offers not merely dread, but a commentary on the demanding fathers of great black artists and the role of music in both elevating and punishing gifted practitioners. It is an audacious accompaniment to the show’s sustained plots, such as Paper Boi’s adjustment to his growing music career.

The episode is also an example of the main players being in peril, whether physical or psychological, when they venture outside their Atlanta stomping grounds. “This is a weird place,” Earn tells Van when she takes him to a wealthy bi-racial couple’s mansion to network in a season one episode, and unease lingers in numerous seemingly public locales. So many television shows, particularly sitcoms, strive to make their settings so welcoming that viewers can readily imagine themselves visiting (think Cheers or Friends). But on Atlanta it’s the opposite – often the characters feel as if they’re breaking a permanent quarantine. “Life itself is but a series of close calls,” observes Darius, and on this masterful production those near-misses have a transcendent force.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

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