The whole follow-your-dreams thing
There’s some bite to Donald Glover’s languid, lyrical comedy series ‘Atlanta’
“This milk any good?” asks Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), a stoner, sniffing from a carton at a refrigerator door. “What you using it for?” asks his stoned rapper friend Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) – as if there were a range of possible answers. “Drinking,” replies Darius, poker-faced. “Yeah, no,” says Paper Boi. “Don’t use it to drink.”
Atlanta, a half-hour FX comedy series now showing on SBS, comes from the mind of actor-rapper-comedian-producer-singer-songwriter Donald Glover: he created, wrote, produced and stars in this pleasantly ambling, at times pleasantly disjointed, here and there oddly paced series. It is languid and warm and funny, and often moving. The show is peppered with exchanges like the above: some of them are obvious, in keeping with the current trend towards observational, low-key, lo-fi humour, but even at their most elliptical, as little comic riffs, they sparkle.
Glover is Earnest (“Earn”) Marks, a low-key, lo-fi human himself. Reading his surface, you’d call him aimless. But beneath that there’s something else going on: he’s trying to find a future, even though he doesn’t even seem all that good at the present. He wanders around Atlanta. He has a daughter, a toddler, with his ex, Van (Zazie Beetz). Sometimes Earn and Van still sleep together, though she’s dating someone else, or, rather, going on dates. Earn himself is largely homeless – or, rather, doing a fair amount of couch surfing. (He visits his parents. They’re not so welcoming, and don’t even invite him into the house.)
Paper Boi, who is Earn’s cousin, is just beginning to gain some local notoriety as a rapper. Earn offers to be his manager, explaining that he’ll need help if he’s to stand a chance of breaking out any wider. “You’re older,” Earn tells him. “You have no real fan base. You’re not white and/or selling sex.” Paper Boi seems resistant to the idea of being managed – especially by his cousin. But when Earn succeeds in getting Paper Boi’s single played on an influential radio station, the partnership becomes a little less informal.
Darius, who could best be described as Paper Boi’s sidekick, floats at the edges of scenes. But Stanfield, who played Snoop Dogg to a tee in F Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (2015), is compelling, and comically deft, in his quiet, loopy weirdness. As the season progresses he becomes more and more endearing – at times a scene-stealer.
It’s 28 years since Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David created their own show about, well, nothing really. But Seinfeld was tightly structured, each episode wound like a coiled spring. Seinfeld was circular – nothing happens, nothing matters, no one goes deep and no one gets hurt, it said. We never wanted Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer to change; they were simply so formed, and the pleasure was in watching those forms collide, over and over, in the specific context of each storyline.
Atlanta is not about nothing – not in that way. It is picaresque and open-ended. The characters grow and develop, seeking something, at times, beyond a Seinfeldian self-interest. The show has an apparent haphazardness and slightness that tells you it’s not to be taken all that seriously. And yet beneath the limpid, gentle surface hides a moral complexity. Different episodes hit different thematic beats: broadly, as social commentary, about race and culture; more specifically, in the character arcs, about responsibility and integrity.
At times, a theme dovetails perfectly with a character’s quirks. In one episode, Darius brings his own target poster to an indoor shooting range: a cartoon outline of a dog. When the shooters in the other alleys see the shot-up poster, they are outraged. “My kids could be in here!” shouts the quintessential angry white guy. “You can’t shoot a dog!” Darius points out that all the other shooters are shooting at posters of humans – some of which are barely disguised examples of racial profiling, such as the swarthy Arab-looking man who’s using a terrified woman as a human shield.
Another episode skewers social media culture, its TMZ-driven celebrity news cycles and the endless inane chatter that has all too often become a darker form of trolling. Paper Boi shows just how thin his skin is when he retaliates against an Instagrammer who has denigrated him. When Paper Boi manages to track him down, it turns out the unhinged Instagrammer, who presents himself on his social media platforms as an informed hip-hop-culture commentator, is in fact a pizza delivery guy.
Paper Boi, whose rap songs seem to be doing nothing whatsoever to move on from the standard clichés of posturing masculinity, incipient violence and casual misogyny, tries to win the Instagrammer’s favour – or good graces, or approval – by presenting himself as a simple old-school rapper. “I scare people at ATMs, boy,” Paper Boi says to the Instagrammer. “I have to rap! I mean, that’s what rap is – making the best out of a bad situation.”
But the Instagrammer – the pizza guy – has Paper Boi’s number. “You’re exploiting your situation to make rap,” he tells him. “And I’m exploiting you exploiting that.” There’s nothing overtly frenetic about the show’s pace, and the satire, at moments such as this, feels light and breezy. But in fact it constantly bites: you have to blink twice to work out what just happened.
There’s a centre to all this: Earn’s journey towards purpose and responsibility goes in and out of focus, but episode by episode it continues as a kind of narrative direction. “I get the whole follow-your-dreams thing,” says Van, “but our daughter needs all the tools to survive, and that includes you, Earn.” He gets it too – in principle at least. The problem is he’s trying to convince Van to believe in his divine right to follow his dreams over hers. When she has a dig at him for thinking he’ll make a go of it in the rap world (being a rapper, she says, is “something that a high-school kid wants to do”), he hits back, telling her that her own dream of opening a fashion boutique is “super unique”.
But Van’s dreams are merely a foil to Earn’s. Atlanta is a “boys’” show, in that sense. Glover seems more at home fleshing out his idiot three musketeers, Earn, Paper Boi and Darius; Van, with her difficulties in getting Earn to be reliable, is not exactly where the comedy lies, in the early episodes at least. She’s tough, and sharp; it’s only as the series progresses that she becomes a little more fleshed out, too.
Now and then the show breaks free of its sparse, minimalist style, and Glover strives for a kind of lyricism. On a bus, late at night, with his swaddled daughter sleeping in his arms, Earn opens up to a strange man – possibly an imaginary figure. “I just keep losing,” says Earn. “I mean, are some people just supposed to lose? For balance in the universe? Are there some people on earth who are supposed to be here just to make things easier for the winners?”
Mostly, though, Atlanta is content to roll along in its spaced-out-sitcom fashion, meandering through the Atlanta suburbs – which feel sun-drenched and benign in some scenes, stiflingly humid and foreboding in others – and mining the pure strangeness of being and belief. “Chinese people are short,” Darius tells Earn. “’Cos of Genghis Khan. Look it up.”
“In what?” asks Earn. “The Racism Book?”
Still, Atlanta knows how to land. In the episode called ‘Nobody Beats the Biebs’, Earn accompanies Paper Boi to a charity basketball game. Paper Boi, who throughout the series keeps getting disappointed that people don’t really recognise him (“Oh, I know who you are – you’re the guy who shot someone”), is annoyed when Justin Bieber turns up at the event, attracting a frenzy of media attention.
Glover’s stroke of genius here is in casting an African-American actor, Austin Crute, as Bieber. The conceit is otherwise played completely straight, as if this really is Justin Bieber, that white-bread appropriator of hip-hop culture. People stare, cameras flock, teenage girls are breathless. But he’s a brat, practising unfettered forms of bad behaviour. We get the layers: the hypocrisy of a world that treats its pop brats very differently from its rap brats; and behind that, the black–white divide in popular culture. (The show itself, its blackness and the fact of its ratings success in the US across broad demographics, is a kind of meta-commentary on television-so-white, as well as a sign of broader shifts in viewing habits.)
The black Bieber also reminds us of what’s best about Atlanta: its unashamed surreality. After a fight erupts between Bieber and Paper Boi, Bieber’s “people” have the quick wits to call a press conference almost immediately – to go into damage control, for Justin to apologise. “This is me,” he tells the press and onlookers. “This is the real Justin. I’m not a bad guy. I actually love Christ. I guess I’ve been hanging around with the wrong people.” But in an instant something entirely different overtakes the redemption message. Music is cued, and hot dancers join Bieber on the press conference stage. He smiles, and begins to move. “Which is why I want to sing this new single,” he says, “from my upcoming album, Justice.” The circus of celebrity trumps all. The show must go on.