With the advent of shows like Louie and Girls, which freshly replicated the style of indie films, prickly realism has become another trend in TV comedy–and too often, a tired one. Hyper-personal and unapologetic, these dramedies have great potential. But in the Golden Age of TV, being a copycat won’t cut it. Instead, shows need to innovate and redefine their genre to succeed.
In my opinion, FX’s Atlanta is doing an outstanding job at setting itself apart from the pack. Written by and starring the multi-talented Donald Glover, a writer on 30 Rock and actor in Community, hopes were high for the wunderkind’s first series. True to form, Glover’s show is a stand-out gem worthy of praise.
But Atlanta is unlike the standard comedies Glover has worked on in the past. It follows the independent film atmosphere much more, and embraces a slower pace. Like Louie and Girls, Glover plays a protagonist loosely based on himself. Unlike Louie and Girls, Atlanta has an almost-fully minority cast and writing team. It’s also magnificently directed by Hiro Murai, who also directed music videos by Glover’s musical persona, Childish Gambino.
The New Yorker does a great job of explaining the nascent greatness of Atlanta, calling it “a series that is shrewd, emotional, and impolite, with a style that veers toward pretentiousness but never crosses over.”
Glover’s Earnest Marks is handsome and sardonic, but it’s the side characters–namely, Earn’s cousin Paper Boi–that lend the show great depth. The show follows these two as they navigate the rap scene in Atlanta, Georgia, a space that both idolizes and penalizes black masculinity.
The Atlantic calls Atlanta one of the most versatile shows on TV. What makes it so original and surprising, the author argues, is that instead of relying on plot, the show is more dependent on mood–something that changes dramatically from episode to episode. “Donald Glover’s show is about rap music, race, celebrity culture, the city of his birth, and how those things all intersect. But it can also be a moody relationship drama, a madcap sitcom, a social commentary on gentrification, or, most recently, a surreal sketch comedy,” David Sims writes.
In other words, the writers are taking real experiments with Atlanta where traditional showmakers are more conditioned to follow a formula. In a way, this discord makes Atlanta feel all the more real. Life, people, and places rarely adhere to one theme—that Atlanta is unpredictable feels extremely authentic.
This feeling of authenticity via surrealism was entirely intentional. Glover told NPR that human experience isn’t black and white, and they wanted to make viewers feel this acutely. “Most things lie in the gray area.” he said. “But I think because of the Internet, and like, social media — things get cut into zeroes and ones really quickly. So we were like, ‘Let’s just play around in the gray areas.’ “
And play with the gray, Atlanta does. Indeed, the atmosphere in Atlanta refuses to validate or invalidate black stereotypes, instead portraying a wide range personalities and classes. Atlanta tells the stories of specific individuals within a specific community, of which violence and poverty are part, but not a defining part as outsiders might assume.
Suffice this to say, if you are looking for something new and revelatory all at once, Atlanta is worth watching. Trust me—you won’t get bored quickly.