Sep 7, 2016

Channel Surfing: Atlanta - "The Big Bang"/"Streets on Lock"

Scene from Atlanta
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
Donald Glover is one of those curious artists who doesn't do things traditionally. Under the moniker Childish Gambino, he has released rap albums that predominantly feature alternative comedy guest spots. His sophomore album "Because the Internet" was a multimedia project that involved lyric sheets and videos. Even in his acting career, he mysteriously left Community in the middle of season five. He's stubborn and mysterious in ways that has made his career both exciting and a bit underwhelming. With his latest project, the FX series Atlanta, he has set out to make an authentic series about the black experience in the southeast. With ads just as cryptic as his personality, the series pretty much debuted without revealing too much - and it's all the better for it.
Over the course of the first two episodes, there is a sense of personal experience in his story. From telling the story of rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) to his cousin Earn (Glover), the story feels lived in. The show is billed as a comedy, though it has too much low energy and melancholy to be considered a laugh riot. Much like FX's other premiere programming, it tends to fall more in a murky middle ground where things are comedic, but often as a result of also being dark and dramatic. Louie set the precedent and most of the series that the network has picked up since have a sense of dread to them. Speaking as the first few minutes of Atlanta feature a potential gun fight, the show doesn't intend to earn its laughs easily.
Most of the first two episodes feel like they exist to establish the world of Atlanta and the career trajectories of Paper Boi, a.k.a. Alfred, and Earn. As Alfred is getting radio play and becoming a recognizable name in the community, Earn is trying to deal with his wife and child that think he's becoming negligent. A gun fight leads to the arrest of both of them, and Alfred is released almost immediately thanks to his celebrity and the police officers' desire to take pictures with him. Meanwhile, Earn has to spend hours among the drunk tank of misfits that range from mentally challenged repeat offenders to those who dislike a man flirting with a transgender woman. It may feel real, but there's a surreal quality to it and the lingering sense that Earn doesn't deserve this punishment. After all, Alfred is the one who incited the chaos. Earn was simply trying to cool things off.
That's the type of irony that Atlanta exists within. As much as it is about the black experience, it's about the ironic punishment of celebrity versus citizen. It's about success and simply trying to earn respect among your peers. For a show labeled a comedy, it's pretty niche and high concept with almost little appeal had it not been for shows like Louie. Still, Glover feels rejuvenated here for the first time in several years. His deadpan deliveries provide some of the series' best early moments. The line deliveries alone feel familiar and do wonders to emphasize the camaraderie of the central cast. Among the most noteworthy is Henry, whose juxtaposition to Glover makes for some of the show's funniest and most inspired moments yet, such as when an anti-gun conversation quickly turns to idol worship.
It is tough to say if the show will find an appeal akin to Louie. Beyond the fact that it's probably the most black series that FX has ever approved, it falls into malaise with ease. It neither paints success as glamorous nor everyday life as being a total waste of time. Considering that this feels like the first TV series that Glover has done head on by himself, it does feel like we're guaranteed to see some intriguing imagery in the weeks to come. After only two episodes, there's already a sense of purpose to the series, and its ability to exist within a murky tone is enough to make it one of this year's great qualifiers for acquired tastes (alongside ironically, FX's Baskets). 
If nothing else, Atlanta is looking to be the most promising new music-centered series of 2016. Between Vinyl, Roadies, and The Get Down, there's more of an assurance to Atlanta that sets it apart. It isn't trying to be glamorous or a heightened reality. It's trying to be the equivalent to a hangout series where incident is secondary to the characters. It could just be that Glover's career is steeped in music and TV, which would give him the edge. However, the show so far has proven to be about so much more than just music. It's about life. It may still feel as cryptic as the ads that have been playing on the network for months, but it still has a vibrancy to it that makes the promise of more an appetizing request.

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