Nov 2, 2016

TV Retrospective: "Atlanta" - Season 1

Donald Glover
There are few channels that are likely having as stellar a Fall season as that of FX. Along with returning series American Horror Story and You're the Worst, they have managed to corner the market with their own surreal style of comedy. Among the very best is Atlanta: a series from Community actor Donald Glover, which is difficult to describe while doing it justice. The series is a kaleidoscope of ideas set to the black experience that shows its influence from art house cinema. It was raw and honest, but also surreal in a dreamlike fashion that took the Louie-style comedy drama to a new and fascinating place. It may have been all over the place, but it was always one of the most fascinating shows on TV.
At its core, Atlanta was a series that followed the adventures of Earn (Glover): a music manager who has to deal with the rising success of his cousin Alfred, a.k.a. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) while he fails to be a responsible and successful father. The parallels came early and often, with most of the episodes playing out in a haze of weed. Everything was mellow, often relying a certain level of patience to fully embrace the casual demeanor of Earn's ambitious nature and the realization that he'll never be as big as his cousin. All he is is a manager, and there's a complacent misery to everything that unfolds over the series, causing certain introspection not only on Earn's life, but how racial identity and popularity play into the public's perception.
The series is at its core a tragic tale. In the closing episode "The Jacket," Earn goes on a lengthy journey to get his jacket back from an Uber driver. When he finds the driver, he watches police shooting him while wearing his jacket. The thing that could've saved his day ended up being for naught, and soon he is left sleeping in a storage facility while listening to OutKast. Considering that the series also explores girlfriend Van's (Zazie Beetz) trouble with keeping a regular job, and Alfred's time on a PBS-style talk show that discusses his racy content; the show isn't interested in conventions. It wants to create a universe that progresses story, but is more interested in experimental techniques. It isn't quite as surreal as latter day Louie, but Glover definitely gives the veteran series a run for its money.
Beyond the confusing set-up of melancholy and humor, Glover knows how to land jokes. In a sense playing the polar opposite version of his character on Community, he is often morose and speaks in a hushed voice. He's the observant partner who has to do time in jail with the strange underbelly. He has to track down club owners to get money. He doesn't have a menacing bone in his body, though occasionally has great insight into the right moves. The jokes are understated, often more reflecting on how ridiculous the competitive nature of hip-hop can be in a viral age. In "The Streisand Effect," Alfred is met with a blogger (Freddie Kuguru) who is flamboyantly obnoxious that to see him juxtaposed with Earn is itself a comic set-up. The show plays off of this brilliant time and again, and does so with an effective execution.
What's probably the most refreshing thing about the series beyond its technique is that the series rarely feels the need to address race. These are just people trying to navigate the world in their own deviant and youthful ways. Hip-hop is the game that will make Earn's keep. His failures are universal. The idol worship of musicians doesn't feel distinct to hip-hop artists. Instead, it's about the awkwardness of trying to make a name for yourself while seeing both sides of the coin. Earn may not be a rapper necessarily, but he's far from Paper Boi's ability to be recognized just walking down the street. There's a certain misery that comes with having to see that. Even if Earn is a bit humble, there's no denying that he's jealous of his somewhat more reckless friend. The only time that race is directly discussed ("Juneteenth") is more as an attack on cultural appropriation, which is done beautifully and with enough sincerity to upset white audiences.
Atlanta is TV as an art form with each half hour segment pretty much delivering a concrete story. You don't have to like hip-hop to enjoy the episodes. It's best to just go in and witness the bizarre mind of Glover and his partners as they create this fictional Atlanta. There's invisible cars as well as certain racial discrimination. It all goes together in Glover's vision of the city. It's striking and beautiful, but most of all feels organic. There's no mistaking Atlanta for another show, even if it wears its influences heavily on its sleeves. This is a peek into the future of TV, and one can only imagine that the next season will continue to get more surreal, funny, and exciting.

OVERALL RATING: 4.5 out of 5

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