In one of many shining, surreal moments in FX’s new series Atlanta, chronic underachiever Earnest "Earn" Marks (Donald Glover) is riding the bus home with his baby daughter. Weary and maybe less than awake, he encounters a man in a brown suit and bowtie. "Ya mind’s racing," the man says. "Tell me, young." Without questioning how this man could know his inner state (or if he’s even real), Earn gives in. "I just keep losing," he begins. The man, listening quietly, starts spreading Nutella over two pieces of bread before telling Earn that resistance is a symptom of the way things are but not the way they should be. Earn balks, and the man replies, "Bite this sandwich," all before vanishing from the bus and walking into the bushes.
That one scene, nestled in the series’ first half hour, encapsulates the dreamy world Glover has created with Atlanta. In the show’s titular city, everyday life — the stuff of finding work, raising children, and ultimately surviving — is depicted with a kind of magical realism that makes what’s ordinary in one of America’s most richly black cities seem extraordinary. But with that dreaminess comes an inescapable feeling of exhaustion. And with its many observations on how being black collides with poverty, sexuality, mental illness, and the state, it’s unsurprising that these characters are caught somewhere between the real and what might be. All this makes the show both unexpected and essential television.
Atlanta primarily follows Earn and his drug-dealing cousin Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) trying to make something of themselves. Living with his pseudo-girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) and daughter — he’s "technically homeless" — Earn makes a meager living as a part-time credit card salesman, but he desperately wants a better life. After discovering that Alfred is also up-and-coming local rapper Paper Boi, Earn sees the chance to find his fortune as Paper Boi’s manager. But working together sets them on a path toward a shooting (complete with "Worldstar!" shouted in the background), jail, and hometown infamy all in the space of the premiere.
Every character in 'Atlanta' lives in a world filled with magnified beauty and peril
How Earn and Alfred interact with the world around them shows two mostly ordinary black men navigating their shared reality and individual hardships. As a Princeton dropout, Earn is clearly brilliant, but he’s working at a dead-end job and depends on his parents for money. He walks through life as though he’s in a trance, as if he’s only just gotten up from a strange dream. (So it’s fitting that the premiere starts with him telling Van about the dream he just had.) Alfred is pragmatic and gifted creatively, but, given his profession, is more than familiar with the dangers in Atlanta. He’s been arrested for possession. He keeps guns ready for confrontations. And he smokes weed to escape, usually with his friend Darius (Straight Outta Compton’s Keith Stanfield), who’s so blazed and given to philosophical asides that it’s not entirely certain (at least for me) that he’s a real character or a figment of Earn and Alfred’s imaginations. These three are all dreaming of something better and struggling to reach it.
Atlanta itself is both backdrop for and character in their story. Director Hiro Murai presents the city as both mundane and magical — even haunted. "I see Atlanta as a beautiful metaphor for black people," Glover told Vulture last month, and few cities could capture this many layers and extremes so well. Murai and Glover worked together on all the music videos for 2013’s because the internet, where they both shared a taste for marrying the everyday to the surreal. (The video for Sweatpants is a perfect example of this.) Here, that aesthetic informs the entire show. Every character is living in a world where beauty, peril, and the bizarre are all magnified in surprising ways. The viewer can see it in the man spouting mysticism while making a Nutella sandwich, and also in lemon pepper chicken with sauce so special it glows.
But that same hypnotic quality Murai and Glover bring to Atlanta also serves to accentuate the commonplace and all too expected terror that can come with living there. After getting arrested for a non-fatal shooting, Earn is left in holding without ever being told why he’s being held. Greeted again with exhaustion without much hope of relief, he’s soon forced to watch as a mentally disabled prisoner is brutally beaten by guards. The lights flicker, turning the whole scene into something not unlike a horror movie. It’s a profoundly dark moment, as we see how quickly Atlanta’s dream world can become a nightmare, and we’re reminded that, just like everything else up until this moment, police violence is part and parcel with the black experience, too.
'Atlanta' depicts blackness in complex and heartfelt fashion
As Donald Glover said during FX’s Television Critics Association press tour, "The thesis with the show was kind of to show people how it felt to be black, and you can’t really write that down. You kind of have to feel it." By depicting blackness in Atlanta in complex and heartfelt fashion — with the good, the bad, the strange, and the fantastical — the rapper-writer has created a rich new kind of series about what it’s like to live in a frequently cruel world while constantly hoping for more. It’s unlike anything currently on television, which is a good indicator that it needed to be made.