Donald Glover’s Atlanta Is Just Peachy

If you Google "rappers from Atlanta," you're met with a Wikipedia page listing over 100 names. Some are more recognizable than others (Future, 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane, Andre 3000, and T.I., just to name a few), but just being mentioned on the page is quite an achievement. It's difficult to estimate just how many on-the-verge rappers and hip-hop artists are still waiting for their big break, making that elusive transition from local rapper to hot new artist to the next Tupac or Notorious B.I.G. It's in this perilous purgatory that Donald Glover's new comedy-drama, Atlanta, begins. And from there, he takes us on a wild ride through the city for which the show is named. The series, which premiered September 6 on FX, focuses on a rapper who's just caught his big break. Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles (Brian Tyree Henry of Broadway's The Book of Mormon) is gearing up for some overdue recognition when his mixtape, Paper Boi, starts going viral. Glover plays Ernest "Ern" Marks, a Princeton dropout (reason unknown) and cousin of Paper Boi. The two haven't spoken since Paper Boi's mother died, and there's clearly some bad blood between them on that front. As Paper Boi's stock in the hip-hop world starts rising, Ern's stock in life is plummeting. He's homeless (but "not real homeless" because he's not "using a rat as a phone" or anything like that) and is mooching off his best friend, and the mother of his daughter, Van (Zazie Beetz), who also serves as Ern's voice of reason. (Though her advice often falls on deaf ears.) Ern still sneaks into his parents' house (who are kind, but ready for him to move on) to use their bathroom, and works a dead-end job selling credit cards at the airport. When he hears his cousin is gaining traction and recognition as a rapper, he decides he wants to be Paper Boi's manager. Paper Boi has his doubts ("Manager comes from the word 'man' and that ain't really your lane," he tells him), but eventually warms up to the idea after Ern pulls some strings and gets his track played on a local radio station. Rounding out the main characters is Paper Boi's visionary sidekick and philosophical source of comic relief, Darius (Keith Stanfield of Straight Outta Compton). Glover takes the dynamic and interwoven city of Atlanta (seriously, its highways look like a sailor's knot) and unravels it, bit by bit, all while keeping it really real. It's clear that he wants to share the most accurate depiction of his city at this point in time. To do that, he doesn't shy away from depicting the true-life shit that happens in neighborhoods like Bankhead, a place known for its violence, drugs, and budding rap scene, but also its sense of community and authentic Southernness.
In the first two episodes alone, Glover highlights the struggles of millennials eager to find their life's passion, even if that means being unemployed and living at home (or in his character's case, at his on-again, off-again-girlfriend's). There's also the question of what it means to grow up in a community that probably won't be around much longer, as gentrification spreads to even the most typically unsafe parts of Atlanta. He's highlighting social issues like gun violence and racism, but also poking fun at the idea of growing up and making sense of one's place in the world. Glover's more than a triple threat. He really can do it all. He's rapped about the city before (he grew up in Stone Mountain, GA) and is now putting a microscope to the world of up-and-coming rappers who live and die in the competitive hip-hop world of Atlanta. All of the writers on the show — four, including himself — are Black (and many are also from the South), which explains why the dialogue sounds so organic and truthful. An authentic Atlanta spirit resonates throughout every situation in the show, which is, of course, all shot on location. In an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Glover expanded on that idea, saying that while the series features "so many Atlanta people," the project is not autobiographical at all. "The thesis was like, I want to make Twin Peaks but for rappers," he said.
While the show doesn't feel Lynch-ian yet (in a good way), it does remind me of another popular series that could reach cult-status for future generations — Aziz Ansari's Master of None. It's not entirely a coincidence. Glover and Ansari each zoom in on a group of friends who are struggling to get their footing in a the competitive worlds of music and acting, respectively. They both use a dynamic city as the backdrop for their 30-minute episodes, which teeter equally between comedy and drama. Their love lives are complicated, their friend groups are wacky, and their dream jobs seem to always be just out of reach.

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