A show that finds itself deeply rooted in the tumultuous culture of the African-American community with rap music and poverty being at it’s core, FX’s Atlanta is a show that promises to be different from anything ever seen before.
Twist those sentences a little bit and you’ll find that they actually rhyme. Just saying.
Cast: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Zazie Beets, Keith Stanfield
In One Line: A show that blurs the lines between drama and comedy with it’s ability to deal with serious issues laced with humour – both overt and covert- makes for compelling television.
Set in Atlanta, Georgia (as the name would suggest), the show follows the life of Earnest “Earn” Marks as he looks to build his life from scratch again. A dropout from Princeton, Earn struggles to make ends meet and is forced to alternate between living with his parents and living with his ex-girlfriend and mother of his only daughter, Vanessa Keefer (“when he can afford it” as she says in one of the episodes). When he finds out that his cousin, Alfred Miles is an up and coming rapper in the city going by the moniker Paper Boi, Earn sees an opportunity as his business manager- a chance, perhaps to make his money and maybe see some light at the end of the tunnel. Together, Earn, Paper Boi and Darius (a man of Nigerian origin who serves as Paper Boi’s right hand man and ‘visionary’), embark on a series of adventures through the ten-episode series.
Atlanta is a unique show. Donald Glover (you may remember him as Rich Purnell from The Martian), has a unique brand of comedy that he would struggle to showcase on a lot of other shows and Atlanta serves him as just the right platform on which he can develop as an actor. Glover’s slow, calm approach to his character and how he deals with the story of his character are a treat to watch, especially set in the backdrop of a gloomy-looking Atlanta (for the most part) and with a not-too-little dose of marijuana to go. His dialogue delivery- which may lack in volume- and facial expressions is a demonstration of his repertoire whose depth may as yet be incompletely explored.
His character is ably supported by that of Keith Stanfield, who plays the perpetually high, eccentric character of Darius. A man who always looks at the world differently from the others around him (he even names his gun, for example), his character is a welcome distraction for viewers when he is in the scene. And surprisingly, to me at least, he seemed to be the source of quite a bit of humour on the show- more often slapstick than not.
In contrast to these two is the hot-headed Alfred Miles aka Paper Boi- a rising rapper in the city of Atlanta. A man who has the hots for pretty much any woman who is good looking and with an ego and a temper that can easily be hurt and provoked, Paper Boi is a character who wants fame for the right reasons but can’t seem to find it because he is either stifled, he finds the wrong kind of fame- one might call it notoriety even- or he is frustrated at how long it takes him to get the right kind of fame. A man known for getting himself into trouble, Paper Boi embodies some of the more I-don’t-care-what-I-do kind of celebrities that we see these days. And to his credit, Brian Tyree Henry does an excellent job in this role.
Zazie Beets on the other hand, being the central lady in the story, manages to both be and not be the prototypical African-American woman in the story with effectiveness. A fine balancing act between taking care of her family and trying to find some fun in a life that has been defined by her trying to make ends meet for her and her child with Earn is not an easy task and Beets pulls off a role that seemingly simple at first, becomes more and more complex as the show goes on.
A remarkable thing about the show is it’s focus on the characters and the story itself more than the setting in which it is set. With the basic premise being the African-American community living in a city featuring a rising music culture, Atlanta manages to deal with issues such as gun violence, jail, poverty, weed, rap music, judgmental talk from people outside the community who claim to understand African-Americans better and other issues that plague modern day America. And it does so, incorporating the right dose of wry humour (making it look like you are looking for a silver lining in clouds) with serious talk when needed.
The writers have done a brilliant job with the script and have managed to incorporate the essence of African-American culture without offending anybody in the process. It did, of course, help that Glover and Stanfield are both successful rappers and know the process of rising to the top in a ruthless world. The on-screen relationship between the characters and their struggles to make ends meet often evokes empathy in the viewer.
To sum it up, Atlanta is a show that is the cumulative product of brilliant writing, extraordinary acting by it’s characters and a strong storyline that deserves to be watched and appreciated.