3 key ways FX's 'Atlanta' showed it was unlike anything else on television
The Golden Age of Television primarily refers to a swath of acclaimed dramas that have come out since the 2000s — think Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Wire. It also includes hyper-personal, half-hour comedies that present a fragmented look at identity, and those shows have been equally important. Here, we're referring to the likes of Louie, Girls and Master of None.
The latter is a good pair with FX's surreal comedy series, Atlanta, which wrapped up its first season Tuesday. Coming from Donald Glover — whom you may know from his stand-up comedy, starring as Troy on Community, his music as Childish Gambino or all of the above — he described Atlanta as "Twin Peaks with rappers" ahead of its premiere.
That would set lofty expectations for any show, yet it's an apt illustration of what Atlanta accomplished. It's a contemporary spin on David Lynch's classic drama, where the intricacies and oddities of a predominantly white town in rural Washington are replaced with present-day Atlanta and what it feels like to be black (by Glover's own description).
This distinct framework coupled with a director who made a name for himself with music videos are some of the ways Atlanta is, aesthetically, unlike anything on television. But the show's uniqueness goes beyond its appearance. Here are three key the ways the show, narratively, finds a way to stand out.
It exists in a surreal, alternate reality. The first inkling that Atlanta flirts with a surreal universe slightly different than our own came in the series' pilot, when Earnest "Earn" Marks (Glover) is riding the bus with his infant daughter. Distraught, a man in a brown suit seemingly appears out of nowhere to impart some advice to Earn to achieve a heightened sense of self. Along with this sage wisdom, he offers Earn a Nutella sandwich and some juice.
Initially this could be interpreted as a vivid dream from Earn dozing off on the bus, because it's really, really weird. But Atlanta finds other ways to remind viewers that what they're seeing is real in the scope of the show.
The seventh episode takes place in the context of a talk show on the fictitious Black America Network, and sneaks in a few fake TV spots — including a gripping satire on police brutality in the guise of a cereal commercial — and another appearance from the mysterious man on the bus. Apparently he's real, and offers a chance to "get the answers you deserve" if you call his hotline.
What anchors these otherwise absurd moments in the show are scenarios for its characters that are grounded in actual reality. Earn and his on-and-off girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz), struggle with their shaky relationship while simultaneously raising a daughter. Earn wants to support them, but can't even afford to take Van on a date if the waitress upsells the menu. This delicate balance of surrealism and authenticity makes for entertaining television, yes, but it also makes for great storytelling that never feels too ridiculous.
It shatters archetypes for its characters, and gives everyone time in the spotlight. All the characters in Atlanta don't just feel original — they can hold together episodes on their own. There are a few standalone episodes that provide an extensive look at characters aside from Earl, fitting them into the context of the overarching story. In turn, they also shatter common TV tropes based on their roles.
There's Van, who asks him in the show's third episode during an argument, "Why are you always turning me into an angry black woman?" The show could've — quite easily — done this, but a Van-centric sixth episode is basically what a parallel Atlanta would be like if Van was the de facto lead.
What the episode offers is a complete picture of Van not as an angry girlfriend trying to bring down Earn's ambition in helping his cousin's rap career, but a woman with ambitions to shape her own entrepreneurship outside of teaching, and the insecurities she faces opposite of her longtime friend who's living a wealthy, superfluous life dating professional athletes. If this is what an Atlanta spin-off starring Van would look like, we want more of it.
Similarly terrific is Earn's cousin, aspiring rapper Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). Henry's Paper Boi is subtly nuanced; a rapper who struggles with achieving the fame and money he desires with his own authenticity, which is blanketed by what his earliest fans perceive him as. Thanks to a shooting that Paper Boi's involved with in the premiere, he's quickly compared to old-school rappers like Biggie Smalls — artists who toed the line with crime throughout their music careers.
But it's evident that Paper Boi, hiding behind a shield of arrogance, wants to form his own identity. When he attends a charity basketball game — this is where we meet black Justin Bieber — he tries to flirt with a local reporter and offers her an interview to learn about "the real him." However, he is continuously rebuffed, despite toning down his coquetry. The reporter, noticeably more interested in Bieber, imparts some sordid advice.
"Play your part," she says. "People don't want Justin to be the asshole; they want you to be the asshole. You're a rapper — that's your job."
The perception of Paper Boi is one of Atlanta's most compelling threads — and it works because he doesn't want to be boxed in. Whether he can escape it, though, remains to be seen.
Atlanta's narrative is so nonlinear, you have no idea if Paper Boi's career is going anywhere. What's holding Atlanta together, in terms of plot, is Paper Boi's ascension as a rapper and Earn's journey alongside him. But from the show's first season, we don't really know how that's going.
There are fleeting references to Paper Boi's increased fame in the city, but Atlanta never explicitly states if they are, to put it broadly, succeeding. The best impression we get is from Paper Boi's appearances at nightclubs and basketball games, and Earn's finances as his manager is a subtle clue into their narrative progression. It's a slow game, at best, considering we discover in the season finale that Earn currently lives in a storage unit.
In place of a traditional, linear storyline, viewers are treated to a show that isn't trying to be a show at all. Atlanta is a televised stream of consciousness, threaded together by individuals — Earn, Van, Paper Boi and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) — who seek meaning in their life. Everyone's made incremental progress, and they've got a long way to go.
But even as we wait for a second season in 2017, it feels like everyone in Atlanta will continue pursuing that dream in a world — and struggle — akin to our own.