THE SHOW “Atlanta”
WHEN | WHERE 10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, on FX
THE GRADE A
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover) has dropped out of college for reasons unknown and returned home to Atlanta, where jobs are scarce, and so is money. His parents refuse to front him another dollar, while his girlfriend, Vanessa or “Van” (Zazie Beetz), wants him to start helping with the rent. More pressing, they have a baby daughter to feed. Earn gets an idea — why not manage his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), aka Paper Boi, local hip-hop star and one-hit wonder? Boi is skeptical at first, and besides, he already has a one-man entourage/semi-manager, Darius (Keith Stanfield), who also partakes of the cannabis. Both have a side gig, too: dealing drugs. Earn persists.
The pilot was written by Glover, while the other three episodes FX offered for review were written by his brother, Stephen. The director is acclaimed music video producer Hiro Murai.
MY SAY Long before there was Earn, there was Troy Barnes on “Community” and long after Troy, Sandy on “Girls” and young Tracy Jordan on “30 Rock.” Then there's the musical alter-ego, Childish Gambino, the hip-hop star with a Grammy-nominated album (2013’s “Because the Internet”), passionate fan base and extensive footprint on that same internet.
Singer, songwriter, actor, producer, TV writer, stand up and now showrunner, Glover is a big talent who comfortably wears lots of hats, or masks.What’s missing, at least in the TV portraits, is the real Donald Glover.
For Glover fans, that’s the promise of “Atlanta,” even if it is a mistake to approach this as another “Louie,” “Master of None” or “Girls” — those self-aware and self-assured portraits of the star on their adopted native soil.
Like Earn, Glover grew up in Atlanta, or just outside, in Stone Mountain. He also aspired to a career in hip-hop and possibly once looked at the great wide world beyond with the same sense of bitter futility that Paper Boi does.
But instead of Glover, viewers get Earn. Even his name is a constant reminder of what he has to do, but can’t. “How are you broke on payday?” asks Darius, who gets most of the best lines. “What are you? Twelve years a slave?” Earn knows he’s a part of this particular world but apart from it, too. He just can’t figure out where the dividing line is, or if there is one. Darius has no such qualms — he’s too high to have them. Resigned to the small time, self-loathing Boi sees no way forward, and no way out: “I scare people at ATMs,” he explains. “I have to rap.”
"Atlanta" can be funny, except when it's not, and defies viewers to figure out for themselves whether they're watching a comedy or tragedy. Boi casually flaunts guns and Darius carelessly handles them (“I think there’s a bullet in here,” he says after extracting a gun hidden in a cereal carton). People are shot, on-screen and off — one fatally. A deranged man is bludgeoned in a police station holding area. That explosive racial epithet is commonplace — sometimes used as a term of solidarity and brotherhood, other times a term of menace and intimidation.
At the recent press tour, Glover said he wrote “Atlanta” to “show people how it felt to be black.” Instead, he shows people how it feels to be Earn. Same difference?
BOTTOM LINE The TV breakout Glover fans have been waiting for, also unlike anything else on TV.