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Entertainment

'Atlanta' Is More Than Strip Clubs and Trap Houses

Atlanta has become a caricature in our collective consciousness. But Donald Glover's new show breaks down those tired tropes by reflecting the city's ragged humanity.
September 7, 2016, 2:41pm
All photos by Guy D'Alema/courtesy of FX

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The last time I lived in Georgia, Atlanta-based rapper Ludacris was atop the Billboard 100 charts with "Money Maker" featuring Pharrell, from Release Therapy. The city of Atlanta has undoubtedly changed since I left the South in 2006, marked by signs of urban progression, from construction to demolition, but has retained its charm. A true Southern city, Atlanta's pace is perhaps a little slower than its counterparts in the Northeast, but its citizens are warm and genuine as you pass them while walking the streets. Beyond the media portrayals of trap houses and strip clubs, Atlanta is best defined by its people, its neighborhoods, its music. The city—a black Mecca for me, my family, and others—is almost mythological, a perspective skewed as much by what people wish from Atlanta as it is by its realities.

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Donald Glover—actor, writer, comedian, and musician—aims to dispel the city's mythology with Atlanta, his new television series on FX. The clues are in the details. The show's pilot episode, "The Big Bang," begins with a nighttime altercation outside a liquor store where Earn (Glover), a Princeton dropout, tries to referee a disagreement between his cousin Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), a local rapper on the cusp of neighborhood stardom, and the young man who kicked Paper Boi's sideview mirror for reasons later revealed in the episode.

Authenticity is the first litmus test for the show. The altercation feels real, no different from fights witnessed in front of various QuikTrip gas stations dotting the American South. The drawl in the accents are real but not caricatures; the dialogue, partially fogged by marijuana smoke, devolves from requests for recompense for the side mirror to a critique of Paper Boi's latest mixtape. And as the overhead camera shot fades in the title credits—right as a gun is fired—we fly over sections of Atlanta, which includes a dilapidated, caved-in house. Atlanta has long been a capitol for black American wealth and influence, but the city's blight, its projects, also appear in Glover's Atlanta.

All photos by Guy D'Alema/courtesy of FX

The series comes with high expectations for Glover, the mercurial, shape-shifting artist who was last seen receiving a Grammy nomination for his 2013 rap album Because the Internet, an album that, like Ludacris's Release Therapy, attempted to repackage and reimagine Glover as a real, serious musician with real, serious ideas. Whether Because the Internet succeeded or not is up for debate, but Atlanta picks up where it left off: Glover, Atlanta's creator and executive producer, continues to wrest and maintain creative control. This ethos is echoed in the pilot when Earn's father, played by veteran actor Isiah Whitlock Jr., says of his son, "When [Earn] wants to do something, he does it. On his own terms."

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It is clear Glover wants Atlanta to achieve a balance of natural, rhythmic comedy with drama and depth. While Louie tries for the same balance, and often fails with routine dives into the morbid and melodramatic, and Master of None makes the same attempt yet fails with stilted dialogue and comedic timing that rarely dips below the surface, Atlanta, at least in its first two episodes, succeeds. It's a testament to Glover's all-black writers' room for Atlanta, which situates its characters in the depths of Atlanta without buffoonery or canned jokes at every turn.

The second episode, "Streets on Lock," doubles down on the humor, drama, and depth. While Earn sits in lockup, awaiting processing and bail, Paper Boi—his single now playing on the local radio, thanks to Earn—becomes a local celebrity, attracting attention wherever he goes, even at home when a stranger in a Batman mask knocks on the door, confirms it is Paper Boi's residence, and runs off. Meanwhile, Earn and other men in lockup are entertained by the humorous machinations of a mentally ill individual, a lockup regular, until the man spits toilet water onto a police officer. Violence ensues, sirens blare, and every man—Earn included—looks down at the floor, not so much to avert their eyes but to admonish themselves for having forgotten themselves and their surroundings.

As for Glover himself, his portrayal of Earn is authentic and understated. His character often appears out of sorts, displaced, with the look of a man who crash landed back home after whatever happened at Princeton. He is low on money and approaching desperation, seemingly leaning on Van, his daughter's mother played by the wonderful Zazie Beetz, for financial and emotional support (it is Van who eventually bails Earn out of lockup). Glover positions Earn as a down-and-out intellectual, a former wunderkind rummaging through his past glory days for any way forward.

Combined with questions surrounding Paper Boi's rap career—Will he become a rap superstar? Is that even what Paper Boi wants?—Earn's story propels Atlanta, the two narratives braided yet buoyed by supporting and ancillary characters. The hilarious bits from "Streets on Lock" often come from actors other than those with top billing, Glover included. In two episodes, Glover and crew have created a community, shrinking Atlanta's metropolitan scale down to its actual neighborhoods, corners, blocks, and its citizens. Atlanta strives to reflect its city's humanity beyond the projection of the show creator's insularity. Atlanta is real in every sense, and so far it delivers.

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Atlanta airs on Tuesdays at 10 PM on FX.