Donald Glover’s ‘Atlanta’ Uses Rap to Start Difficult Conversations

With 'Atlanta,' Donald Glover created a series that forces people to see how ridiculous the world is, even if they aren't directly affected.
March 6, 2018, 5:38pm
Screenshot of "Atlanta" trailer 

Donald Glover introduced us to his version of Atlanta in the 2016 pilot of the FX series with OJ Da Juiceman’s “No Hook” blaring over an aerial pan of a cityscape. Some houses were deteriorated, some were modest, and some were accompanied with winding gardens and swimming pools in our bird’s eye view. “No Hook” played against the Atlanta skyline, and it was our first signifier that Glover’s Atlanta is a balance of street and tact, a theme that steadies itself within its plot. The soundtrack of Atlanta, both city and show, is heavily steeped in music and like the satirical world Glover creates, is inescapable.

The magic of Atlanta is the dichotomy of the city’s hustle paired with the bizarre world Glover has made acceptable. The city itself has an unnatural way of being able to package and sell its trials and triumphs, like the abandoned buildings used in drug operations and synchronized dance crazes that permeate mainstream culture. While Hollywood often capitalizes on black trauma, the spirit of Atlanta and cities like it use that trauma to do more with less, transforming culture with ease. Known for being the “mecca of the black middle class,” the city’s poverty index has tripled since the millennium, although the economy is thriving. In Atlanta, Glover is giving lessons on perspective, geniusly exposing other audiences to absurdities black communities face on the day-to-day. It’s why he can create an episode about a fictional television station, Black American Network, featuring a segment on a young black man who is transracial and identifies as older and white—an experience only afforded to people who look like Rachel Dolezal.

Similar to Get Out and The Chi, this new renaissance of black creators strip the audience of traditional villains, creating empathy for characters a wider audience may have been inherently biased to. After years of Atlanta-based Tyler Perry productions, what Glover is exploring is uncharted territory. Instead of creating a show where black characters are the joke, he’s created an entire series that feels like an inside joke, one that isn’t being coded for anyone other than its intended audience, which he likes to imagine as “just for black people.” Glover employs that strategy here. When Darius, played by Lakeith Stanfield, gets hauled out of a shooting range at gunpoint for choosing to use a dog as a target, it’s that kind of shift in perspective that causes people to reconsider the conversation surrounding issues like the Black Lives Matter movement, gun control, and police brutality. The story of Atlanta is a hyper-specific tale on the lives of ATLiens where careers can be resurrected, alligators become stars, and a day at a drive-thru is about more than just food.

Instead of the greenery and thick air that smacked you in the face in season one, season two feels relatively cold. Two teenagers joke casually over FIFA and plan to go to their local drive-thru because, according to them, a number 17 comes with a side of weed. Tay-K’s “The Race” plays in their hooptie and their sly grins let you know that in Glover’s Atlanta, anything could happen. A ploy to steal the restaurant’s weed supply ends in a shootout with automatic weapons, leaving their passenger bloody and screaming in the drive-thru parking lot. In five minutes, we are brought back to what may seem surreal to some, but is not a far-fetched reality. This time, Jay Critch’s “Did It Again” plays against the pan of Atlanta’s cityscape: “Damn, did he just hit another lick/Damn, did he just run off with your shit?” The opening scene is cryptic and more fit for a thriller than a “dramedy,” but it’s “Robbin’ Season,” or as Darius and Earn later define it, “Christmas approaches, everybody gotta eat—or be eaten.” Instead of addressing Donald Trump’s victory as president head on, the writers of Atlanta channeled that cynicism into their “Robbin’ Season” tagline. “There’s something funny about when you’re poor it doesn’t matter who the president is,” writer Stephen Glover said in an interview with The New York Times.

Atlanta is eliciting conversations that affect black communities within its fictional, yet relatable, portrayal of rap’s ecosystem. “Rap is ‘I don’t care what you think in society, wagging your finger at me for calling women “bitches”—when, for you to have two cars, I have to live in the projects,’” Glover told The New Yorker. In the season premiere alone, Glover hides themes of voter suppression, police brutality, and the deaths of unarmed black men cloaked in Atlanta’s warped humor. When Darius suggests that Florida Man is a ploy by the government to keep Florida a red-state, it’s a plausible conspiracy theory due to the history of suppression of the black vote, and it’s resurgence since Trump’s presidency. “To pretend like there is not racism, colorism, sexism, killing, all the worst parts of humanity in that area is doing a disservice to black people and humanity,” said Glover in an interview with the Times.

Rather than leaning on strip club aesthetics or scripted reality shows, it’s the rhythm of the city on an average day, tackling subjects of poverty and classism imbued in a whimsical world. Its lens on Paper Boi is the microcosm to the macrocosmic world. Loosely based on trap’s originators, Paper Boi is the reminder that trap was created for more than a heavy bass, but as a form of resistance to a drug war waged on impoverished neighborhoods. As trap becomes commodified, the symbols of its origins have been dressed up as pink trap houses and revered with odes to “bandos.” Paper Boi has one foot in the streets and the other in the booth, a trajectory we’ve seen rappers leverage to their advantage or become their undoing. Paper Boi’s presence on the show has a similar effect to what Trap Muzik and Thug Motivation 101 did, he doesn’t always make the “right” choices, but he makes the choices necessary for his survival—even if it’s landed him on house arrest for a gun charge. This season, Paper Boi is stuck in a transitional phase, wondering how much of himself he’ll have to compromise to make it in this industry.

Katt Williams stars as Uncle Willy in the season premiere “Alligator Man,” a dysfunctional relative who is housing an alligator in a bedroom of his home. The parallels between Williams and Uncle Willy are dangerously close. The character is a shadow of who he once was, similar to Williams’ career in comedy which has been eclipsed by a string of arrests and outlandish behavior. “If you don’t want to end up like me, get rid of that chip on your shoulder shit. It’s not worth the time,” says Uncle Willy, which feels much more like a line coming from Williams than his character. Williams’ appearance on the series is emblematic of the cycle Glover is trying to stop. Racking up over ten arrests in the last two years, it seemed like the comedian would never find his way back in Hollywood’s good graces, but Glover uses Atlanta to give Williams another chance, even wanting Williams to be considered for an Emmy for his role on the show.

Glover uses his power over Atlanta to give a megaphone to those who have played the background, employing people who understand the black experience rather than just being adjacent to it. The comedian and an alligator were an unlikely choice to be the stars of the season’s premiere, and as peculiar as this episode was, there were small moments that were scarier than a gator. There was the juxtaposition of Florida Man committing strange crimes like beating a flamingo to death next to shooting an unarmed black teen, which was a reminder that the latter is not normal behavior regardless of pervasive media coverage. Moments later, the cops arrive at Uncle Willy’s house and it’s a sobering reality that puts you on edge given of the strained relationship between communities of color and law enforcement. When Willy escapes out the back door, it’s a sigh of relief for all of the times we haven’t been able to see a black man escape after not complying with police. Glover is able to blur the lines of reality, summoning attention for even the most uncomfortable moments.

With Atlanta as his “trojan horse,” Glover is helping rewrite a narrative that’s been shut out of Hollywood. Merging the tokenism thrust upon him from roles in 30 Rock and Girls and a storyline pegged to music’s most listened to genre, he exposes a wider audience to what seems like exaggerated humor, but is actually not out of the norm. Atlanta is revolutionizing television by enabling conversations surrounding race many are able to ignore, unless they’re directly affected. Almost a year and a half since it last aired, Atlanta and the world are different. Migos made the city’s Northside mainstream since their pre-”Bad & Boujee” cameo on the show after Glover’s shoutout on the Golden Globes stage. The city said goodbye to an eight year term from Mayor Kasim Reid and elected a black woman, Keisha Lance Bottoms. The last time we were in Glover’s Atlanta, Barack Obama was president. Much of America is reeling from the change of power, but Glover is here to show that for places like Atlanta, where 30 percent of Georgia’s black population makes up more than half of the city, not much has changed.

Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.