“N***a, if you don’t bite this sandwich,” a mystic commuter tells Donald Glover’s Earnest “Earn” Marks in Atlanta’s pilot episode. Never before has a food-related command been more inspiring.
This bizarre exchange, which is perfectly congruous with Glover’s description of the show as “Twin Peaks with rappers,” isn’t about a sandwich. It’s a carpe diem moment, a call to action Earn knows he must respond to despite consistent ass-kickings from life. In Atlanta, Glover’s new FX series, the marginalized Earn won't resign himself to insignificance just yet. He sees an opportunity to right the course in Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), his alienated drug-dealer cousin who’s ascending under the rap nom de guerre, Paper Boi. Atlanta isn’t about the music industry, though; that’s merely a point of access to an ingenious exploration of resurgent ambition anchored by the black experience in America. Atlanta is the maxim for everyone trying to live out their dreams. It also depicts how the world often ogles at dreamers in bewilderment, unable to grasp how one could have dreams so big. Finally, the show zeroes in on a generational desire to operate on your own terms, which is no easy task. Drive is necessary, and Atlanta embodies the motivational spirit of fellow ATLiens OutKast and Goodie Mob’s anti-shiftlessness anthem, “Git Up, Git Out.”
Doing the exceptional is the goal, but Atlanta highlights how life—being young, black, and broke, specifically—complicates that. There’s always some obstacle in your way.
“I know the Lord ain’t brought me this far so he could drop me off here.” CeeLo Green’s words on “Git Up, Git Out” frame Earn’s life with striking accuracy.
Everyone knows someone just like him: the smart, promising teen who bottoms out in their early 20s because one bad break sent them into a downward spiral they never recovered from. They float through life in a limbo of bitter underachievement, tormented by thoughts of who and what they could’ve been. We aren’t told up front what happened to Earn when he attended Princeton, but regardless, his premature Ivy League exit has left him adrift, lagging behind where he’s supposed to be. Earn isn’t a loser, per se, but the only time he isn’t ignored by the world is when someone’s using him as a stool. He’s underemployed to the point of self-loathing with no place to call “home” with any authority. To further complicate his existential tailspin, he has a daughter with Van (Zazie Beetz), who’s well past tired of waiting for him to happen.
Earn insists the life he wants can give their daughter the one she deserves, which Van dismisses as “some dumb shit”—and not because she doesn’t believe in him, but because she feels alone in the child-rearing process. Where both characters could easily become stereotypes (the burnout and angry black woman), Atlanta amplifies their struggles by fleshing them out. Earn attempts to contribute, he’s just barely able to do so. Van is being practical: neither of them have the luxury of chasing dreams at the moment. Simply existing while black in America is a struggle; excelling at something unconventional without ample resources or a cushion of privilege seems all but impossible. But Earn, influenced by his ambition and sense of responsibility, aims high once again by offering to manage Alfred. This is impeded by Alfred’s skepticism, a wall thicker than their blood relation.
The black familial dynamic is fascinating; cousins are often like siblings. Earn and Alfred had that relationship at some point, but it seems the former became the deadbeat cousin when his life went off the rails. One of Atlanta’s greatest strengths is the reestablishment of their bond, but it’s not the last relationship Earn’s choices have strained. The very people who gave him life are still wondering when he’s going to do something with it.
Parents are a source of support and, when they see fit, harsh criticism. Naturally, they want the best for their kids, but their kids are also investments. Children’s success is the ROI for the time and money poured into raising them, and Earn’s parents feel shorted. He’s still an expense, even as an adult with a child of his own, and their judgement—the smirks; the eye-rolls; the painfully accurate jokes—makes him feel like a disappointment. Most parents encourage the pursuit of dreams as long as they amount to something. When the people responsible for your chromosomes regularly remind you, non-verbally, their sacrifice has yet to pay off, the only way to assert yourself as an adult is proving them wrong. In the black community, parents preach the adage about having to work harder than our white counterparts to succeed. This lasts well into our formative years, so when we, their offspring, accomplish less with more resources available to us, it feels like a slap in the face. Earn feels pressure to prove himself to Van, his parents, and critics of his generation. It’s no easier when the world constantly spits in his face.
Earn, the non-threatening black man, is stepped on repeatedly, an effective mirror to how society treats black people. His nickname is no coincidence, either: nothing comes easy for him; certainly not respect. A white acquaintance doesn’t think twice about saying “n***a” in front of him, but won’t dare do the same when he's joined by Alfred and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield, brilliantly peculiar in every scene). It’s revealing of how some white people behave when they’re too comfortable, then uncomfortable. A "fan" encounter exhibits how ill-prepared Alfred is for the spectrum of fame that comes with being Paper Boi. It also brings Joe Budden’s infamous confrontation with a few overzealous Drake fans to mind, illustrating the cultural misunderstandings between viral fame-hungry pests and the rappers (i.e., black men) they treat as zoo animals. As promised, Atlanta offers a different look at what it’s like to be black. Atlanta, the city, does the same.
In a recent New York Magazine profile, Glover said he created Atlanta to “show white people, [they] don’t know everything about black culture.” He picked the perfect setting, because blackness manifests variously in Atlanta. The opulence seen in primetime on Bravo rose from the ashes of Jim Crow. There’s the rich civil rights history. There’s the tie that binds Organized Noize, OutKast, and Future. There’s So So Def; there’s Awful Records. There’s the culture of megachurches, strip clubs, and historically black colleges that, when combined with everything else the city presents, creates an intriguing ecosystem. So creating something bold and intelligent against this backdrop was a layup for Atlanta’s all-black writing staff.
Donald Glover's show covers a lot of territory. It’s about trying to make it from points A to B in one piece. It’s about being broke on your payday, but eventually making up for lost time and money. It’s nuanced, and despite its ambitious sprawl, never strays from the realities of being young, black, and poor in America. It’s about rising above the disadvantages of that.
As CeeLo asks on “Git Up, Git Out,” how will you make it if you never even try?