A whole damn decade separates ATL and Atlanta, and yet the city’s influence on hip-hop hasn’t waned. T.I., Future, Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz, Migos, Young Thug, and a grip of other artists have maintained the city’s dominance while pushing the genre forward. And in the meantime, Hollywood has figured out how to package hip-hop for the masses instead of delivering mostly cult classics or critical bombs. Fox’s Empire was the surprise smash of 2015; Straight Outta Compton had a historic box office run last summer; Power has stayed strong, if underappreciated, across three seasons on Starz; and the genesis of hip-hop recently received the Baz Luhrmann treatment on Netflix with The Get Down.
But perhaps the most anticipated project of this genre is Atlanta, the FX show premiering tonight written by and starring Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino. In his first run at the head of the writers’ table, Glover takes on his hometown and its hip-hop scene. Though his name hasn’t been as synonymous with the city as Guwop or Thugger—perhaps because his art has previously channeled NYU more than the trap house—Glover captures the essence of Atlanta vividly in his new series. But how does it compare to its predecessor, the T.I.-starring ATL?
ATL is a caricature of Atlanta, featuring a few rappers in lead roles and a tremendous soundtrack. Its house parties, public pool outings, and trips to the Cascade roller rink. Pushing drugs is heavily moralized, painted as a corrupting threat full of pit-bull-wielding villains like Marcus (Big Boi). It explores class mobility and sticking true to your roots, but it’s all kind of hokey. And the central relationship, between T.I.’s Rashad and Lauren London's New New, follows the standard romantic trope: they get together, a secret splits them apart, and all’s well by the end. I count the movie as one of my favorites, but sometimes you have to admit when a fave is objectively weak.
Atlanta, however, is a much more nuanced exploration of the city that also delves into nontraditional families, responsible parenting, poverty begetting poverty, the exploitation of hip-hop, and how police mishandle mental illness—and that’s just in the first four episodes. Glover’s lead, Earnest “Earn” Monks, is a more complex lens from which to view his surrounding. He lives with his daughter and her mother, but the home is decidedly hers, and she’s still dating other men. He’s not a high schooler with the world ahead of him; he’s a 30-something with a clear but as-of-now vague history of disappointing people who has to balance his desire to succeed in music (as a manager; not a rapper) with the more immediate need to feed his child.
This may sound like heavy shit—and it is—but Glover serves the weight of adulthood and the black experience, the latter of which he described as the show’s thesis, with quick, dry humor that’s often rooted in semantics, philosophy, and societal norms. In one scene from the pilot, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) reveals he can’t have children in an aside. Earn says he’ll find out why when it’s appropriate. Darius quickly hits him back with, “When is an appropriate time to talk about my balls getting smashed?”
On one hand, it may be unfair to compare ATL and Atlanta. The 2006 film marked an acting debut for T.I., not coincidentally at the peak of his musical career, and gave Chris Robinson his first feature film after directing music videos. Of course ATL was going to lean cartoonish. Conversely, Glover made his name in television as a writer for 30 Rock while still attending class at NYU and years before he’d have another career take off as Childish Gambino, so of course Atlanta was going to be more capital-S Serious.
But the tone and quality of Glover’s series has also been made possible by advances in Hollywood over the past ten years. Network and studio heads are finally figuring out that black films and shows—as in projects starring, written, and directed by people who aren’t white—can land both critically and commercially (though there’s certainly still a lot of room for progress). And the projects don’t have to be about extraordinary figures—i.e. another Civil Rights or slavery story—they can be about regular-ass people. You can't speak for what went into making ATL, but it could certainly be argued that the climate of mid-aughts Hollywood demanded the movie tilt towards caricature. Even in 2006, nuance and the normalization of black experience weren't exactly priorities.
Hip-hop is central to Atlanta, but mostly it’s a show about regular-ass people. The spoils of success are likely years away, if they end up coming at all. When he isn’t prodding his cousin, the budding rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), Earn is pawning items and checking his tab in the middle of dinner.
Atlanta is also weird as hell, with Twin Peaks-esque oddities that have been teased but seem primed for a fuller reveal later on in the season. This confluence of genres has also been made possible by another shift in entertainment: television has become better and open to a wider variety of stories. The new Golden Age of Television has come and gone, but it’s left behind a market for an incredible amount of freedom for TV writers.
Rap is trending in Hollywood right now, but Atlanta’s simultaneous freshness and universality have the potential to make it stick out from Empire, Power, The Get Down, and whatever the hell else is sure to come. Donald Glover undoubtedly has the better take on the ATL, but it’s a journey that never would have been green-lit ten years ago.