Starring: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz
"I had a dream I ran Atlanta." Donald Glover utters those words to open STN MTN/Kauai, the Gangsta Grillz mixtape with DJ Drama that stands today as, low-key, his best project. That line and the intro that follows is a meta-acknowledgment that he doesn't run Atlanta's rap scene, not with the magnitude of his peers at least. But in 2016—the year Donald Glover arrived on all accounts—he finally realized he didn't need rap to put on for his city. Instead, Glover put his EGOT-level talent front and center with the boldest show of the year: a sitcom that denies situational form, a drama that defies an arc or stakes. Hell, one of the leads is a struggling rapper and the show barely features any Entourage-esque industry trappings.
Atlanta is, in its magnificent simplicity, about being black, a concept still woefully underrepresented on television. And Glover, on his first TV creation armed with a team of newbies (some of the best episodes are written by his brother, Stephen; the cinematography was done by music video director Hiro Murai) refreshingly executes his vision without anything resembling a structure. He's billed it as “Twin Peaks for rappers,” but what we've really got is the ATL Twilight Zone. A Justin Bieber who looks the way he sometimes acts, an episode set entirely in the club, or a mad-cap, balls-to-the-wall Chappelle Show one-off revival that takes aim at transphobia, faux tolerance, identity appropriation, and Black Lives Matter in one half-hour. Glover is reupholstering TV, and with brevity to wit and humor that doesn't depend on familiarity (but soars even higher if one does indeed relate). My personal favorite episode featured the rapper Quavo making his acting debut in a scene-stealing cameo; I wouldn't be surprised if the hiatus between Season 2 finds more rappers pleading for a similar look. The dream became reality. —Frazier Tharpe