How the First Season of 'Atlanta' Changed Television

With ‘Atlanta,' Donald Glover made his own world—and a show like nothing else on TV.

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Complex Original

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Outkast made their first left on their second album, 1996’s ATLiens. The album was a departure from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’s buoyant, exclusively Dungeon-crafted funk, one that saw Andre 3000 and Big Boi create a world where their developing eccentricities were the norm. Their native Atlanta, the urban utopia erected from the embers of Jim Crow, became its own planet. The move established what would ultimately become a prevailing theme for the Atlanta-based duo: they never did the same thing twice. Now, twenty years later, fellow Georgian Donald Glover’s avant-garde “dramedy,” Atlanta, has sculpted its own universe from the same red clay.

Entertainment is supposed to absorb consumers, convincing them to buy whatever is being sold based on quality, plausibility, and enjoyment. Atlanta’s brilliant first season has done as advertised, offering a sweeping examination of society: it’s about ambition, family, and existentialism. It’s about everything, yet nothing particular at all. And even when the show leans toward the latter, a roving camera and perceptive writing have constructed an inventive perusal of the confounding fog that descends on twentysomethings. But Atlanta has gone beyond building a world within one—it’s created an alternate reality where mystery men in bow ties push Nutella sandwiches with a side of wisdom, Justin Bieber is black, invisible cars exist, and no one raises an eyebrow. The wonder lies with the audience, whose response to the fall’s most fascinating half-hour of television has been loud and clear.

In Atlanta’s world, dashes of the bizarre supplement the lives of people trying to improve their respective situations. With its whip-smart maiden voyage drawing to a close, it’s done far more than hurdle the obstructions marginalizing black television—it’s raised the bar for TV, in general.

Twin Peaks with rappers.” That’s how Glover famously described Atlanta, and the tag is more understandable now that the season is 90 percent complete. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s ‘90s cult gem established its own peculiar sphere. This theater of oddities is Lynch’s signature; he’s fascinated by things that aren’t as they seem. His trademark reached its apex with 1986’s Blue Velvet, which, like Twin Peaks, fixates on what lurks beneath small town life’s seemingly pedestrian surface. A seedy underworld is exposed as Lynch’s van Gogh burrows deeper, revealing a Roy Orbison lip-synching that’s more flat-out fucking disturbing than tense. Lynchian details considered (Ahmad White’s spiritual guidance; the dog “with the Texas on him” from the pilot), Atlanta doesn’t dabble in the director’s propensity for psychological horror. Actually, it may share more qualities with another acclaimed FX series: Noah Hawley's Fargo.

What separates Atlanta from Fargo though, making it unlike anything on television, is its very specific method of mixing reality checks with doses of the surreal. The quirks of the Fargo universe are gifts that have kept giving for two decades now, but they lack the muted style and subsequent impact of Atlanta’s. You never see the hook coming, it never feels over the top.

Atlanta nimbly toys with the elasticity of reality. The show’s events play out in real time, for the most part, anchored by scenarios and characters that are believable. “Our show’s super-grounded in reality, most of the time, and we’re able to play with reality,” Stephen Glover, Donald’s younger brother and part of the show’s writer’s room, told Vulture in September. “What would happen in a real way if something’s just changed slightly?” “Streets on Lock,” penned by Stephen Glover, exposes lockup’s sobering reality by detaining Earn (Donald Glover) while Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), the more imposing of the two, makes bail. With Earn playing Dante to the system’s Inferno, it explores every fear the “soft” common man experiences behind bars. However, it’s still peppered with record-stopping humor, like Alfred being accosted—in the precinct—by a beaming cop-turned-male groupie whose zeal to take a picture with him “for the Insta-sluts” is equal parts troubling and hilarious.

At the other end of the spectrum is the oft-discussed “Nobody Beats the Biebs.” The episode, also written by the younger Glover, is unflinching in its presentation of a black Justin Bieber (Austin Crute) as an obnoxious pop star who faces little consequence for his untamed id. At most, he apologizes via song and dance, then basks in the glow of near-universal adoration. It’s a masterful skewering of the privilege that has kept IRL Bieber out of serious trouble and in the public’s good graces, despite his best persona non grata efforts. Meanwhile, singer Lloyd, rapper turned actor Lil Zane, and actor Jaleel White make cameos as themselves, appearing without introduction because they’re part of Atlanta’s macrocosm. This version of the city was founded on the unwritten “try hard, die hard” rule. No flag shall be waived too vigorously. No point, no matter how brilliant, shall be hammered home.

“B.A.N.,” arguably Atlanta’s most ambitious episode thus far, features Alfred as a guest on the Black American Network program, Montague. The entire episode takes place within the fictional talk show’s confines, save for commercials parodying the very spots targeting the African-American community that advertisers cram into primetime shows like Atlanta. The Dodge Charger spoof at the very beginning mimics car commercials’ tone so perfectly that it seems authentic until the tagline ("the official car of making a statement without saying anything at all") is delivered. Then “Coconut Crunchos,” an animated riff on kids’ cereal ads, tackles police brutality with timely, uncomfortable accuracy.

The episode’s greatest accomplishment, though, is how it casually lampoons various social issues and hip-hop’s phobias. Gender and racial identity, First Amendment rights, the word “problematic”—none are safe from Atlanta’s crosshairs, and “B.A.N.” comes impressively close to peak Spike Lee, Chappelle’s Show, and The Boondocks in its handling of satire. Of late, Lee has treated it like a sledgehammer. Donald Glover & co., on the other hand, use it with razor-like precision.

The subtle genius of Atlanta’s writing distances its universe from others. Relatable situations—like navigating the hellish, concentric circles of the nightclub scene—are punctuated with abstract twists. “The Club” probes the after hours struggle, placing familiar antagonists in Earn, Alfred, and Darius’s (LaKeith Stanfield, in the role most exemplary of Atlanta’s world) respective ways: the serpentine promoter whose walls do a 360; the bouncer with convenient amnesia, and the stuntin’-is-a habit athlete. By the time the invisible car appears, suspending your disbelief is no longer a stretch because this otherwise absurd moment aligns with the tone Atlanta spent the previous seven episodes establishing. That tone is translated through each episode’s title.

Take last week’s, “Juneteenth,” for example. The penultimate episode, a nod to the celebration of slavery’s abolition in the United States, finds Earn and Van (Zazie Beetz) feigning holy matrimony for opportunity—slaves to the approval of a bougie Real Housewives of Atlanta caricature. Their ruse takes place in a “Spike Lee-directed Eyes Wide Shut” setting, further magnifying the non-couple’s mutual aggravation by testing the limits of their tolerance. Bullshit expires quickly in Atlanta, especially when characters aren’t wealthy enough to enjoy the bliss of ignorance.

The journey through Atlanta has been a bizarre ride to the far side of our imagination. In this world, Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset (and a distant cousin) appear as themselves in a clever instance of misdirection, and, according to Darius, this very publication offers commentary on Alfred’s mixtape. “There are things on this show that will surprise everyone because when you think you’re going left, we’re gonna take a detour on your ass,” Henry told me just before Atlanta’s premiere. It's just as likely to mow you down with an invisible car en route to award shows.

Welcome to Atlanta. The wait for this strange tour was long, but certainly worthwhile. 

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