In “Sportin’ Waves,” the second episode of Atlanta’s second season, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles’ profile as a rapper is growing in Atlanta and beyond. Despite that, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) still finds himself being a discontented drug dealer sitting in the back seat of a Chevy Impala engaging in small talk with his plug who abruptly, and apologetically, robs him at gunpoint mid-conversation.
“My fault, bruh,” the man casually says to Alfred. “You’ll be alright, though. Your song is hot. It will probably go platinum or some shit,” he adds, while calmly grabbing Alfred’s bag of money and moving it to the front seat. “I ain’t making no money off that fucking song, n****,” Alfred retorts before handing over his car keys after the plug demands them—“I don’t want you to chase after me when I pull off,” he says.
Alfred struggles to exit the vehicle because the child lock is on, but eventually “escapes” by awkwardly extending his arm out of the car window to open the door. “I would take you home, but you might come out the house shooting at me and shit,” says the plug before pulling off and leaving Alfred alone with no drugs, no money, and no car keys.
Stephen Glover, a writer and executive producer on FX’s surreal hit, wrote this moment, which captures his approach to scene building and character interactions that’s been instrumental in shaping the dark humor and absurdity that’s come to be associated with Atlanta.
“I think a lot of my favorite scenes in Atlanta are straight out of his brain,” says Atlanta director and executive producer Hiro Murai, who offsets Glover’s writing with complementary pacing. “To me, that scene is the perfect distillation of Steve’s sense of humor: It’s simultaneously really funny, but also kind of sad and fucked up.”
The scene defies expectations set by the “rules” of television, which Glover, and his older brother Donald Glover, completely disregarded en route to success with Atlanta. He had no experience writing for television, but that’s a big reason why the older Glover, Atlanta’s creator and star who is 38, placed the younger Glover, who is 33, in the show’s writers’ room. “My mind was probably more open to, ‘What can’t you do?’” Glover says during an early-May phone call from Atlanta, where he’s in production on an upcoming project.
You see a maximalist version of Glover’s writing style and perspective in “Three Slaps,” the third season’s premiere that set the tone for what has been an exceptionally divisive season. The episode, which Glover says is his favorite, alludes to the legend of Georgia’s Lake Lanier and adapts the tragedy of Devonte Hart and his siblings to address white people’s everyday insidiousness. “It flowed out of me,” Glover says, “and it’s doing a lot of the things that I like about our show.”
The episode doesn’t feature any of Atlanta’s main cast until the very end and the other three standalone episodes don’t feature them at all. The main storyline follows Alfred, Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover), Darius Epps (LaKeith Stanfield), and Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Zazie Beetz) as they endure increasingly bizarre situations, while Alfred wrestles with his success during a European tour. Meanwhile, each vignette positions whiteness as a scourge plaguing society. “I think the main thing that ties this season together is this idea of whiteness as a curse—not just for Black people, but for white people as well,” Glover says.
Let Glover tell it—his point of view was shaped by an early understanding of what isn’t real. Glover, who grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. His family didn’t celebrate holidays or birthdays, which he believes gave him a clear perspective on the world at a young age. “I think my imagination is different in a way, because I knew the Easter Bunny wasn’t real,” he explains. “I knew Santa Claus wasn’t real.”
However, this didn’t discourage Glover from finding joy in entertainment. He enjoyed cartoons like The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Dragon Ball Z. He was introduced to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dark City because his father was a fan of both. By middle school, when some of his friends were listening to the Hot Boys and Three 6 Mafia, his cousin was into Nirvana and Silverchair.
There’s pressure that Donald Glover felt as the older sibling that Glover was free from. “I didn’t have anybody to really learn from as far as, ‘Oh, this might happen if you do this,’ so I played it pretty close to the vest. Stephen didn’t,” explains Donald Glover. “I don’t think he had that. It was nurture, but it was a lot of nature. I think Stephen’s just that type of cat…he just doesn’t give any fucks.”
You can feel that nonchalance in Glover’s voice. Even when his answers have long windups, he always arrives at his point in relaxed fashion, punctuated by an amiable chuckle that he and his brother share. They’re different people (“I think Donald is way more experimental than I am,” says Glover), but they’ve always had similar interests. As kids, he and Donald would make fake commercials using Donald’s Talkboy recorder. They would also look up clip art on their father’s computer and write captions just to make each other laugh.
"I think Stephen’s just that type of cat…he just doesn’t give any fucks.” - Donald Glover
“I have to be the more experimental one on some levels, because I was first born,” says Donald Glover. “I have to try these things out because I’m first in line. And I think Stephen is just able to see from what I do: ‘Oh yeah, that’s not worth it to me.’”
Just before Donald Glover left home to attend New York University, he wrote his brother a letter suggesting they work on a more official production somewhere down the line. “He was like, ‘I’m going to NYU, but one day, we should make a TV show together,’” Glover says.
But by the time Donald Glover was hired to write for NBC’s 30 Rock in 2006, Glover was en route to Georgia Tech in preparation to become what he thought he was supposed to be: a chemical engineer. However, he left school after a few unsatisfying years. “I realized, ‘Oh, just because I can do math doesn’t mean I want to spend my life doing it or working on problems in this way,” Glover says.
This was the first time Glover actually believed he could pursue something creative. But unlike Donald Glover, who grew up saying he wanted to write for The Simpsons, Glover never saw a point of entry into the entertainment industry. He started making music as a teenager (his brother taught him how to make beats using Fruity Loops) and considered doing it full-time, but once again he found himself unfulfilled, working odd jobs around Atlanta. In 2012, he moved to Los Angeles to live with his brother, who was starring as the goofy former jock Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community.
That same year, Donald Glover also released the mixtape Royalty under his Childish Gambino alias. Glover was featured on the song “One Up” and made subsequent appearances on Gambino’s Because the Internet album and Kauai mixtape in 2013 and 2014. He also released his own music, including 2012’s Summer of Steve mixtape, along with 2014’s High Art and 2016’s DJ Rhetorik Presents: Rich Black American. During this period, the Royalty collective—which took its name from Gambino’s mixtape and began to coalesce around the project’s creation—evolved into the creative brain trust behind all of Donald Glover’s efforts. Several members (both Glovers, Ibra Ake, Jamal “Swank” Olori, and Fam Udeorji) would help to make up Atlanta’s writers’ room.
“I think it really just started off as a bunch of people who have this idea about life and just understand the world in the same way,” Glover says.
Like the majority of Atlanta’s writers’ room, Glover was a rookie. He understood the show’s tone, but reassurance from his brother alleviated any doubt about his blank résumé. “He was like, ‘The only thing you need to know is the format for scripts and the technical things,’” Glover says. “As far as the mind for it, you’ve got it.’”
According to Donald Glover, he gave Glover some American Dad scripts so he could get familiar with the format. As the lead writer, Glover’s perspective and experiences were the North Star for some of Atlanta’s first episodes. His grasp of Atlanta’s conceit was innate and he was naturally gifted as a writer. “That second episode of Atlanta was the first script he ever wrote in life,” Donald Glover says.
Glover, who is very laid back, was quiet in the writers’ room and on set initially. He took on more responsibility as he gained a better understanding of how to work with people.
“I think a lot of my favorite scenes in 'Atlanta' are straight out of [Stephen's] brain.” - Hiro Murai
Through the years, his feel for the show made him a guiding force for the entire production. “Making sure the scripts are feeling tight and funny is a big part of the show,” Glover says. “Then, when we go to production and somebody needs to make sets, and we need to get the costumes and the casting right, it’s being someone who understands the show well enough to be like, ‘This is what we do, here’s what we’re trying to accomplish, and this is feeling right,’” he says.
Glover is used to being the other Glover whose name appears in the credits of the brothers’ collaborations. However, a lot of his insight makes their work together what it is. “Of course nepotism sounds bad, because we all want to believe this world’s a meritocracy. But at the same time, everything about human history has been about time and preserving legacy,” Glover says. “The queen of England is only the queen because of time and the fact that they’ve been able to pass all this shit down for years and years and years. I think what people don’t understand is me and Donald understanding each other really well and having the same sense of humor is really invaluable, so when Donald’s on set and he’s like, ‘Yo, I need someone to make sure these scripts are in a good place,’ is that nepotism?”
Due to Glover’s sharp point of view, Donald Glover can always rely on him for honesty. “We might argue about something structurally because I know things just have to be satisfying in a certain way,” Donald Glover says. “I just feel like his point of view is very clear because it’s very pure; he’s not thinking about appearances.”
At first, the biggest challenge, Donald Glover explains, was getting Glover to understand how essential his viewpoint was to Atlanta. “I think the hardest thing was having to tell Stephen: ‘This is your show, too,’” he says with that Glover laugh. “I think it was just trying to get him to embrace being in charge and that his perspective is the most important to make the show work.”
Glover wrote the episode descriptions for Atlanta’s third season. The description for “Three Slaps” reads: “Wow it’s been a minute. I mean, I like this episode about the troubled kid but we waited 50 years for this?” “I told him to write them like somebody who hates Atlanta and he was like, ‘Bet,’” Donald Glover says.
It’s undeniable that Glover has been greatly aided by his brother’s rise, but he’s not merely a passenger to it. He’s been integral to his brother’s creative process and assumed a more prominent role through the years. His music has been featured in Atlanta, most notably “Paper Boi,” Alfred’s eponymous breakthrough single.
But Glover has also written some of Atlanta’s strongest episodes, including “Sportin’ Waves” and “Streets On Lock,” in which Alfred and his cousin-turned-manager Earn have vastly different experiences in jail. In addition, Glover earned a writing credit when Donald Glover hosted and performed on Saturday Night Live in 2018. And he wrote the screenplay and served as an executive producer for Guava Island, the 2019 film starring Donald Glover and Rihanna. His outlook is central to everything he’s involved in.
Glover’s collaborators describe him as pensive, but prone to black humor. “He says the darkest, most fucked up things in the kindest, most thoughtful way—then he’ll give this affable laugh afterwards,” says Murai. “I’m always impressed by how quickly he can make a meal out of nothing, in terms of comedy,” says Ake, who also serves as a director and producer for Atlanta. What’s more, Murai views Glover as someone who operates parallel to the zeitgeist, but on his own wavelength. “He’s conversing with it, but I don’t think he’s trying to keep up with it or find his way in.” So no matter what anyone else thinks about Glover’s sense of humor or work, he’s self-assured: “One thing I always felt about myself was, ‘If I think it’s funny, then it’s funny.’”
Atlanta’s third season has been a radical departure from its first two, but ambitious creative swings open creators up to scrutiny about the necessity and effectiveness of their approach. The narrative departures aren’t disorienting (Atlanta has never moved in a traditionally linear fashion), but they belabor a point without necessarily adding much to the broader story. The latest Rolling Stone recap pondered the utility of the departures following yet another one. Vulture’s recap of the same episode criticized the show for relying on provocation instead of any profound commentary about race.
According to Glover, the third season was written in 2019. He admits to wondering if viewers would respond differently had it aired two years ago, as the last couple years have felt like four. “Before, people didn’t feel like everything had some agenda to it and now I feel like the world has gotten more cynical,” Glover says.
At the same time, Glover believes the writers saw where the world was headed, which, in his opinion, still makes the themes introduced this season relevant. This is the most provocative season of Atlanta to date, all the way down to the cameos. Chet Hanks and Liam Neeson have made polarizing appearances, but the casting of Kevin Samuels in the ninth episode, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” is the most loaded and controversial choice. Samuels, a self-styled relationship guru and image adviser who died on May 5 at the age of 57 (news of his death circulated on Twitter as the preview of his Atlanta cameo aired on FX), built a brand through his opinions on the value of Black men and, most harshly, Black women. He was both popular and despised because of his misogyny. Glover stands by the decision, insisting Samuels was right for the role of a wealthy philanthropist in the vein of billionaire Robert Smith.
“I’m a Black man, so to me, Kevin Samuels isn’t that crazy,” Glover says. “He was an old Black man. I think we’ve all met some version of Kevin Samuels before in our lives. We probably have a family member who’s Kevin Samuels.”
In the big picture, casting Samuels (who was selected after the original target, Steve Harvey, fell through) only adds to the criticism of Atlanta’s relationship with Black women, which is tied to Donald Glover’s tense history with Black women—which he recently acknowledged during an interview with himself. Even though Atlanta’s writers were clearly aware of how this would land, Glover doesn’t think it’s an actual problem that needs to be fixed. “People are getting lazier, so I understand this idea of us putting Kevin Samuels [in an episode] must mean that we hate women, but actually Kevin Samuels did a really good job on this,” Glover says. “I think as far as the bigger question of us hating women, we definitely don’t.”
There’s a defiance to Glover, who enjoys debate but is receptive to opposing viewpoints and having his positions challenged. He pushes back against disapproval regarding Samuels’ casting by arguing that “Alligator Man,” which he considers to be Atlanta’s best episode because it encapsulates the show’s overall goal, might not have aired if people similarly objected to Katt Williams. (Williams, who won an Emmy for his cameo in 2018, has had numerous run-ins with the law through the years.)
“One thing I always felt about myself was, ‘If I think it's funny, then it's funny.’” - Stephen Glover
Glover appreciates thorough critiques of Atlanta’s third season even though he’s uninterested in making audiences happy. “I think people have this idea where they think we’re infallible or we can’t be wrong about things,” he says. And he believes there’s a culture of outrage that’s prohibiting young creators, even when confronted with the reasoning that there are rarely any material consequences. “The next generation of creative people are scared to do things, to take risks, to learn new things,” he says. “I think that’s from this groupthink, mob mentality that doesn’t always serve us in the way that I think it should.”
Glover’s grown accustomed to a degree of creative freedom, but there’s another level that he thinks is possible. What that actually looks like, beyond total insulation from criticism, remains to be seen. “I’m not trying to say I’m Elon Musk and I want everyone to say everything they want all the time,” he says. “But I’m just saying: As far as creative ideas, people need to step outside the box. And people want that, but at the same time, we’re punishing anyone who makes a mistake.”
With one season of Atlanta remaining, Glover’s taking his eccentric slant to other projects and mediums—without his brother. He and Olori wrote the screenplay for HBO Max’s House Party reboot, which was produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter through their SpringHill Company and slated for a July release. Although he’s generally remake-averse, he grew up appreciating the accessibility of movies like Kid ‘n Play’s House Party and Class Act, and was intrigued by the prospect of adding his own spin. “They were open to the idea of telling a new story and doing it differently, so I’m excited,” he says.
Despite having his own aspirations, Glover realizes that he isn’t seen as a separate entity from his brother, which he’s fine with. “I think I’m running my own race,” he says. “By the end of everything, everybody will know what I do and what I have to offer. I’m not worried about the perception right now.”