Evaluating 'Atlanta' After One Maddening, Brilliant Season

Three 'Atlanta' fans sit down to talk (and argue) about season one of Donald Glover's TV masterpiece.

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If you slept on the first season of Donald Glover's Atlanta, congratulations: you played yourself. Over the last few years, FX has made a strong case for it being the destination for next level television, and with Atlanta, they've served today's hip-hop-loving black TV populace with a series of left-field episodes that were unafraid of pushing the limit while still serving quality TV realness. It properly showed the world that actors like Lakeith Stanfield and Brian Tyree Henry were forces to be reckoned with, and FX must've noticed how deep Twitter rolled when the show was on, as they already locked it for season two.

Still, I noticed around the magnificent, Nileseyy Niles-featuring seventh episode that Atlanta did have its naysayers. Admittedly, I'd seen heads voicing the idea that the show should be an hour as opposed to 30 minutes, and while I'm not in the majority there, I get it: we all want more of something that feels good. I'd then see more folks commenting on the show losing them, primarily because Glover's "Twin Peaks for rappers" description meant that Atlanta, while linear, evolves much differently than other shows.

Last night's finale ended with few answers and some very huge questions [Ed Note: Spoilers ahead]. So in an effort to better understand what the people might be feeling, I linked up with two of my Atlanta-loving cohorts: staff shooter Angel Diaz and "The Summer Man" Frazier Tharpe. We chopped it up on all things Atlanta in hopes of answering one thing: is Atlanta truly as polarizing as some might think, or are we just upset that we'll have to wait until whenever Glover's done getting his Lando Calrissian on to even think about what season two will bless us with? Grab a Nutella sandwich and some juice and watch us dissect this epic series.

khal: To kick things off, I think it’s interesting that, while Atlanta seems to have gotten universal acclaim, I’ve seen some varying schools of thought about the way Donald Glover chose to present the show. On the one hand, there are those out there who are invested in Paper Boi and Van, and aren’t trying to see these weirder side pieces that, while admittedly dope, take away from a more focused narrative. On the other, Glover is being applauded for sticking with his idea of Atlanta being “Twin Peaks for rappers,” and having the stones to go all the way in on an episode like “B.A.N.” I guess the first question is, do you guys think there is any truth to the idea that Glover may be alienating viewers by going left and abandoning more straightforward storytelling?

Angel: I wouldn’t say he’s alienating viewers, but I definitely find myself both entertained and frustrated. We still don’t know what happened with Earn at Princeton and Earn, as a manager, hasn’t really done shit but put his artist in awkward situations. The “plantation” episode ("Juneteenth") was their best attempt at being random while also pushing the story along. I wish the show were an hour long so Glover would have time to really articulate what he’s trying to say; thirty-minute episodes in a ten-episode season doesn’t allow for straying off the narrative.

khal: I don’t agree with the “Atlanta needs an hour” squad out there. FX has been killing it with their 30-minute comedies like Better Things, You’re the Worst, and Baskets, proving that you don’t need an hour to tell compelling stories. For me, if it works at 30, keep it at 30.

Paper Boi on 'Montague'

Frazier: There are several trigger words in Angel’s comment that bother me. “B.A.N.” wasn’t random, it was a culmination of weird, off-kilter moments like the Nutella Sandwich man, or black Bieber, suggestions that Atlanta wasn’t interested in being some straightforward narrative followed by subsequent proof. Isn’t the idea of Donald internalizing the Chappelle Show and continuing Dave’s great work something to be excited about and celebrated? When for example, did Atlanta promise you that Princeton was a mystery that was going to be solved? Donald’s taking on social media arguments through a very black lens like Caitlyn Jenner empathy or $200 dates, then emptying his clip at snooty rich blacks. I, for one, welcome him to do whatever.

khal: Yeah, I think the key to understanding Atlanta is in Donald’s repeated talk about Atlanta being "Twin Peaks for rappers." It’s hard to expect it to give you something straightforward when his reference point is one of the weirdest things to ever air on TV.

Angel: Guys, guys, guys...but weren’t Twin Peaks episodes an hour?

khal: I can respect that a number of people are thrown off by the risks the show has taken, but after watching (and loving) shows like Louie—which turned the idea of a network comedy on its ear—I lowkey feel like Donald is training the audience to accept a world of insanity, guided by our love of hip-hop. I was particularly drawn to last night’s “The Jacket.” It was certainly one of those “let’s give you more questions than we do answers" deals. Do we think that a finale like that, ending on an awkward cliff-hanger, could turn people off who might not have been feeling the way Atlanta’s core story has been developing? We’re in a situation now where we know that something happened to Earn at Princeton, and it would appear that his main residence is a storage facility. Do we think fans are invested enough to return for season two?

Angel: I think people will return for the second season, for sure. He and Paper Boi are finally starting to get some momentum and are watching their lives slowly change. Like in the end of the club episode when they’re eating at the diner and the news comes on about them taking the promoter’s money.

Frazier: Princeton is a part of Earn’s backstory, it’s always going to come up. And one day we’re going to learn what happened. But it’s not some big reveal to me, the same way I don’t really see “The Jacket” as a cliffhanger. This show is more concerned with mood and form than narrative, and that’s dope to me. On the surface, “Jacket” may not be what you wanted from the last episode of Atlanta that we’ll get for at least, like, nine months. But reflect on Earn’s last scenes with Paper Boi and later with Van before ending the episode. Isn’t that the mission statement of the series right there?

khal: But it definitely feels like the longer the show went on, the more tweets there were about wanting more from Atlanta, and not just from Paterson’s own Angel D. I still stand firm in the idea that Donald Glover’s Atlanta is necessary, for the simple fact that it’s training (or re-training) audiences how to consume stories. Instead of easily mapping out how Earn works as Paper Boi's manager, you see them start out on tepid water, then move on to Paper Boi getting opportunities he hadn’t received before, like playing a celebrity basketball game. Would he have even dreamed of doing that? Doubt it; that’s all Earn. Being on Montague? All Earn. Sure, Earn isn’t shit at collecting ends from shitty club promoters, but he also isn’t shit at holding a job. And we imagine that whatever went down in Princeton is just another prime example of what we ultimately already know: Something’s up with him. Most shows would need to spell each of these things out, but on Atlanta, Glover teases one side and the other, while still packing in heavy doses of social commentary.

Earn in the club 'Atlanta'

Frazier: It’s exciting that he’s created this scenario where you truly don’t know who or what you’re going to get each week. Truly, we’re watching an auteur hone his craft, and if this is what a season of growing pains and experiments look like, then Glover’s peers should be afraid of the future.

Angel: I love the show, and enjoyed the last two episodes a lot—they really tied some loose ends together. However, do I think it can be better? Absolutely. I feel like it’s too all over the place to be just a half hour and only 10 episodes. I want more of it. Is me wanting this controversial? Fuck brevity; give me more show because it’s that good. Do you only eat a half a cup of ice cream, or do you eat a bowl? 

It’s cool FX gave a black kid a show, and I want Glover to flourish and do what he wants. But should we just be happy about them throwing us a bone? Or should we want this to be a game-changer for people of color like Mr. Robot?

khal: I’d argue that Atlanta is MORE of a game-changer for people of color than Mr. Robot, though. Aside from Rami Malek’s huge Emmy win, is Mr. Robot really doing more for diversity than Atlanta, with it’s all-black writing room working on a show whose goal is to "show people how it feels to be black?" There are a number of normal things in black America—like the way “B.A.N.” perfectly showcased what an “all-black” cable channel looks like—that many people who might be into hip-hop or Donald Glover just wouldn’t understand. The conversations being born from these “oh shit, that’s true af!” moments in the show are way more of a game-changer than anything delivered by Mr. Robot.

And for what it’s worth, those moments are worth way more to me than the show being 13 one-hour long episodes, or Emmy wins for that matter. An Emmy for any actor or the show as a whole would be phenomenal, but the fact that Glover could go from creating this subversive, hilarious program to playing Lando Calrissian for the mainstream is worth much more to me than that statue. Who knows; maybe season two will, a la Mr. Robot, add more episodes or, a la Louie, explore some hour-long stories. With a first season that’s so fire and so contained while being so out there, I’d much leave it alone and let Glover cook. That’s been his M.O. off the rip, and he’s continued to win.

Frazier: Atlanta already is a game-changer. It already is Emmy-worthy. You know what happens when a great show hits the throttle on quantity to meet overwhelming demand? You get The O.C.—an all-time classic debut marred by latter seasons mired in fatigue. There’s a lot of great black TV going on, shout out to Issa Rae and Insecure and Kenya Barris and black-ish. Atlanta has the momentum and the opportunity to be the flagship, though. Give it room to burn bright and steady. The last thing we want to do is pressure Glover to pump the gas and flame out, okay?

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