Drama, dark comedy, weird fantasy, romantic character examination, or social commentary? Why pick when you can do them all?
“When [Earn] wants to do something, he does it…on is own terms.”
-Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles
Honestly, we should have done this weeks ago.
Atlanta has been the show of the moment ever since it debuted back at the start of September. We certainly meant to cover Donald Glover’s new show, but we’ve kind of been waiting for the right moment. We waited for the show to take a creative downturn and stall. We waited for the type of bad episode that often trips up freshman shows. And, now, we’re still waiting, because Atlanta just kept getting better. The show’s stellar first season wrapped up this week, and we’re still somewhat grasping at straws because, for all its greatness, Atlanta is such a weird show, man.
On the surface, Atlanta is about Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover, Community) and his attempts to manage his cousin’s burgeoning rap career, but it’s so much more than that. Glover has at times described it as “a show where nothing happens,” and “Twin Peaks with rappers.” Both are true. It’s also a dark comedy, an excellent drama, a wild fantasy, and a character driven show about relationships.
It’s hard to explain, so we decided to stop trying. Instead, we’re sharing 10 moments from the first season that show the one thing we consistently agree on: Atlanta is fabulous, and it can be anything.
DÉJÀ VU (Episode 1, “The Big Bang”)
My immediate impression of Atlanta, as far as its style and structure are concerned, was that it’s a series made up entirely of deleted scenes. It’s not driven by plot so much as by incident and random encounters, small moments that reveal character. And while it takes a few episodes to get truly comfortable and let its strangeness show, the premiere does a marvelous job setting up the idiosyncrasies of this world Glover, director Hiro Murai, and cinematographer (those greens!) Christian Sprenger have created. Its four main characters, Earn, Alfred, Darius, and Van, are flawed but immediately likable, even as the three men end up in the middle of the kind of street violence that could define the rest of their lives. But it’s Darius’s “déjà vu” moment in the prologue that alerts us that all will not be as it seems; the punchline to this joke-that’s-not-a-joke about a dog and a man eating a Nutella sandwich comes with the literal replaying of the scene at the end. —David
HOT WINGS (Episode 2, “Streets on Lock”)
The bulk of the second episode centers on Earn’s experience in holding at the police station; on a dime, it turns from wry comedy to a sobering commentary on police brutality, but I’ll discuss that later in this piece. In what seems at first like a throwaway moment, “Streets on Lock” also features the show’s first glimpse of outright fantasy: the magical chicken wings, glowing like the contents of the Pulp Fiction suitcase. Before his oddball turn on Community, Glover wrote for the 10-jokes-a-page 30 Rock, and as the season continues, with invisible cars, spinning walls, and bizarre commercials for psychics, Atlanta becomes just as much fun to watch for its characters as to see what Glover will try to get away with next. And many of these moments are sold by the deadpan of Brian Tyree Henry, who I didn’t remember until a week ago originated the role of “General Butt-F—ing Naked” on Broadway’s The Book of Mormon. Lakeith Stanfield travelled just as far, memorably debuting in 2013’s sensational Short Term 12 as troubled rapper Marcus. Both are emblematic of how stacked and talented Atlanta‘s cast really is. —David
THE HUSTLE (Episode 3, “Go for Broke”)
Atlanta’s greatest moments as a dark comedy came in this episode. While Earn is busy taking Van on a date that he definitely can’t afford, Alfred and Darius do a drug deal. Alfred is still dealing with the split in his public and private personalities. Alfred seems like an easy-going guy with the skills to rap, but it’s the rumors about Paper Boi’s involvement in a shooting that’s actually helping his cred. Does he actually even have what it takes to hustle? He and Darius set out to meet with some drug dealing “amigos” who actually turn out to be the real-life Atlanta rap group Migos in a bizarre cameo, but that doesn’t mean the pressure’s off. The group shoot down a dealer who’s burned them, and Darius begins to wonder if they’ll cut his hand off if he can’t find the handcuff key to the briefcase he’s attached to his wrist. It’s both hilarious and chillingly disturbing. The hustle’s no joke. —Chase
THE DOG BREEDER (Episode 4, “The Streisand Effect”)
I really just love Darius. That’s almost all I want to write about. Stanfield turns every line into a laugh line almost by accident (“Tonight’s gonna be weeeeird…” in the season finale almost broke me), and he moves to center stage in the fourth episode. Earn needs cash — more urgently than usual, anyway. Darius presents an opportunity that takes the pair of them on a After Hours-style walkabout that includes a pawn shop (where the owner keeps a Steve McQueen poster for protection, sort of) and a dog breeder, where Earn finally puts together that $2000 months from now won’t do him any good if he’s homeless at week’s end. “Poor people don’t have time to make investments,” he says. “Poor people are too busy trying not to be poor.” Meanwhile, Alfred spends the episode with a self-promoting pizza delivery guy and his foul-mouthed, Vine-starring, child “business partner.” That these plots somehow mesh together in a statement about how, in the end, we’re all just trying to get by, is nothing short of miraculous. —David
BLACK BIEBER (Episode 5, “Nobody Beats the Biebs”)
This is the moment when Atlanta turned it up a notch and fully embraced its weirdness. Paper Boi is invited to play in a celebrity charity basketball game that also includes Justin Bieber. I have no idea whether the show even reached out to the Canadian musician for an appearance, but I would doubt it. Instead, the role of Bieber is played by African American actor Austin Crute, and the result is wonderfully strange. In an episode all about perception, Earn is mistaken for a backstabbing former coworker by another talent manager, and Darius nearly incites a riot among when he openly shoots at dog-shaped targets at a gun range. But the focus of the episode is squarely on Black Bieber, as people easily excuse his mop bucket urinating and other jackassery as rich white boy behavior, glossed over with a trite excuse and a little pop dancing. It doesn’t matter that Earn really isn’t the backstabbing Alonzo, that the dogs are really mean and aggressive in Darius’s neighborhood, or that Bieber’s behavior might not be so easily ignored if he were a young black man. Perception is a bitch, and Black Bieber is an all-timer. —Chase
THE DINNER (Episode 6, “Value”)
It’s a long-awaited spotlight on Van (the wonderful — and wonderfully-named — Zazie Beets), and Glover gets an assist on the script from Stefani Robinson to bring it to pitch-perfect life. It begins at a dinner with an old friend, and one who can’t help but radiate in this fancy place how much more successful her life has been than Van’s. It’s an almost ten-minute stretch of only dialog, close-up to close-up (much of it shot slightly off-center like Mr. Robot), complete with an awkward pause that Jayde can’t help but fill with an Instagram of the meal only she will end up eating. Van smolders with barely-concealed fury, but the moment she lets her guard down, sharing a joint with Jayde, will be her undoing. One panicked realization, stomach-churning diaper montage, popped condom of baby urine, and misguided confession later, Van is just as jobless as Earn was a few weeks ago, and she can only blame herself. With Earn himself only appearing in a few shots, it’s as close to a self-contained short film as Atlanta got this season. It’s also perhaps its best episode. —David
COCONUT CRUNCHOS (Episode7, “B.A.N.”)
Atlanta at its weirdest is also one of my favorite half-hours all year, a formally daring “bottle episode” that keeps the action to the confines of a public access talk show: Montague, on the fictional Black America Network. Even better, Paper Boi is the only featured character on screen, often pleading for help to Earn (just out of frame), though it is unclear what guidance he ever receives. There’s an entire thinkpiece to be written about the talk show’s discussion of gender and race politics. But the most fun aspects of the episode are the fake commercials, skewering culture in all directions, culminating in a truly bizarre animated spot for “Coconut Crunchos” cereal. One could say Atlanta’s relationship with the police is complicated at best (though Alfred and the boys aren’t entirely blameless, either). But once the ad takes its dark turn, and gets even darker, you realize that subtlety isn’t required to address the basic truth at the heart of so many 2016 debates. Whew. —David
THUG LIFE (Episode 8, “The Club”)
Coming off the structural experimentations of the previous two episodes, it’s easy to discount “The Club” as just a “normal” episode of the series, but it’s also probably the funniest. Paper Boi is scheduled to make a paid appearance at a club, but is miffed at having to share the spotlight with celebrity Marcus Miles. Alfred’s quote that he should have just “stayed home and finished watching Amadeus” is a smart shout-out to his Salieri-like feelings about the Mozart-like Miles. “The Club” include two great sight gags with an invisible car and a club promoter slipping away behind a rotating wall, but it’s Alfred’s actions at the end of the episode that take the episode to fantastic dramatic heights. When the club promoter refuses to pay for his appearance, Alfred storms the office and fully engages the Paper Boi mythos. He breaks through doors, roughs up the promoter, and forcibly takes the money. Again, we find it’s the thuggish Paper Boi who seizes the spotlight with even the promoter acknowledging “damn, that boy’s going to be a star!” before calling the police. —Chase
CRAIG (Episode 9, “Juneteenth”)
Atlanta has never shied away from race, and never more so than when Earn finds himself dealing with a white, upper-class, black culture aficionado named Craig at a Juneteenth party. Earn and Van are attending the party in hopes of finding Van a new job through her friend, Monique, or her upper crust contacts, but Earn finds himself weirded out by the entire situation. Worst of all is Monique’s husband, Craig, an avowed lover of African-American studies and black culture who corners Earn to talk about his oil painting interpretation of a Malcolm X quote and his trips to Africa before inviting Earn to his slam poetry performance later that night. It’s played for weirdness as much as laughs, and Craig is a genuine guy, but he seemingly doesn’t see the conflict in his exultations of black empowerment while also hiring an exclusively black staff to serve at his Juneteenth party. It’s a statement on class as much as race, and also a light “get back” slap to some of the show’s enthusiastic white viewers (like myself). It’s one thing to love black culture, and wholly another to understand black lives. —Chase
THE STORAGE UNIT (Episode 10, “The Jacket”)
Glover and his writing team have always understood that people can be broke without being victims of poverty. That’s one of the ideas at the heart of the Season One finale, “The Jacket.” Van has spent the entire season bugging Earn to help with rent, groceries, and the like while she raises their daughter. “The Jacket” finds Earn looking for the titular article lost while partying, and hoping to get back an unnamed “something” in one of the pockets. When he sees his Uber driver from the previous night gunned down by police (again, this show has a lot so say about the police) while wearing his jacket, Earn assumes that his lost object is gone for good. Luckily, one of Van’s neighbor’s reunited him with his lost object later that night: a key. Alfred also pays Earn for all of his “managing” duties with a fat roll of $100 bills, which he then gives to Van before departing, and the two share a tender goodbye. It all hits home when Earn uses his newly-found key to open the door to his place: a storage locker. It seems he’s been living there all season without us knowing and providing for Van and their daughter when he can. It’s both sad and touching, and a testament to Van and Earn’s loving, if complicated, relationship. –Chase
Season Grade: A weird, wonderful ‘A’