12:03pm PT by Kate Stanhope
Donald Glover Talks 'Community' Departure and Dark FX Comedy: "I Always Want People to Be Scared"
Talk of diversity both in front of the camera and behind it is seemingly at an all-time high in the entertainment industry in a year that brought #OscarsSoWhite as well as the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has been in the headlines for months, if not years.
Donald Glover is looking to add to that conversation with the September debut of his FX comedy Atlanta, which he created, stars in and executive produces.
"The thesis with the show was kind of to show people how it felt to be black," he told reporters Tuesday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. "What was important to me was that this show was personal and had a specific take, because that's all you can really ask for from a show nowadays, is having a specific point of view on something."
Atlanta centers on two cousins trying to make names for themselves in the Atlanta rap scene. Glover plays Earnest "Earn" Marks, a loner who returns to his hometown to try to make ends meet before being drawn into the rap scene by his cousin, Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), who suddenly becomes the city’s hottest thing and skyrockets to fame.
Although it is technically a comedy, Atlanta has a dark tone that Glover and his fellow executive producers say was necessary for the type of story they wanted to tell. "You can't really write that down," he said in reference to the show's thesis. "You kind of have to feel it, so the tonal aspect was really important to me."
Executive producer Hiro Murai elaborated on the "gray areas" that the show focuses on, sometimes making it hard for the viewer to discern when to laugh and when not to. "We're trying to a create a tone in a world where things can happen, where you are allowed to laugh at the hard jokes … but you can also feel real stakes," he said. "People can get shot and die and you actually care about these characters."
Glover elaborated on that when discussing the show's decision to tackle serious subjects: "I always want people to be scared, because that’s kind of how it feels to be black."
He acknowledged how the portrayal of that experience has changed in Hollywood in recent years — something which he attributed at least partly to social media.
"I feel like we've seen the kind of Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder, 'black people do this, white people do this' [project] and I'm, like, why was that interesting in the first place?" Glover recalls of the inspiration for the series. "It's very easy for white people to know because there's Vine. … [The] Nay Nay [dance] came out and then your grandma's doing it two days later."
The project is, suffice it to say, a departure for Glover in many ways. For one, he doesn't play the rapper on the show, despite his successful rap career in real life under the name Childish Gambino.
"Because that would be weird, that would be so weird. I wouldn’t have enjoyed that. It's possible to do that but then … that makes it harder for me to do music. It just clouds a lot of things," said Glover. "There's a level of magic realism and suspended disbelief that you need for all genres, and it's important for me as an artist to keep those all in tact."
The role also is wildly different from his breakthrough series Community, on which he starred for five seasons. Glover opened up about why he opted not to return to reprise his role for the show's sixth and final season.
"I just like endings. I think every thing should have death clauses. … Thank God, one day Trump is gonna die. That is guaranteed. That is awesome," he said, eliciting laughs from the rest of the panel. "It's important that things end and … I'm glad things end because it forces things to progress. I get really frustrated in the world because I see a lot of things that could be better but aren’t better because things haven’t died yet."
He continued: "I had so much fun on Community. It's not like I wanted to run away from that."
Looking ahead, Glover anticipated a slightly more divisive reaction to Atlanta than the warm reception Community received from critics and die-hard viewers alike. "Some people will be, like, 'That’s cool.' Some people will be, like, 'I hate this thing. I don’t get him,'" he said of the anticipated reaction to the new show. "That happens a lot. I think people are always, like, 'I don’t get this. I don’t understand him,' and that’s, I think, good. That’s really good, actually."
Atlanta is set to premiere Tuesday, Sept. 6, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.