'Atlanta': TV Review

Guy D'Alema/FX
Simple but soulful.
9/6/2016

Series creator Donald Glover stars with Brian Tyree Henry as cousins trying to pull their families out of poverty in the Georgia capital's music scene in FX's new existential comedy.

There's a vibe to the new Donald Glover-created series Atlanta that ends up being — the more you watch it — infinitely more important than the point, if you're looking for such a thing.

The premise is purposefully simple: "Two cousins work through the Atlanta music scene in order to better their lives and the lives of their families." It's almost like Glover (Community, The Martian) used a premise generator and that's what popped out. The vagueness is intentional because Atlanta is an existential comedy that works its most compelling magic by witnessing the everyday motions of life — scenes that have purpose but no apparent destination, because much of what Glover's character, Earn Marks, yearns for in Atlanta is not to be poor. It's really that simple.

It's a testament to the show's beautiful, funny and evocative unifying elements that even though we don't know what Earn was doing last week or last year, we know that he's been existing, if just barely. As we meet him, he discovers by chance (another theme) that his cousin Alfred (Boardwalk Empire's Brian Tyree Henry) is an emerging rapper named Paper Boi whose homemade mix tape is getting played in the community. A lot.

Earn wants to manage Paper Boi. But it's not like he sees an opportunity to exploit his cousin and make millions — that would be a little too TV-show-predictable, and besides, Alfred already saw that coming and he's having none of it. In the world of Atlanta, Earn just sees this connection as a plan-free opportunity that walks into his life, something that happens to him as much as he makes it happen — and he might make enough money to pay rent or go to dinner.

At the moment Earn is kind of living with Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his baby, and kind of with his parents Riley and Gloria (Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Myra Lucretia Taylor). But he's really more homeless than anything. He's damned broke. Just about everyone in Atlanta is, as Glover seeks to make an accurate depiction of what it's like to be a average young black man trying to make a go of it, surrounded by limited options (at least in this particular iteration of life that Glover's tapping into). On the other hand, Atlanta is pretty far from a statement series. It seems less like it's trying to send a message than trying simply to be real and accurate.

What makes it all work is that aforementioned vibe, that sense that permeates the show of Glover painting a very particular slice of life, in a story that exists only to tell that story honestly and at a pace that seems real, not manufactured for a TV series. Even the smallest moments here, brought to life like an indie movie through the directing aplomb and vision of Hiro Murai (who's also a producer and directed the first four episodes made available to critics), seem naturally to sidestep what you think is coming.

Best known for his distinctive music videos (for The Shins, Spoon, Massive Attack, Glover's own Childish Gambino and others), Murai and Atlanta have a keen sense of avoiding anything that looks predictable or familiar, from a simple retort to the way even seemingly small scenes unfold. For instance, there's a scene in which Earn visits his parents and his dad opens the door but won't let him; virtually every beat of what comes next goes against what you've either seen before or expect to happen.

In so many such ways, Atlanta seems like a movie that is signaling the coming out of a major, unique voice. Glover has conceptualized a world he wants to document and, like Aziz Ansari's Master of None, his show feels fresh and deceptively simple while also being assured. There's something akin to Louie in both Master of None and Atlanta, and perhaps the through-line is each series is centered around idiosyncratic comic actors given a chance to take a larger creative leap for the first time on their own. Beyond that, the similarities end, as the shows take place essentially in three very different worlds.

Atlanta is less about something than it is about days in the life of a group of people that may add up to something going forward but are immediately identifiable as real (and funny, and sometimes sad, plus shot through with an ingenious sense of philosophy). That latter part comes from the character of Darius (Lakeith Stanfield, Straight Outta Compton, Dope), who when we first meet him seems like the stereotypical oddball, the Kramer amongst less quirky individuals. But as with the rest of the Atlanta cast, by the second episode they are all vastly more formed, fleshed out into more surprising beings. Darius becoming something of a Philosopher King while still being hilarious for his not-quite-all-there view of the world is maybe the most enjoyable development.

Once you get through a handful of episodes it's evident that Glover has chosen wisely all around — Henry, Stanfield and Beetz are casting coups (and though the first two have more varied work to their credit, you get the distinct sense they all will definitely break out). And Murai's showing here can't be undersold — there's a real visual stamp on Atlanta, ethereal moments of characters doing nothing more than existing where you can feel the heat of the day, the boredom of time spent indoors, the danger of what might happen at night.

But it's Glover who really arrives — a magnetic and sympathetic character who can be funny (that's what we expect), introspectively dramatic (there's this Zen well that Murai seems to capture every time Glover is in motion and observing without talking), but above all real. Half of the appeal of Atlanta comes from looking at Glover and wondering what he's slowly revealing with this Earn character, with his day-in-the-life, minor and unexpected revelations about people.

And maybe that cuts back to that vibe, that feel, which is at the heart of Atlanta. The show probably isn't broad enough or broadly funny enough to connect to a massive audience, but neither does it seem to pull up and park in that all-too-familiar (and boring) cul-de-sac of half-hour comedies that want to navel-gaze about marriage or family or late-forties malaise or copious other First World (and overwhelmingly white) problems.

Instead, the series is wholly original in that it's an existential young black comedy about surviving the day — without explicitly trying to be representative of any of those things. Its simplicity and execution are shockingly self-assured as it avoids being pigeonholed. And in that, Atlanta immediately becomes one of the most fascinating shows on television.

Premiere date: Tuesday, Sept. 6, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)

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