Comedian-actor-rapper wunderkind Donald Glover, known for his work on 30 Rock, Community, and as Childish Gambino, is the creator for the semi-autobiographical comedy series Atlanta. The show stars Glover as Earn, an aimless Princeton dropout with a young daughter, who makes ends meet by managing the career of his cousin, the up-and-coming trap rapper Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). At the same time, Earn maintains a close but open relationship with Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), the oft-exasperated and hard-working mother of his daughter. Finally, Alfred’s right hand man, the quirky, sweet, and disarmingly wise Darius (Keith Stanfield) rounds out the cast. Hiro Murai directs most of the ten half-hour episodes of the season (of which eight have aired at the time of writing).
Although Atlanta is technically a sitcom, the tone of the show is a little bit despondent due to the fundamentally unhappy main characters who struggle constantly with their social limitations—namely poverty, racism, and sexism. Notably, the disaffected Alfred repeatedly comes up against other people’s perceptions of him due to his frame (big and black) and fame (as a rapper associated with gun violence) and seems to secretly wish that the public would be open to seeing him as someone more nuanced. When he does lean on his stereotypical qualities to intimidate people, however, it does not take away from his yearning to be more than his public persona. For Vanessa, she is eventually confronted with her own non-ideal situation as a not-quite single mom who works hard to provide for her daughter, live a fulfilling life, and push Earn towards maturity. Lastly, Earn, who is slight and unthreatening, deals with his perceived lack of ambition and assertiveness in the music industry. He is also frustrated by everyday problems, allowing the show to make wry observations about all sorts of things wrong in society, from miniscule (a rigid fast-food restaurant manager who won’t let adults order from the kids’ menu) to major (stereotyping the self and others and that most irritating bugbear: white privilege).
These particular struggles of young, smart, attractive African Americans living in Atlanta are explored richly and cleverly within the occasionally surreal parameters of the show. Plus, Atlanta brings viewers perhaps one of the greatest subversions of all time—black Justin Bieber—while dabbling delightfully in less expected cultural references that span from English lit to anime. With it’s biting satire, idiosyncratic tone, and talented cast, Atlanta proves to be must-see TV.
Rating: 5 out of 5 invisible cars