Disclaimer: The following contains spoilers for the first season of Atlanta. Proceed with caution.
The old adage goes that truth is stranger than fiction, and all one has to do to prove that point is look up pictures from any given Burning Man festival. Chances are that you, good reader, have that one friend who seems to be a shit magnet and attracts trouble wherever they go. My own father grew up poor and worked as a travelling musician and has seen his share of dive bars, close calls, oddball encounters, and human misery throughout his life. What is great about these people is that these experiences season them, and they are always willing to share them with you.
Writer, musician, and actor Donald Glover is that person in your life. Anyone familiar with his stand-up sets like Weirdo and the more out-there tracks produced by his Childish Gambino persona knows this well. His new television series, Atlanta, is a love letter to the strange and scary side of life. Glover himself commented that the events in Atlanta were based on things he and the staff experienced in their own lives. The end result is a show that is both highly surreal but also deeply human because of those aspects.
Atlanta follows Earnest “Earn” Marks, a Princeton drop-out struggling to support his on-again off-again girlfriend Vanessa and their daughter Lotti. While at his job at the airport trying to sign people up for credit cards, he learns that his cousin Alfred has become an internet sensation and independent rapper named Paper Boi, and teams up with him in a bid to improve both of their lives. On its own, the premise is a rags-to-riches story we know, love, and can relate to. However, it’s what orbits that premise that makes it so distinct.
The series utilizes certain key tropes popularized by what’s known as the screwball comedy genre. Screwball Comedies were a popular type of farcical cinema during the Great Depression, designed to invert the principles and values of regular cinema and comedies. The standard screwball comedy would show upper-class people as snobby and inept and romance as rife with troubles, all with a script full of sharp dialogue and humour that sometimes ventured into out-there territory.
We can see aspects of this genre as early as the first episode. Much of the humour is dark and even a little heady, and makes it clear that this series is not exactly a laugh-a-minute comedy. Earn and Vanessa have a strained relationship, with Earn sleeping at Vanessa’s place despite her planning a date for the night. A mysterious and sinister stranger on a bus who is aware of Earn’s circumstances comforts our hero shortly before violently demanding Earn take a bite of a Nutella sandwich he prepared while talking to him. The show is even willing to tap at its own fourth wall as Lakeith Stanfield’s character Darius comments on a moment of Deja Vu in the cold open which repeats (if partially) at the end of the first episode. The criticisms of classism prominent in traditional screwball exist here, too, with a dose of racism mixed in for good measure. This is especially shown with the white DJ who Earn uses to promote Paper Boi’s career, one who’s all-too keen to casually drop pejoratives in front of Earn despite not using them in front of any of his black co-workers.
Opening episodes are meant as primers for telling viewers what they can expect later in the series. They lay out the themes and style of the series, the basic structure of each episode, who our protagonists are and what kind of characters we can expect later. Atlanta sets this up expertly. The themes of classism and racism are revisited with Earn’s harrowing experiences in police custody in the next episode, and in Episode Nine when he and Vanessa attend a Juneteenth party hosted by a rich couple that fetishizes the plight of black people. Vanessa and Earnest’s tumultuous relationship is explored further, showing the both of them struggling to work things out and fall in love again. Earnest and his friends go on a series of exploits that are as entertaining as they are deeply unnerving.
What’s more, that strangeness is revisited time and again as well, from satirical commercials to choices of targets at a shooting range, but whatever experiences the characters have are not outside the realm of possibility. Even the invisible car from Episode Eight seems like something that could be made, given the push to develop invisibility tech. This is all to say nothing of the mannerisms and observations of the Human LSD Trip that is Paper Boi’s friend Darius, who is basically the spirit of the series made manifest. Darius is regularly cracked out and seems to operate on moon logic, but does have one foot on the ground at all times.
Other series will skirt around the edges of difficult subject matter and oddball situations, but won’t take the plunge for fear it will turn into an extended PSA or the later seasons of Family Matters where Urkel builds a machine that turns people into Bruce Lee. Atlanta’s willingness to get raw and enter bizarre territory without overdoing it makes the show more uniquely human and adds something to the struggles and perspectives of our protagonists. By embracing this, Atlanta becomes more than a show worth binge-watching and blossoms into this poignant and beautiful serial about the odds stacked against black youth, the struggles of becoming an entertainer, and what it really means to need another human being.
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