Wow! A pilot that isn't awkward!
by Nathan Crawford
Staff Pilot Patron
Pilots are weird. Plenty of quality shows have sweaty, awkward pilots. What becomes more important than the episode itself is what is promised for the future. Using that as a standard, Donald Glover’s new show Atlanta put up a formidable performance with its premier.
Atlanta follows an aspiring rapper and the people surrounding him. The show is not autobiographical, but still close to home for Glover (the rapper Childish Gambino) who grew up near Atlanta. The show premiered with a block of two related episodes. In the first, the main character, Earn Marks (Donald Glover), discovers his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) has a budding rap career as Paper Boi. Earn vies for manager while Alfred remains skeptical. At home, Earn has an ambiguous relationship with a woman named Vanessa. They have a child together and sleep in the same bed, but she has started dating other people. This further stresses Earn, who is already having financial troubles.
The show is billed as a comedy. While this does not feel entirely accurate, the show certainly contains funny elements. Alfred’s friend Darius (Keith Stanfield) gets a laugh almost every time he talks. He is a major standout and the funniest part of the show so far. There are also consistent laughs from background characters, painting a vivid and comedic world. Earnest is funny, however only in pockets. This could disappoint those drawn to the show because of Glover’s standup or time on Community. He is funniest with Van and his daughter. With them, Earn has license to be more vulnerable and silly than out in the world. Hopefully in future episodes Earn’s home life will be explored more, as it is shown as a funny and genuine element in the show.
Glover has said that he wants Atlanta to show what it is like to be black in Atlanta, and more broadly America. This partially explains why Earn is sillier at home, as being a young black man in Atlanta, he is forced to put up an unflappable front so no one tries to mess with him. I am not the best suited writer to talk about the racial elements of this show, but I would be remiss in ignoring that this show does look at the interplay between ideas of blackness and masculinity, family, and music while also critiquing current law enforcement (not for police brutality, but the overuse of police as a cure for all social ills).
I don’t think this show is entirely a comedy because it also highlights elements of drama and politics; though it does have a lot of comic relief. The fact that the writers of this show can balance the interplay of the three elements is great, thoughtful, and skillful.
These two episodes really show Atlanta’s potential. I cannot wait to see Earn develop as a father and manager. Beyond that, I was left yearning for more with Vanessa, something which adds promise will be coming.
Currently, the most interesting part of the show pertains to Alfred and his relationship with violence. Paper Boi makes his name partially because he shoots someone and his music career cannot be separated from that fact. Out of this rise enough complications to fill their own article (and hopefully the FX series). One is that he now lives in fear, as he sees people following him and he does not know if they are fans or killers. Secondly, he is not comfortable becoming a role model, as he is unable to explain to children why they shouldn’t shoot people.
The most interesting scene in the entire show happens when a waiter tells Alfred how glad he is to have another rapper that is willing to kill someone, a throwback to “real rappers,” of whom Paper Boi is purportedly one of the last. While the waiter says this, Alfred seems both proud and uncomfortable. The kicker comes when the man tells Alfred not to let him down, adding that he didn’t know what he would do if Alfred let him down. Alfred cannot escape the violence. People are as excited by his violent brand as his song. He is left in an unfortunate goat rodeo that should make upcoming episodes must-see television.
After the first two episodes, I would encourage anyone to watch Atlanta. The groundwork is laid for this to be one of the best shows on television. That said, I don’t see myself going back and rewatching these first two episodes for fun anytime soon.