[Surprise: I’m doing TV reviews! These will take the form of spoiler-free elevator pitches, where I basically just recommend and give an overview of some of my favorite shows. Hope you enjoy. And don’t worry, movies aren’t going anywhere.]
An IMDb page or Hulu description of Atlanta will promise something far different than what you’re really getting. Heck, I could do the same by sitting here and telling you that this show is just about a guy trying to make a living by managing his cousin Al, an up-and-coming rapper. This is the pitch that would surely entice more of you to watch the show; it promises your familiar and accessible 20-minute sitcom that can elicit laughter when it’s not being used as satisfying background noise. But doing this would only discredit Donald Glover’s vision for the show that makes it so compelling.
Because, after all, there is nothing on TV quite like Atlanta.
There are many pillars crucial to the foundation of what makes this show click, but perhaps first and foremost is the show’s characters. This might seem rather obvious; after all, any series worth its salt is going to have great characters. But something about Atlanta’s characters feels special. There are only four recurring characters on the show, and they can often be separated from one another within the confines of their own episodes (everybody gets their own “feature” in the spotlight at one point or another). It’s truly a testament to just how strong these characters are that the writers have the confidence for each of them to carry their own weight. Sure, they all have their own distinct personalities, but they also are all empathetic in their own way, mostly due to Atlanta’s willingness to never shy away from their vulnerabilities. They all are uncertain. They all are confused. They all consistently make decisions that are both at the detriment to themselves as well as others. In case you couldn’t tell, they’re not here just to be charismatic and deliver one-liners; they’re here to be human, ultimately allowing ourselves to transport into a perspective (presumably) far different from the one we have, yet we relate all the same. I still root for them and hold out hope regardless of how many times they willingly dig themselves into a hole, and when they clash with one another, I often don’t know who is in the right. If that isn’t a hallmark of good writing, I don’t know what is.
But the writing is only half of the equation here. None of these characters work without their respective performances, and, man, is the acting next-level here. Lakeith Stanfield supplies the most steady stream of laughs as a conspiracy-peddling friend of Al, but he even manages to bring a level of complexity to the character that would otherwise be a one-dimensional butt-end of a joke (which, to be fair, he often is). Donald Glover and Zazie Beetz do a great job selling the struggle of an on-and-off couple trying to raise a young daughter while also earning enough money to put food on the table, but I want to highlight the real MVP of the show: Brian Tyree Henry. Playing a rapper who craves fame just as much as he dreads it, Henry displays a caliber of acting with his facial expressions alone that is nothing short of incredible, and he often is tasked with the widest range between comedy and drama on the show yet he nails it every time. Somebody please make him a superstar.
The realism of these characters is mirrored in the world they inhabit, as Atlanta doesn’t adhere to a formal plot that develops by episode. A character could be confronted by a sudden act of senseless violence but never refer to it again over the course of the show; life simply moves on. The decision to stray away from plot is a deliberate one that, while potentially frustrating, is what allows the show to break boundaries and do whatever the heck it wants. Atlanta is just as surreal as it is grounded, as bizarre instances are treated as mundane and one episode can be very comedic while the following can be a full-blown horror story. This could feel very cheap and jarring. Fortunately, by keeping the characters’ arcs in the forefront as well as the show’s commentary on subjects ranging from race to the entertainment industry, there is a level of thematic cohesion that binds everything together. Atlanta’s second season, titled Atlanta: Robbin’ Season, really encapsulates this by feeling like an eleven-episode movie when all is said and done, even though consecutive episodes could be totally disparate. It’s almost magical that it all works.
I know I’m running a bit long here, so I’ll make it quick: Atlanta is final proof (as if we needed it) that Donald Glover can do whatever the heck he wants. He has managed to craft one of the most creative shows on TV, and each episode is worthy of discussion in some form or another. There is an overwhelming assurance that you can expect a high level of quality each episode in regards to everything I mentioned, as well as the unique cinematography or the great soundtrack (there is simply just too much to talk about). However, when I start an episode I don’t know if it will have me rolling in laughter or if it will leave my palms sweating; all I know is that its DNA will be 3005% Atlanta, and that sure is a good thing.
Standout episodes: The Club, B.A.N., Teddy Perkins, Value, Woods, North of the Border, FUBU
Status: Airing on FX (Two seasons complete, Season 3 air date TBA)
Streaming on: Hulu (Seasons 1 and 2)