Atlanta: Donald Glover’s show is the smartest and funniest on TV

With a black Justin Bieber and a memorable satire on Rachel Dolezal, the show is another instance of young black writers flexing formidable creative muscles

This weeks episode of Donald Glovers auteur dramedy, Atlanta, saw his character Earn spend most of the shows 25 minutes trying to catch a Nigerian club manager who kept using elaborate escape routes (including a rotating wall) to avoid paying an appearance fee to Paper Boi, Earns rapper client.

As well as the farcical cat-and-mouse chase, the episode also included a postmodern deconstruction of the club, with its arbitrary rules, VIP area etiquette and wristband color-coding system. Like most of Atlantas first season (its been renewed for a second), within a few minutes of sitting down to watch you become aware youre entering a world that looks unlike anything else on TV.

Atlanta is what television looks like when writers and creative teams are allowed to take risks. Kenya Barris has consistently managed to push things right up to the line on Black-ish, while making a fundamentally relatable sitcom for a broad base of American viewers. What Glover and Atlanta offer is different. Before the series aired Glover said he wasnt thinking about getting renewed: if he only had 10 episodes then so be it, this was going to be his uncompromising look at life. Thats what hes delivered after years of development. Theres no real narrative structure in Atlanta. Theres the weapons charge hanging over Paper Boi the rapper played by Brian Tyree Henry, whom Earn manages.

Before the club episode came BAN, a standalone episode which lampooned BET, self-satisfied academics and the notion of transracialism. The week before that Vanessa, Earns on and off again girlfriend, had a whole episode dedicated to her where she went out for dinner with a friend, had her lifestyle and aspirations questioned, smoked weed then tried to beat a drug test the following day by strapping a condom filled with babys pee to her leg.


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BAN: Alano Miller as Franklin Montague, Mary Kraft as Deborah Holt, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles. Photograph: FX Networks/Courtesy Everet/RE

Race and its implications are omnipresent in the show before Glover brings certain aspects to the forefront. There was the N-word debacle in the first episode, in which Earns white friend casually dropped the N-bomb in his presence then wouldnt dare do it in front of other black people. The BEN episode included a scathing critique of the Rachel Dolezal case in which a black teenager claimed to identify as a middle-aged white man called Harrison then was unveiled as an anti-gay marriage transphobe.

Perhaps the smartest example of Atlanta taking on race was the episode where Justin Bieber is depicted as a black teenager. He turns up at a charity basketball game, knocks over refreshments, gets into a fight and says hes found religion while being embraced by fans and the media. When Paper Boi asks why this is accepted hes told to play his part that of the heel to Biebers babyface. Yes, its farcical but underneath the comedy theres a harsh truth: a black entertainer who acted like Bieber would not have a career, and rappers are pigeonholed regardless of who they are. Its subtle but pointed, knowing without being too self-satisfied, and uncomfortable viewing for some.

Moral judgments are few and far between. When Vanessa confesses to smoking weed after the baby pee plan blows up in her face, she gets fired but not before her boss confesses that most of the faculty smokes weed. The shooting in the first episode is background noise rather than the story arc that drives the action. As with Seinfeld theres no hugging and no learning, and no need to present the mistakes of young black people as fatal errors rather than simple rites of passage.

This approach has been rewarded: the show became the highest-rated premiere of any basic-cable primetime scripted debut in more than three years among the coveted 18-45 age bracket. For a show this experimental to pull in those kind of numbers, its clear theres a desire to see work like this.

When you look at the directorial efforts of Ryan Coogler or Issa Rae or the music of Dev Hynes, Solange, Young Thug and <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Frank Ocean theres a thread that runs throughout: young people of color in the US creating work for and by them. Atlanta follows that tradition as another piece of pop culture that isnt concerned with appealing to the mainstream. Its happy to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

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