Revisiting the Beauty That is ‘Atlanta’
Donald Glover’s series is smart and trusts that the audience can meet that intelligence.
I recently bought the entire first season of Atlanta as a digital download. My inability to rewatch the hit show was progressively digging away at my subconscious since FX removed the episodes from its website. Fast forward a few months and I was starting to give up hope that it would go to Hulu or Netflix any time soon. (While writing this I found out it will be on Hulu in 2018.) In a moment of impulsiveness and desire for instant gratification I opened my laptop and bought the first season. Only a few minutes later I had successfully cut off all communication with the outside world and prepared to dive into the show.
The first episode is… incredible. I remembered it being funny, charming, and relatable but I didn’t remember it being this good. After the series premiere I watched the first two episodes about three times in the first week and as the season progressed I watched it a few more times. So, with that much familiarity with the show, I was surprised for it to feel so damn refreshing.
I knew when the jokes were coming, but I still laughed.
I knew the plotlines, but I still felt the emotions.
I knew everything was going to be okay, but I still cared.
Not many pieces of work can do this, especially not TV shows. Many can hit one or two of those but very rarely can they elicit all three of those reactions on a second viewing. When I finished the second episode I had to stop and let it all sink it. It was a lot.
It’s heavy in the way that it tackles topics of poverty, sexuality, gender, race, and every facet of life. I don’t know if I could just turn this show on as background noise, it compels me to pay attention.
At the same time, it’s light in the way that it breaks tension with jokes. Sometimes even those moments of tension are hilarious in and of themselves. Even as I’m laughing I buy into how serious the situation is to these characters.
Atlanta is interesting in how it blends reality, ridiculousness, and fantasy. One of the best examples of this is the eighth episode, simply titled The Club, in which Alfred, Earn, and Darius are at a club for a paid appearance by Paper Boi. The night quickly plummets into madness as Earn looks for the club manager to get the payment, Alfred grows insecure about not getting enough attention, and Darius just tries to enjoy his time.
I broke down how the themes work in this episode:
Reality: The club sucks. None of the characters who actually get speaking roles are having any fun. They’re only in the club because they either doing their job or felt a social obligation to be there. Even Darius, who doesn’t have the right wristband to be in the VIP section, ends up going home just because of how terrible everything is.
Ridiculous: Earn has to chase the club manager around the entire club and when he loses him behind a rotating wall he finally stops and looks around at how ridiculous everything is. Darius was in the VIP section before leaving and upon his return he found out he didn’t have the right wristbands to get in. He even had a red wristband that neither he nor the bouncer could identify the purpose of.
Fantasy: There’s two sides to the fantasy in this show. One side of the fantasy exists to create a reasoning for the ridiculousness of reality, as it does with the rotating wall. When people owe you money they always seem to have an easy way to disappear, Atlanta explains that with the rotating wall. The other side of the fantasy is just pure hilarity and weirdness, which comes in the form of the invisible car. The show takes things that we would normally disregard and turns them into a ridiculous reality. The fantasy of this show simultaneously draws from and builds upon the other aspects.
It’s these three themesthat make Atlanta still feel refreshing after the initial viewing. They’re what charmed us in the beginning and had us craving the next episode. Even when the show is real, sometimes disturbingly so, it makes us laugh. Not from characters making jokes or mocking each other as many sitcoms do, but rather by creating so much tension we don’t know what else to do.
It’s a comedy, but at times the show is awkward, nerve wracking, and frustrating. What makes it so special is that these moments are usually some of the funniest the show has to offer. In the season’s penultimate episode, Juneteenth, Earn spends the night dodging microaggressions while trying to appease Vanessa.
Once again it plays with the themes of reality and ridiculousness, but uses fantasy in a new way. The fantasy comes from Vanessa imagining what her life will be like in the future and from Earn and Vanessa pretending to be a happy married couple. That’s constantly contrasted by the bleak and uncomfortable reality of their actual relationship. All of this is surrounded by the ridiculousness of this white man throwing a Juneteenth party.
None of these concepts are really that funny in their own right, and if we were in this situation we would be just as uncomfortable as Earn and Vanessa are. It’s reminds me of going through an extremely embarrassing or uncomfortable moment then telling that story to a friend. Because you have a detached point of view you can recognize how ridiculous the entire situation was. There’s no other way to react to things like that than to laugh.
Atlanta earns our laughs and makes it seem effortless. The humor is weaved into the plot and does so by not making too many overt jokes. The writing beautifully combines real life conflicts with cultural satire often times without making a distinction between the two. There are references to pop culture and funny things said by the characters, but that’s hardly the heart of the show.
The show is so uncomfortable that we don’t know what else to do but laugh. It’s a brilliant balance of discomfort and humor, which causes the audience to never feel too uncomfortable to continue watching. The characters take the brunt of the tension and react to it so that we don’t have to.
It’s a special show. One that has clearly resonated with its audience cementing itself as a cultural staple. While Atlanta benefits from how unique it is, I hope that people learn from this show. That’s not to say there should be carbon copies on every major network, but rather that writers for TV shows should treat their audience with respect. Atlanta doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of its audience and that’s why it works so well.
A show doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones to be smart. Atlanta, Insecure, and The Carmichael show have shown that. These shows are smart and trust that the audience is just as smart, and television is better for it.