How ‘Atlanta’ Reflects Its City, From 2 Chainz To 21 Savage
Donald Glover’s hit series shows the reality behind the city’s rap videos
You can tell a lot about Atlanta from the way it relishes its title sequences. The FX series, created by rapper/actor Donald Glover and primarily directed by Hiro Murai, gives each episode its own unique introduction and accompanying song. The first song chosen was OJ Da Juiceman’s “No Hook,” establishing that this show wouldn’t be afraid to dig deep within Atlanta’s many subcultures; on-screen, it was matched with bird’s-eye camera shots showcasing the city’s heavily wooded Southern sprawl. The sky-high angle reduced cars to the size of ants, people to mere dots, and trees to twigs — zooming out in order to encompass Atlanta’s many moving parts, from basketball courts and intersecting highways to rundown buildings and bougie McMansions. The opening scene that followed portrayed a late-night disagreement that quickly escalated to gunfire, but the title sequence indicated that viewers were in for a much fuller and more varied view of Atlanta, both the city and its people.
Close watchers of Atlanta’s premiere title sequence might have noticed echoes of a sequence from “Red Opps,” a music video that A Zae Production directed last year for the Atlanta rapper 21 Savage. Where Atlanta travels throughout the city before revealing two of its central characters in bed, “Red Opps” locks in on an aerial view of 21 Savage’s neighborhood as the camera scopes out him and his crew. Both operate with a sense that these are familiar scenes to the viewer, using creative camera work to add more visual context for what’s being shown. The two forms work in concert: The black lives on display in Atlanta are fresh for scripted television, but they build on the foundations laid by Atlanta rap videos since Outkast’s “Player’s Ball” in 1994. Where these music videos offer brief glimpses into contemporary Southern life, Atlanta expands out, giving full on-screen lives to these oft-overlooked characters.
Atlanta debuted in September to high ratings and rave reviews, immediately drawing bated-breath anticipation for each week’s episode. The show follows Earn, a very down-on-his-luck rap manager played by Glover, whose chief client is his constantly exasperated cousin, Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry. Prior to collaborating on the show, Murai made several music videos with Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) as well as Earl Sweatshirt, Flying Lotus, and St. Vincent. Murai’s videos often retain a surrealist touch — think of the giant St. Vincent trapped in an art museum for her “Cheerleader” video — that is a bit more out there than his work on Atlanta. “We like the idea of taking the juice out of that a little bit and subverting it and making it more naturalistic, more minutiae-centric,” Murai told Indiewire earlier this year.
That eye for detail comes through in moments like the video-within-a-show for Paper Boi’s fictional hit song “Paper Boi.” The low-budget clip shows numerous women dancing, with Paper Boi at one point throwing bundles of “cocaine” that are revealed as flour once a pack hits a woman’s face. It’s a funny scene, but there’s a smart commentary on the music industry underneath the laughter. Paper Boi’s video is way too high-concept to enter the ranks of recent viral rap hits like Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” and Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga,” whose casual appeal came through in the way they seemed like a cameraperson just happened to record a few minutes of their stars’ everyday lives. Viewers who are familiar with how rap works in 2016 know that any major label that signed Paper Boi would have redone that video and made space for a big-name guest verse. Sure enough, in the world of the show, the video gets Paper Boi some short-term buzz, but it’s not remarkable enough to garner any real crossover success.
Early in the series, Earn runs through all the factors weighing against his client, and one of the biggest is age — in his early thirties, Paper Boi isn’t quite in the demographic bracket for viral success. It makes sense, then, that his video for “Paper Boi” is a throwback to Atlanta rap videos of a slightly older generation. The 2003 clip for T.I.’s first mainstream hit, “Rubberband Man,” was full of video women, elaborate sets portraying CD production, and neighborhood scenes that felt obviously scripted for the video. Paper Boi’s video is far closer to that style than the radical verisimilitude that has characterized many breakout rap videos this decade. It’s a small touch, but it adds depth to the series — reading between the lines, it’s clear that Paper Boi conceptualized a video in step with what he would’ve seen growing up, rather than following the latest teen trends.
Glover’s oft-quoted phrase in the press tour for Atlanta was that it was “Twin Peaks with rappers” — an idea that tonally lines up with the bizarre charms of Murai’s previous work. In execution, though, the show strikes a delicate balance between absurdities and the real lives of its characters. This means plenty of shots of Earn and Paper Boi sitting around playing video games, watching TV, smoking weed, and wondering what the next music industry hoop they’ll have to hop through will be. That pulling back of the curtain fits with the 2010s trend of rap videos that reject the staged action of a prior era. The popularity and relative inexpensiveness of high-def cameras allowed for these videos to look just as good, since what once would have cost thousands or more only ran into the low hundreds. Even videos like Gucci Mane’s 2009 “Lemonade,” where he stunted on a green-screen stage that turned everything in sight to lemon yellow, are a bit off-trend. Today’s most popular rap videos often have no higher concept than pressing “record” and seeing a rapper’s life unfold at a leisurely pace. Like some of Atlanta’s more naturalistic scenes, these videos can be very uneventful, but that only adds to the feeling of reality.
Atlanta’s tone often recalls Trinidad James’s 2012 success with “All Gold Everything,” which captured both a humdrum slice of Atlanta life and the kind of black eccentricities that the city is known to sustain. The video opened with the then-unknown rapper shirtless in Versace loafers riding on a golden bicycle, then shifted to a late-afternoon barbecue, went off to the club, and ultimately showed more sides of Atlanta than any green screen could conjure. Trinidad James is certainly gaudier than Paper Boi, even on his best night in the club, but James’s video could have been shot just feet outside of Paper Boi’s house. James riding a golden bicycle in all of his gold chains fits perfectly next to Atlanta’s invisible sports car, which, much to Paper Boi’s disbelief, did exist in the show’s world.
The more surrealistic flourishes on Atlanta — that car, the kid in whiteface, the fictional fourth member of Migos, or the trick nightclub wall — bend but never break the world created by Glover and Murai. Those slight touches make sense for the city that birthed the phrase “I’m starting to see spaceships on Bankhead,” even if Atlanta artists’ videos historically haven’t been quite as adventurous. A marked exception is 2 Chainz, whose music videos take great glee in playing with ingrained rap-video tropes. His meme-filled video for this year’s “Watch Out,” the house party on acid of 2012’s “Birthday Song,” and the twisted boat revelry of “I’m Different” speak to the fact that 2 Chainz values character and humor in a way that’s truly rare for rap videos. His videography and Atlanta both run headfirst toward clichés, finding the best way to have fun with rote ideas rather than shying away from them. Glover’s show understands that for every moment showing Paper Boi leaving the club brokenhearted and dejected, it’s important to also show a shifty club promoter disappearing behind a magic wall.
These techniques are all part of the series’s overall project of offering center-stage voices to characters who would be comedic side parts on another show, or forced into a soap opera–esque world of twists and turns in others. The pace of the series digs into a side of the capital of black America that’s virtually never seen by Hollywood or the reality-TV complex — a world that for most viewers is only visible through music videos or Vines (R.I.P.). The show’s peek behind the creative process reveals that maintaining a rap career can be aggravating, exhausting, and slow-moving, but it never loses its claim to channel the vivid, exciting energy of Atlanta’s music. Rap can be larger than life, but most days it’s just life, and Atlanta is determined to do both sides justice.