by Chris Sewell
The first and only season of Atlanta was released on FX Networks in the fall of 2016. It was created by Donald Glover, a well-known actor and musician who made his directing and producing debuts with the television series. The comedy-drama takes an inside perspective on
the life of African Americans in the urban city of Atlanta. Focusing on the lives of Alfred (Brian Henry), an upcoming “thug” rapper known as “Paper Boi,” and his cousin and new manager Earn (Donald Glover), the series follows the fictitious, yet still realistic lives of the pair as they pursue fame and fortune in the rap game. The audience watches as Alfred and Earn, along with some of their friends and family, encounter various obstacles related to their race, social status, and the music industry as the duo looks to make it big. These obstacles range from encounters with the police to simply running really low on money. Earn, specifically, is tight on money, and the show often follows his pursuit for small amounts of money to provide for his infant daughter and to win back the respect of his daughter’s mother. Also, some of the successes of Albert and Earn are highlighted, like hearing Paper Boi’s songs on the radio to Earn getting the rapper into an Atlanta celebrity basketball game. The show, as a whole depicts the lives of these aspiring black Americans in a complete and realistic manner.
Historical and Cultural Context
Donald Glover, the creator, writer, occasional director, and lead actor of Atlanta, grew up just outside of Atlanta in the city of Stone Mountain, Georgia during the 1980s and 1990s. In high school, his parents worked very hard to send him to a private arts school, where he experienced racism being one of the only black kids in the school. Under his alias of Childish Gambino, Glover has written and sang songs about this racism he experienced in his earlier years. In the song “Hold You Down”, he even raps, “Cause being black, my experience, is no one hearin’ us.” The same song goes on to address how some people do not think Glover is black enough, and he responds by stating that blacks should not be forced to act a certain way (Childish Gambino). These racial struggles that Glover and his family experienced during his childhood served as some of the main inspiration for the creation of Atlanta. In addition, his most recent album, Awaken, My Love!, incorporated African American culture through the use of call and response style lyrics and the historically black musical genre of funk. This interest in black musical culture certainly influenced this television series, as can be seen by the soundtrack of the series, which consists of only black artists. This consistency of using black culture in Atlanta can also be seen in the all-black cast and writers of the show.
Going beyond Donald Glover’s specific background, Atlanta is also heavily influenced by the black television shows that have preceded it. Unfortunately, though, this precedent has not necessarily been a positive one for the black community. Historically, television has often been seen to stereotype minority groups, and blacks are no exception. In one recent study of ABC television programming, 49 percent of black characters in television shows are seen by audiences as contributing to negative stereotypes of blacks (Dates). This can be seen by the regularity of black actors and actresses that play roles of maids, servants, and thugs. However, more recent television shows have shifted away from this trend, but even though the black shows from recent years, such as Black-ish and Empire, display African Americans in a more equitable way, they do not depict the real lives of most blacks in America. Instead, their characters exist in idealistic worlds more fit for entertainment purposes. For example, Empire follows a black family that is fighting among themselves for control of an extremely successful music and entertainment company, while Black-ish is centered on a upper-middle class black family that lives in an affluent suburb. While these are not unrealistic situations for blacks in America to be in, they are not very common ones. Going against this trend in black television, Glover looked to create a fictional work that is also relatable for many African Americans. In one interview, he even explicitly states, “I’m trying to make people feel black” (Wilstein). Overall, portraying the actual black experience in America is the main mission of Glover through Atlanta.
Themes and Style
The central theme of the show Atlanta is the experience of blacks in America, with modern racism as the main part of this. The show portrays the lives of African Americans and the struggles that still accompany blacks today in a very realistic manner. The show does not only highlight the high intensity situations that Earn and Alfred go through, but also minor ones, like the interactions between Earn and his daughter’s mother. One example of this is the first scene of the pilot episode, where the audience’s entire focus is on the loving, yet distant relationship of the sorta-couple as they lay next to each other in bed. The inclusion of their pillow talk demonstrates how the show focuses on all of the aspects of their lives and not just the bigger events. Until recently, these kind of interpersonal interactions between black characters in entertainment were not so frequent, and this seriously affects how blacks are viewed by society. In a study on television’s role in the formation of racial stereotypes, it was found that the portrayal of black characters affected how both whites and blacks, specifically adolescents, viewed blacks, as a whole (Dates). While this show specifically follows a rapper and his manager in an urban setting, the experiences of Alfred and Earn go beyond their specific situation in the city of Atlanta and comment on the African American experience as a whole. The second episode follows a more intense experience of Earn waiting to get bailed out of jail.
Figure 2. Atlanta jail scene; “Streets on Lock.” Atlanta, created by Donald Glover, season 1, episode 2, FX, 6 Sept. 2016.
During the lengthy process of him waiting in the holding cell, the viewer witnesses police brutality against one of the other inmates in the holding area (view Figure 2), and it also becomes apparent that there are only blacks being detained all throughout the episode. Through these scenes in the jail, the series explicitly depicts racial problems in America, like police brutality and black incarceration.
Although explicit racism is displayed in the show, it also demonstrates racism in America in more subtle ways, as well. In one episode, rapper Paper Boi goes on a talk show where he gets bombarded by questions about him being supposedly against transsexuals, but he argues back saying he is not against them by any means. Instead, he states that he just does not have time or energy to worry about their issues because blacks are still not being treated equally. Also, in the ninth episode of the show, Earn interacts with a white host of a dinner party that continues to emphasize Earn’s race. As seen in Figure 3, the host, at one point, attempts to give him an elaborate handshake, indicative of a common black stereotype. Earn’s discomfort towards the subtle racism is very apparent to the viewer. In addition to this commentary on race, Glover heavily incorporates social media and hip-hop music into the plot of the show, making a strong appeal to younger viewers. In one episode, the extremely popular rap group of Migos make a cameo appearance, and Glover also meshes rap songs and other music all created by black artists. This allows for him to talk about current racism in America in a relevant and engaging manner and to stick to his idea of making the show about feeling truly black.
The style of Atlanta is one of no other. Depending on the situation, the show utilizes sitcom humor, dramatic dialogues, and even action scenes with violence (gunshots, fighting, etc.). Glover understands the odd nature of his show and even compares Atlanta to a wool jacket. He says that he wants his audience to have the reaction of “I guess it is a little itchy, but I like the way it fits” (Berg). Even though this was Glover’s approach in making the show, it does not appear that there was much of an itch for anyone watching, based on the plentiful positive feedback Atlanta has received.
Being such a recently released show, Atlanta has not had an immense amount of response from the academic world. However, people interested in the entertainment culture of America have certainly reacted to it through merited reviews, articles, and prestigious awards. Much of the conversation about the series is focused on the deeper meaning behind the comedy-drama. In one article from The Washington Post, writer Bethonie Butler stated that Atlanta is “the most random yet thought-provoking show on television.” Butler includes random in this title because of the unorthodox style of the series and the interesting breaks from the main plot that Glover likes to throw in (Butler). Backing up Butler’s high praise of the show was the fact that the show won a Golden Globe Award for Best TV Series Comedy or Musical and that Glover won one for Best Actor in a TV Comedy or Musical.
In nearly all of the responses to Atlanta, there is a general consensus that this show is inequitable to any past television shows. As described in a Forbes article by Madeline Berg, Glover created a brand-new style through this slow-paced and thoughtful comedy. The “dramedy,” as some have called it, mixes the realistic environment of Atlanta with ridiculous comedy that ranges from a black version of Justin Bieber to an actual invisible car owned by a hot shot rapper. Glover even said, “It was hard to get FX to understand what I was doing [with Atlanta] at first,” but as Glover anticipated, it is something that many Americans and specifically the people of Atlanta can relate to (Berg). The show literally follows the lives of two black males that in many situations in the series completely blend in with the people around them, which is certainly relatable for the common American. A regular theme through the season is how the rapper and manager duo are trying to separate themselves from the lower class and into the elite few of the rap game.
Fortunately, Glover’s viewers have responded in an approving manner to the combination of heavy racial commentary, aesthetic filmography, and comedy. Only adding to the critical appraise of Glover’s breakout television series is a New York Times article by James Poniewozik. In the article, he complements the subtle humor and interesting atmosphere of the series, but he also states, “Atlanta has a serious streak and the occasional matter-of-fact violence” (Poniewozik). Although there has been a large amount of positive feedback, the series has also not completely made it into the public’s eye. The show was averaging around one million live viewers through this first season, while widely-viewed shows, like The Walking Dead, average closer to ten million viewers per episode (Rodriguez). This demonstrates how Atlanta, despite making a noticeable impact in the entertainment world and even society, has not truly had a full impact on American society. Overall, though, it seems apparent that the singular response to Atlanta is one of an impressed nature. The show delves into the topic of modern racism in a way not attempted before, and it does so in a very effective manner.
Atlanta. Created by Donald Glover, FX, 6 Sept. 2016.
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Atlanta, Donald Glover, Television, Hip Hop, Modern Racism, Black Culture