Welcome to ‘Atlanta’
Finally, Donald Glover’s whole and authentic and weird and excellent world of Atlanta
Hi, it’s Thomas. Welcome to Atlanta. The city too busy to hate, drug trafficking hub for the East Coast, and the home of trap music.
Those are the first words of this largely exploitative 2015 Vice documentary about Atlanta. Cameras followed a bespectacled white guy on his ghetto safari of guns, strippers and drugs. This is how the city of Atlanta is represented in popular culture: either a ‘hood full of drug dealers and shootouts or a glamorous land of black prosperity where Bentleys park outside of strip clubs while rappers inside toss millions of dollars onto curvaceous and acrobatic dancers.
The city is just over 54 percent black and there’s rarely any in-between or nuance when it comes to representing Atlanta culture. It’s nearly impossible to find a true representation of the people who inhabit one of America’s fastest-growing cities. That’s where Donald Glover’s new Atlanta comes in. The show, which debuted last week on FX, is ostensibly about a local MC whose breakout single has made him the talk of the town. Atlanta, at its core, though, is a black family reunion played out on TV. On screen is black culture and its ability to survive and thrive in the face of gentrification, stereotypes and Snow On Tha Bluff. It’s the life OutKast promised us 20 years ago where Cadillacs, fish fries and family still define a city that refuses to be defined by outsiders.
“It was heaven.”
Brian Tyree Henry (Boardwalk Empire), the star of Atlanta, who went to college in Atlanta, absolutely beams when talking about bringing a true-to-life story of Atlanta to the masses. The fact that its writing staff is black and the show is as black as a Clark Atlanta homecoming step show only makes the joy more pronounced. “This is what I’ve dreamed about. To tell a story that you might not necessarily see represented all the time in a town that you may not see represented all the time.” There really is no other place for a show like this to take place.
1. Atlanta is black
For the last 20 or so years, Atlanta has been the unofficial capital of the South for black America. The city was home of the iconic ’90s parade/party/near orgy known as “Freaknik.” The Dungeon Family was pushing creativity in hip-hop forward, making Atlanta feel like where we could be our black, unique selves as OutKast and Goodie Mob created an Atlanta mythology built around music, cultural landmarks like shrimp and grits, Cadillacs and — where I-85 and I-20 meet, the promise of a better life.
For blacks in the South who can’t afford Los Angeles or the life-changing relocation to New York City, Atlanta has been the closest thing to the land of hope and opportunity in America. Atlanta has felt like where the ‘hood, opportunity and creativity intersected. The Atlanta University Center where Morehouse, Clark Atlanta and Spelman intersect makes the city a destination for black intellectualism. Often a shared black consciousness develops among young scholars. And the city’s reputation for beautiful black people always lived up to the hype. Atlanta just felt like a city where you could be a multimillionaire businessman who ate fried catfish and greens on lunch breaks, go home to a beautiful wife, kids and a community of other prospering black people. Atlanta can still be that city even if we have to dig through a few more gentrified neighborhoods to get to it.
“One thing [Glover] has said is that Atlanta is a microcosm of America,” said executive producer Paul Simms — most known for bringing the popular ’90s sitcom News Radio to life. He read Glover’s scripts and brought the show to FX. “It has everything America has all in one city … the show is about Atlanta, but it’s about America as a whole in good ways and bad ways.”
Atlanta, much like America, seems full of opportunities. But in terms of wealth, Atlanta was the most unequal city in the United States in 2014 and 2015. A 2015 Brookings Institution report revealed that the richest 5 percent make $288,159 a year on average while the lowest 20 percent make less than $15,000. Atlanta’s rate of upward mobility is worse than any single developed country in the world that records such stats — a resident only has a 4.5 percent chance of reaching the top 20 percent of earners. But Atlanta never quite feels like a city where it’s difficult to find opportunity. For example, when I lived in New Orleans, I was much more nervous about losing my job than I am in Atlanta. It just feels like there are more chances to find prosperity here.
For some reason, it’s been difficult for studios to present a consistently true version of the city. The closest we got was ATL, the 2006 T.I.-led movie about intraracial class and finding love in the 404. While the movie is remembered for its look at the city, ATL it didn’t delve deep into the cultural gumbo that makes the city tick. Other movies, such as 2005’s Beauty Shop and 2014’s Ride Along, are also set in Atlanta and pay homage to the city in different ways. The former presents Atlanta as a land of opportunity and the latter shows a city where anything can happen, but neither film allows the city to become a central character. Stomp The Yard (2007) and 2002’s Drumline did a great job at exploring historically black college culture in Atlanta, but didn’t delve further. If you watch all these films in one sitting, then a decent picture of the city appears. But we’ve never seen a representation of Atlanta that encompasses the glamorous and underrepresented. Enter Atlanta, and its creator.
2. Donald Glover is black
Glover is a renaissance man. He left Georgia, where he was born and raised, to attend New York University, where he joined the school’s comedy troupe. At 21, he was writing for Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, making him a relative child prodigy in a TV world where creatives usually put in many more years before ending up in a writing room of that stature.
From there he made his breakout performance as Troy Barnes — an insecure-yet-sweet former high school quarterback — on NBC’s cult favorite, Community. The show is where Glover gained his fan base and they followed him as he made stand-up specials and quirky indie projects like 2009’s Mystery Team. In all of these roles, Glover’s comedy was largely based on what it’s like to be the only black guy in a room. To Glover’s credit, he pulled off these characters without coming off as the “token,” instead addressing the racial dynamics of his particular circumstances head-on.
As Glover was gaining a faithful following for comic acting, he announced himself to the world as rapper Childish Gambino with the 2011 music video Freaks and Geeks and the album Camp. Then in 2013, he took another unexpected risk: He walked away from Community to focus on his music full time and develop an all-black show that hadn’t even been picked up by a network yet about rappers in a southern city.
The TV landscape in 2013 was vastly different from what it is now. It’s easy to look at shows such as Empire, black-ish and Power and forget how desolate the landscape was for black shows just three years ago. Scandal was a ratings juggernaut, but networks were still reluctant to give black creators the reins for shows and the idea of giving one to someone other than Shonda Rimes seemed like a fantasy. Anyone looking for dramas featuring black people on television had to look to Basketball Wives or Love & Hip-Hop. But the popularity of these shows didn’t seem to translate toward black scripted shows getting greenlit. The days of The Cosby Show, A Different World and In Living Color of the early ’90s or Martin, Living Single, and New York Undercover of the mid-’90s were long gone.
“I’m either very brave or very stupid,” Glover said recently during a chat at the Georgia Aquarium. “I don’t see it as a risk. It didn’t feel scary because if we do something nobody has ever seen before and make our own black iconography, then people will see it as a success.”
Yet it’s been hard for some to fully embrace him as a beacon of blackness, a hurdle Glover himself recognized in an August interview: “I know when I go to Baltimore, when I go to D.C., it’s like 50-50 — half of them are like, ‘I love this dude, this dude’s cool.’ And the other half are like, ‘This coon-a– dude.” Glover has been criticized as being too white — he apparently “sounds” like a white guy, has been the only black person in shows like Community and HBO’s Girls and raps about how he’s consistently rejected from black circles. His Camp is largely about the conflict of trying to speak for black people but being perceived as too white to do so. It’s hard to make Hov the footsteps you followin’ / Especially when your n—– look like Carlton, he rhymes on Firefly. Yeah, so, whatcha gonna do man / You won’t speak to the hood, man / If I was given one chance I think I could, man.
Glover is from Stone Mountain, a wealthy Atlanta suburb that’s also known for being a founding place for the Ku Klux Klan, and isn’t necessarily considered the representation of Atlanta. “To an Atlanta person, hearing ‘I’m from Stone Mountain,’ we react like, ‘That’s not really Atlanta,’ ” said Maurice Garland, a Decatur native and editor of Hip-Hop Wired. “Stone Mountain is only 20 or 30 minutes outside of the city, but that’s where, as far as black people are concerned, you go to buy a house if you had some cool money.” He was skeptical of the show in the pregame, but his mind changed when he saw it. “I was surprised that they were able to nail the show like they did. I’m glad they kept the story in the heart of Atlanta instead of playing it safe and making a story about the suburbs.”
And if anyone knows Atlanta, it’s obvious that his weirdness is as Atlanta as the Georgia Dome. Because as much as popular culture focuses on the “ ‘hood” aspects of the city, it’s important to remember that Atlanta is the home of OutKast and has been largely influenced by that group for the better part of two decades. One half of that group, Andre 3000, is one of the foremost leaders in terms of pushing the city’s culture forward. When Glover was in his formative middle- and high school years, OutKast was putting Atlanta on the map musically with Andre 3000’s eccentric style and bars about time travel paving a way for southern kids to be weird. For every T.I. or Gucci Mane who rose from or was influenced by the trap, there was a B.o.B. who embraced the quirky parts of OutKast. “[Andre 3000] holds a special place,” Glover said in a 2013 interview. “They were always doing something a little different.”
That ATL-bred weirdness is woven into Atlanta’s narrative from the beginning. One of the main characters, Darius, swears the opening scene is a deja vu and even has a precognitive moment. There’s a bizarre scene with a disappearing member of the Nation of Islam and a jar of Nutella. And don’t forget that magical plate of J.R. Crickets wings. Director Hiro Murai’s visual style of floating cameras, intentionally out-of-focus shots and unconventional camera angles adds to the feeling of a city that exists outside of reality.
3. Atlanta is black
Atlanta is a tale about family. The story focuses on Alfred Miles (Henry), who’s blowing up on the East Side of Atlanta as the rapper Paper Boi. He’s flanked by his perpetual stoner best friend and existentialist Darius (Keith Stanfield) and his cousin-turned-manager Earn (Glover). The only white character in the first two episodes is a mildly racist DJ whose purpose is to show cavalier attitudes toward the N-word. There’s also zero exposition to explain black culture to audiences who might not be familiar with it. And when a black character goes on a long, fast-talking monologue in full Atlanta slang and southern drawl, the show declines to add subtitles for people who have never heard someone speak like that. The message is simple: Either you’re going to take the time to absorb the black cultural moments or get left behind.
Set in the present, the city of Atlanta is an authentic main character — evidenced by the affirming claps and murmurs from the crowd attending the Atlanta premiere. “Every time the question of if something was ‘too Atlanta’ came up, we felt like that was good,” said Glover. “We never thought something could get pushed too far. I want to talk about all the things black people can talk about. Because we’re in a place socially where our voices are not held up at the top.”
Beyond the landmarks and lemon pepper sauce, Atlanta captures the Atlanta wherein family is as important as status. It’s clear that the cousins Alfred and Earn love each other. Earn’s infant daughter is Alfred’s second cousin, but Alfred loves her like his own child. Family members are deeply involved in one another’s lives as Alfred checks in with Earn’s parents frequently and Earn’s parents are active in their grandchild’s life. The family ties are so strongly represented that there’s a palpable heartbreak when Alfred explains how hurt he was that Earn never checked in after his mother died. “I wanted to focus on the familial recognition,” said Henry. “That’s at the heart of Atlanta.”
Paper Boi and his crew are working to become the next Jermaine Dupris, rap moguls born and raised in Atlanta. “It’s bad,” said Dupri, the superstar producer who was integral in elevating Atlanta’s glamorous side for an entire generation. “There’s a place for Love & Hip Hop and all that, but this is a cultural city … I hope this show shows you a little bit more of that culture than just the glitz and the glam of what I honestly helped promote.”
Atlanta is one of those rare cities where getting played on local radio can still turn an artist into an overnight celebrity. That rapid ascension happens for Paper Boi and the show does an incredible job of laying out how success in Atlanta happens. One radio hit and a run-in with the law, and Paper Boi is suddenly recognized by friends on the street and neighbors who didn’t pay him any mind before. But Atlanta has a Paper Boi every week — so expectations of his status are tempered by the city’s familiarity with rappers making quick come-ups. For every T.I. or Young Jeezy, there’s a Pill or DG Yola who haven’t as yet turned local hits into national success.
And as Paper Boi and his posse are learning, being respected and making a living are two different things. Fortunately, Atlanta debuted two episodes last week to positive feedback from critics and social media alike and more than a million viewers checked in for the premiere. But while Atlanta’s dedication to authenticity and to elevating the city’s mythology is appreciated and important, that alone won’t necessarily translate to the show’s long-term success. For every Empire and Scandal, there’s an Uncle Buck and Deception that just doesn’t catch on.
Key for Atlanta — it’s funny. It’s not funny for black people. It’s not funny for Atlanta residents. It’s universally funny. And it’s good.
Much of the second episode takes place in a jailhouse booking area where the food is disgusting, police perpetuate outdated and vile acts of brutality on people with disabilities and anti-gay slurs are yelled as loudly as possible. But it’s also a community where strangers tell detailed stories of how they ended up in jail. Where high school classmates reunite. Where characters find ways to play the dozens with each other. There shouldn’t be any happiness in this oppressive place. But it’s there.
That’s what it feels like in the South sometimes — like we’ve found profound and lasting happiness in a place where we shouldn’t. But through it all we find our smiles and pride in the fact that the South does indeed have something to say. No matter how many new buildings or exploitative documentaries pop up, we’ll always be here living and loving. That’s the heart of a place like Atlanta and a show like Atlanta.
“People believe in this place as a place that can still grow,” said Glover. “People who are homegrown here still see a place where they can reach their dreams. Making this show taught me that people want to grow. And they want to grow here.”