Review of Donald Glover’s Atlanta

Three episodes into Donald Glover’s Atlanta and the direction of the show is making itself clear. Following Earnest ‘Earn’ Marks and his cousin Paper Boi as they try to get the latter’s rap career off the ground it shirks the standard success story and makes something rarely seen.

Show creator Donald Glover is no stranger to writing for tv with works like 30 Rock under his belt. Where Atlanta differs from his previous works is that it’s Glover’s own. This is the first time we’ve seen Glover go for broke on his own writing. Without the fallback of a team of more experienced writers behind him, his voice shines through.

Director Hiro Murai makes a transition here from his previous work in music videos. He’d already proven himself balancing style and substance and he delivers on it here again. He’s not afraid to step back and keep it simple when needs be or bolster the story with excellent cinematography other times.

The Story takes its time

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Something immediately clear about Atlanta is how slowly it moves. The pilot moves at the speed you would expect. The following episodes squeeze everything from scenes. This is clearest when Earn is stuck in jail for an entire episode waiting to be bailed out. In less competent hands this would have been tedious. Or the scenes showing the reality of what it’s like to be in jail sped through. Instead we see the characters Earn meets. Their frustrations come out through conversation and the sad humour of the situation. A man realising his ex-girlfriend is transgender is awkward and funny in an honest way. It does it without anyone being a punchline. A scene of a clearly mentally ill man in the jail exposes the selfishness of laughing at the guy.

In fact, one of the strengths of Atlanta is how slowly it moves. For a show that sets its premise from the start as Earn’s attempts to get his cousin’s career off the ground, little of that has happened so far. Compare it to other shows or films charting someone’s rise from the bottom. Their attempts to pose the question Will they make it? never really land.

The hero’s journey from obscurity is usually a highlight reel of the best and worst events. Seeing that someone has a kid shows you how important is is that they succeed, but we usually know they will. Atlanta is one of the best takes on that question and it’s down to the pacing. The mundane everyday between the highlights is so often ignored. Atlanta embraces this and uses it incredibly. It leaves the audience wondering if they will succeed by making you wonder if the show is about the rise of Paper Boi or if that’s just one part.

The characters are fleshed out people

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Every character is given their dues, even if they’re not on screen a lot. Zazie Beetz’s Vanessa could have easily been relegated to a background character but the writing and a strong performance from Beetz make sure this doesn’t happen. Van is the only person who is actually in Earn’s corner but she isn’t just a mother of his daughter, going along with his plans or nagging him about them. She has her daughter’s and her own best interests at heart and though she helps Earn, it’s clear she won’t carry him.

Brian Tyree Henry strikes a great balance as Paper Boi. Very quickly we see him move from a rapper and drug dealer to someone reflecting on what their sudden fame means. He gets treated well by people who think he’s the last true rapper because of a shooting but the praise doesn’t stick. Very soon afterwards he sees a kid with a toy gun acting out a shooting, proclaiming to be Paper Boi. He tries to teach the kid a lesson by telling him he’s Paper Boi and the dangers of guns. This falls on deaf ears, even the kid’s mother is more enamoured with the idea of a rapper than a gun safety advocate. The inner struggle is an interesting one. One that could have easily been ignored in favour of the two dimensional badass rapper.

Where it could be better

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Like most new shows, Atlanta does still feel like it’s finding its feet. Some elements feel like they’re being laid down in case they want to pick them up in future. The shooting in the first episode has Paper Boi seem like the shooter. However, a few cues throughout the episodes seem to suggest otherwise. That Earn did it. If the purpose was to create ambivalence about who did it, the show could have done with coming in a lot harder on the point. If this was meant to fly under the radar, it should have flown a bit lower.

Coming from someone with Glover’s experience and talent it’s no surprise that the show is getting the attention it is. The teething problems are minimal. In all honestly they work with the show, feeling like the natural lack of direction of Earn’s character. This early on we would be looking for the potential in a show. Atlanta has already shown it can deliver.