There are a slew of visceral moments in season one of Donald Glover’s languorous, meandering sitcom Atlanta that prelude the music video for his most recent single This is America, which blew up the internet in early May.
The visuals for the song, which were crafted by Atlanta director Hiro Murai, sees Glover (using his hip-hop alias Childish Gambino) dancing around gleefully before nonchalantly gunning down a gospel choir with an AK-47.
It has been hailed as a damning indictment of American gun culture, but also a commentary on the lens through which black culture is often seen by white audiences. Gambino’s character is boiled down to two opposing functions, entertainment and violence, and he is cheered on by a white viewer – “black man, get your money” Glover sings in falsetto on the song’s bridge.
The juxtaposition of these elements against one another is jarring, but it only adds to the weight of the message. It’s a trick that Glover picked up during the production of season one of Atlanta (on which he serves as writer, director, producer and star), which begins as a fairly straightforward, humour-driven sitcom before taking a steep drop into political issues such as white-on-black police brutality and transphobia in its eye-opening second episode, then skipping nimbly between the two throughout the rest of the season.
The series follows university dropout Earn who, having recently become homeless, decides to grab on to the coattails of his cousin Alfred’s (Brian Tyree Henry) budding rap career by becoming his manager. Earn has a young daughter with Van (Deadpool 2’s Zazie Beetz) – the two aren’t together, but they still sleep together from time to time. Rounding out the crew is Alfred’s best friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), a philosophically-minded stoner who helps the rapper peddle weed on the side.
At ten episodes long, the season burns like a tightly packed joint – that is, very slowly. It doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, but it doesn’t need to, and it provides enough belly laughs (an episode which sees Earn attempting to get payment from a sleazy club promoter features a fantastic closing moment that will stick with you) and food for thought (a standalone episode ponders relations between black and trans communities) that the season arc feels almost superfluous. It is a brilliant mix of surrealist humour and extraneous subplots, reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on Inherent Vice.
Much like This Is America, the show works brilliantly even before its examination of racial issues are taken into account. With this, it transcends to a level of high art.
“The thesis with this show was to show people what it’s like to be black,” Glover said a month before its US premiere in 2016, “and you can’t write that down – you have to feel it.”
While the launch of his show relied on the participation of a white audience (the executives of US network FX, who initially asked him to refrain from including the n-word, thought so, anyway), he wasn’t willing to let that define its tone. Atlanta, at times, is a bitter pill to swallow.
In episode two, as Earn sits in a communal cell in a police office awaiting bail, a man in a hospital gown, with evident mental health issues, enrages a white guard after spraying him with toilet water. The cop reacts mercilessly, beating and restraining him as he screams in agony. The other detainees look on with reluctant acceptance. It’s a harrowing moment that reminds us that the community in which these characters live is riddled with problems, all stemming from the disadvantaged position of being born black in the United States.
In many ways, Atlanta does what hip-hop has been doing for decades: speaks predominantly to black culture, and rather incredibly, it does so without alienating the white portion of its audience. Hip-hop is heavily employed, too, both in the show’s soundtrack (rap songs from the likes of Yo Gotti, 2 Chainz and Future open and close each episode) and plot. In a surreal episode typical of the show, a character called Justin Bieber shows up – but in the form of a cocky black rapper (he’s a pain in the arse, too).
The series seems to be urging white viewers to confront the reality of the race situation in the USA – addressing, with a shrug of acquiescence, systemic racism that has left the black community in Atlanta with a dearth of options for evading poverty, and the same kind of liberal elite racism that Jordan Peele addressed in last year’s Get Out.
In 2018, as Hollywood looks as if it’s beginning to take black art seriously – the success of Marvel’s Black Panther has been hailed as a watershed moment by some, though I’m not sure Glover will be counting his chickens – this show (filmed back in early 2016), feels groundbreaking. And while This Is America may have made a bigger splash than anything Glover has done before, don’t be surprised if Atlanta has a greater influence as its second and expected third season come around.