Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” Will Be An Important Voice Of Modern Television, Whether He Wants It That Way or Not

“I never wanted this shit to be important.”

Donald Glover, the star, creator, co-writer and executive producer of FX’s Atlanta, echoed this sentiment during an interview with Rembert Browne. Unfortunately for Glover that may be well outside of his control as his potentially groundbreaking series hits television Tuesday, September 6th at 10 pm est.

There’s so much I wanna do, like write a script or write a book
Get an hour on HBO, and date a girl who likes to cook
And stop having all of these crushes on all of my friends girlfriends

Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino, spit these desires way back in 2010 on his 3rd mixtape, Culdesac. And while I’m not privileged to the intimate details of his dating life in the last 6 years, he has written a script to accompany his Grammy-Nominated album, Because the Internet, and while that hour on HBO hasn’t quite materialized, the lines between HBO and FX are as blurred as ever.

The rise of “prestige television” from The Sopranos and The Wire to more recent entries such as Breaking BadHalt & Catch Fire, and The Americans has opened the door for deeper programs to migrate from the HBOs and Showtimes to the AMCs and FXs.

This is partially thanks to the Netflix model, which involves handing creatives tons of money to play with while essentially leaving them alone and allowing them to create something without interruption.

This is done all in hope for the bizarre TV show lifecycle that involves critical acclaim and a cult following that eventually morphs into a form of hipster television where an audience blindly jumps on board based on recommendation.

Atlanta is fully embracing this new landscape, which benefits both Glover’s creative vision and us, the viewer.

Tuesday night is the introduction for many of us, not to just Atlanta the television show, but to Atlanta the city and a look into black culture that we only get to experience via hip-hop and maybe our one black friend (shoutout to my former roommate, Baudelaire).

N—– wanna have some, all I want’s to have it all
They wanted something different, n—- problem solved

-Childish Gambino, “Difference

Filmed around East Point, Georgia, once referred to as “the nation’s most dangerous suburb,” Atlanta employs a team of inexperienced and relatively unknown creatives in an attempt to “…show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.”

Glover took the freedom provided to him by FX to completely disregard television norms by assembling an all black writing staff (with virtually no experience in a “writer’s room”) and bringing on Hiro Murai, his long-time music video director with zero television experience, to direct.

“Hiro’d never done narrative before, never done television,” Glover said. “Everybody kept asking, ‘Are you sure you want to do it with him?’ And I’m really glad, because when I’d ask him, ‘Is this normal for a show?’ he’d be like, ‘I have no idea, I don’t know.’ But that’s how we made something personal. We’d do something and then start giggling and be like, ‘That’s tight, this is dope, I’d like to see that.’ ”

“Atlanta’s all-black, mostly unseasoned writers’ room (a concept still virtually unheard of in today’s diversity-focused entertainment environment) is largely responsible for its unconventional feel; everything from its minimalist episode structure to setup-punchline jokes scans as just a little “off” relative to the rest of television.” – Vikram Murthi

Glover, a modern day Renaissance man, whose resume includes attending NYU Tisch School of Arts, acting on Community, writing for 30 Rock, performing stand up specials, and more is joined by Brian Tyree Hill, a Yale alum who was an actor on Broadway’s A Book of Mormon, and rapper/actor/poet, Keith Stansfield, as the show’s leads that represent a rare intersection of black and white culture.

All three have a very intimate relationship with Atlanta, while also being exposed to the “white” America many of us are more familiar with, which provides a very rare and unique perspective. They have authentically lived through many experiences depicted on the show while interacting enough with “white culture” to be fully aware of what most people know and don’t know.

Everyone likes to think their creations are personal (low-level writers included), but the problem is often those attempts to share personal stories and emotions lead to a clumsy, heavy-handed product that ultimately ends up smacking the faces of the audience with ideas designed to induce the desired response. While Glover is emphasizing the importance of the personal touch of this series, something that stems from the inexperience of his staff, he appears to be succeeding in the rare art of subtlety.

Atlanta presents the hardships African-Americans face that are present everyday in Atlanta and elsewhere, however the point of the show isn’t to take an unnatural focus on these events. They occur briefly and in passing to avoid stealing your attention for too long. The point isn’t to educate you on these issues, but show how they interrupt, disrupt and impact the lives of the people who are experiencing them, whether in large ways or small.

This isn’t intended to be a 30 minute PBS documentary every week to shed insight on Black America to a white audience. This is a show written by and written for an under represented group in our country. And at the same time that shouldn’t be a deterrent to those who fall outside of that demographic.

Glover possesses a rare ability to transcend race, an attribute that has often brought on criticism of his talents especially in terms of rap and hip-hop.

They tellin’ me I’m the rapper for these white kids
‘Cause black kids can’t possibly like the same shit

-Childish Gambino, “Break (All of the Lights)

As previously mentioned, Culdesac dropped in 2010, I remember finding it shortly thereafter as a senior in high school. For the first time I stumbled upon rap music that minimized hyperbole and embraced emotion, a witty and intelligent collection of bars that did not rely on the tropes of girls, drugs, and guns in the way that much of the genre did.

That’s not a knock on those selling points, those things populate the lives of some of the artists we love, but they didn’t populate Glover’s. And that’s what created a real connection between the lyrics of a black man I had never met and a white kid from the most stereotypical depiction of suburbia.

There was something profoundly special about getting the aux cord in the car or at a party and throwing on Childish Gambino’s remix of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” and seeing that one person who knew it freak the fuck out. An instant creation of a mutual respect for those who have ventured far enough off the beaten path to discover Donald Glover’s Wu-Tang generator creation and alter-ego, Childish Gambino.

But, then in October of 2013 Glover took to Instagram and created a connection amongst his fans that exceeded anything music or acting or writing could do on their own. He showed that as a black man from Georgia, who had earned tremendous recognition and success in a multitude of fields, that he wasn’t all that different from any person of any race from any city:

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These confessions appeared a few days after my 21st birthday when I was in the midst of obtaining a college degree for a major I hated, in love with a girl I never thought I’d be good enough for and completely unsure where my life would end up. Then all of a sudden someone who had created music that acted as the soundtrack to my most important years expressed the same fears that had tormented me.

The only difference was that one of us an African-American on the verge of stardom who had come from a difficult background and I was a white male who had never had to struggle in a conventional sense. But in those brief moments of constantly refreshing an Instagram feed, we were linked.

That’s the ability Donald Glover has, an ability to embrace vulnerability. Vulnerability is a uniform feeling that extends well beyond the color of your skin or your economic standing, no one is immune to feeling insecure. It’s the willingness to express this feeling that separated Glover as a rapper and it’s that same willingness that can separate him as the head creative on a TV show that tackles difficult topics in a way we have yet to be exposed to.

Atlanta is most definitely a show for black people as told by black people, but that doesn’t mean its reach stops there. It’s representing a group that has been long deprived of an adequate spotlight, but in the process it has the potential to teach us a tremendous and unforeseen amount about ourselves, regardless of background.

 

 

 

Shoutout to:

Hank Stuever of the Washington Post
Rembert Browne of Vulture
Sameer Rao of Color Lines
Vikram Murthi of the AV Club
Ben Travers of Indie Wired