Review: FX’s ‘Atlanta’

We’re in the midst of a TV boom like no other. As motion pictures begin to solidify into a factory for big-budget genre pieces, the indies move towards the new frontiers of cable and streaming. Seemingly every week Hulu or Netflix or HBO or Amazon or FX or AMC or Showtime or STARZ releases some new show with a specific, offbeat sensibility and a jolt of sudden critical praise. This has led to a few consequences, some good, others not so much. On the bright side, one need not have every show pander to the lowest common denominator or single largest sensibility. Instead shows can get bleak, violent, weird, or personal. The flipside of this is that no single show can make as big an impression and most, even if people like them, are forgotten rather quickly (remember when people talked about Ozarks, the OA, Future Man or Baskets? They each got about a week).

In other words, while FX’s sitcom-ish Atlanta debuted to incredible praise, many like myself were unable to watch it immediately and/or let it get lost in the glut of appointment television. In my case at least, this was a mistake as Atlanta (which I’m four episodes into) is  one of the most uniformly engaging rewarding pieces of fiction I’ve recently taken in. The show is the brainchild of and vehicle for Donald Glover (Community, Solo: A Star Wars Story). Glover plays Earn, a consistently down on his luck young man in Atlanta who sets out to manage his cousin Alfred (Bryan Tyree Henry), an aspiring rapper with a recent viral hit. Rounding out the very, very small main cast are Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) Al’s whimsical best friend and Vanessa (Zazie Beets) as the mother of Earn’s daughter.

Eschewing the recent trend of ensemble sitcoms, the show focuses squarely on the main four, developing them slowly from seemingly one-note characters into well-rounded and likeable ones. Alfred is an emotional, angry presence whose inner sensitivity comes through even when he’s engaged in activities no one could condone. Darius is a Christopher Walken-esque stoner whose seemingly random asides (he at one point asks if he can measure the tree in Earn’s yard) mask an intelligence and a kindness. Earn is the show’s focal point (at least initially) and plays to Glover’s strengths without ever being allowed to be anything less than deeply flawed. The running theme of the show is Earn’s desire to make it big, not because he wants fame or money but because the world is a cold and strange place, and he’d like to know how he relates to it.

The recent comedy Louie (also on FX) have toyed with the idea of surreality, absurdism, and cynicism as vehicles for humor, but whereas I found that particularly mean-spirited and formless, Atlanta uses these elements to tell simple, heartfelt stories with a hint of hope. Each episode builds slightly on the one before, letting a loose sense of continuity be a framework for character growth. And the reality the characters inhabit is infinitely stranger than it immediately appears. Glover once described the show as Twin Peaks for rappers, which is incredibly apt. Side characters and background sites are often inexplicable to the audience and the main character, allowing for an almost Coen Brothers sense of confusion and melancholy. Mixing this surreality with a well-realized cultural subset I’m not familiar with, leads for a richly compelling setting that sells the sparse jokes nicely.

And sparse though they may be, the show is legitimately funny, finding constant new ways for the cast’s distinct rhythms to bounce off of and compliment eachother. For example in one early scene Darius says conspiratorially that a friend of his hasn’t been seen since his funeral to which Glover deadpans ‘That’s pretty much how funerals work”. It’s not a fast-paced take on humor but it is consistent and, more importantly, allows the show to establish its own unique style. While even the single-camera network comedies like Community have a certain cheapness to their aesthetic, Atlanta is cinematic in its style (with most episodes being directed by music video maker Hiro Murai). Beautiful shots and compositions make the emotional resonance of minor interactions and dialogue moments immense. In other words, while Atlanta episodes are only 23 minutes apiece, each one is shot like an episode of Breaking Bad or True Detective.

To return to an earlier point, it’s hard in this day and age to get across what it’s like to encounter a unique voice. Cable and streaming TV Show makers seemingly are always aiming to be personal, quirky, and distinct (which is a great instinct), but where Atlanta separates itself is how fully-developed and enjoyable the vision seems to be. In other words, while it may not be uncommon to find a show with a voice, it’s hugely uncommon to find one whose voice feels so significant.

As of the writing of this review, I am four episodes into the ten episode first season of Atlanta (streaming on Hulu and FX) and would hesitantly say it has the making of something really special.