Atlanta’s Magic Is in the Details
Donald Glover’s new FX show captures the surrealism and the daily grind of a city in the midst of cultural renaissance.
For me, Atlanta is partly mythical. It’s a place where urban legends sit next to you on the MARTA bus; where supercars from rap songs break the sound barrier on lazy interstates; where business meetings, graduation parties, and radio shows coincide at strip clubs; where goat pens and international banking headquarters share neighborhoods with condominiums and subsidized housing; and where roads named after southern icons of civil rights cross roads named after southern icons of the Civil War. Years ago, it was the place where I sat as a country-bumpkin college freshman glued to the television watching the local news, enthralled with the idea of black weathermen and stock analysts. It’s the city that demanded the music world’s attention after André 3000 told the world that the South had something to say. Atlanta is a magic city.
Through the four episodes that I’ve watched so far, Donald Glover’s new FX show Atlanta manages the herculean feat of portraying all of that magic, and plenty more. The show seems solely dedicated to portraying the peculiarity of the city at first, name-dropping a ridiculous amount of hotspots and traveling at warp speed between rural, urban, and suburban sets. But along with rapid-fire references to (and portrayals of) famous strip clubs and restaurants, its 30-minute episodes deliver characters who navigate their own American dreams, all while beginning to outline a mythology of the hip-hop renaissance that has defined the city as much as anything else since the ’96 Olympics.
Glover’s Earnest “Earn” Marks is a character who can only exist in the city—a nerdy Princeton drop-out working at Hartsfield-Jackson airport who’s also a homeless deadbeat dad trying to connive his way into the rap game as a manager—and his eclectic cast-mates are just as unique. Brian Tyree Henry plays “Paper Boi” Miles, Earn’s cousin and a rapper who lives in the stereotypical “trap” and sells drugs to fund his career, but also struggles with the ramifications of his own caricature. Darius, played by Keith Stanfield, is a Nigerian American weedhead-mystic who plays the part of Paper Boi’s hype man. Zazie Beetz rounds out the cast as Van, Earn’s love interest who’s already the mother of his child and puts in the emotional labor of supporting his antics while also harboring her own entrepreneurial ambitions.
The series juxtaposes the surreal elements of Atlanta with the real problems in different characters’ daily lives. Earn becomes a rap manager in short order, but he still struggles with money. His lofty ambitions play well in the black-lit glow of the city, but sound hollow, arrogant, and self-serving in the light of day when he explains to Van why he can’t provide for his daughter. Following in the tradition of several prominent Atlanta rappers like Gucci Mane, Paper Boi soon finds himself in trouble with the law. This actually kickstarts his career, and further advances him within its constellation of minor and major stars, but it deeply troubles his conscience in real life as he marinates on his career in a neighborhood off Edgewood. While many shows and films about music feature similar contradictions between the glitz and the grit, in the world of Atlanta they feel like natural extensions of the city itself.
Those contradictions are key in telling what appears to be the main arc of the show: It’s an origin story of hip-hop. While it’s obviously not the cosmological origin of Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, which is a coming-of-age story of a group of teenagers in the Bronx during the birth of the art form, the two share a bit of DNA. The Get Down is also mired in the strangeness of a founding myth, although most of it is attributable to Luhrmann’s distinctive brand of fiction, as opposed to the character of the Bronx itself. The magic of The Get Down is alchemy: characters transmute the pain of their marginalized lives in the lower-class Bronx, and in the process transmute disco into hip-hop via the philosopher’s stone of the turntable.
The magic of Atlanta so far is also alchemy; only this time the substance being transmuted is hip-hop itself. It’s no secret that the past two decades of hip-hop history have seen the balance of power shift south from New York City. The mythologizing of Atlantan hip-hop stretches beyond the immortal dope boys of Outkast to T.I.’s Chevrolet-riding menace to Gucci Mane’s drawling picture-painting. Each of these titans played a part in the southern renaissance of hip-hop, changing the art in new and radical ways. The presence of that renaissance overwhelms today on the radio, just as it makes its mark on Glover’s characters.
For a person who fell in love with that renaissance, Atlanta reaches almost fan-service-levels of gratuitous references and déjà vu. Whether the show will land with similar joy to those unfamiliar with the city is something I’m not equipped to say, but the level of dedication to scene and place are clear marks of care from Glover and help underscore the social energy and zeitgeist of a city that is clearly in the process of creation.