Some TV shows get viewers to tune in each week with shocking cliffhangers or teasers; others consistently draw fans back by subtler, but no less intriguing, means. Atlanta’s first season on FX has been largely plotless, dependent more on mood than major twists, but part of its allure is the way it seamlessly slips into new genres from episode to episode. This willingness to experiment has helped the series become the most surprising, versatile half-hour currently on television.
Donald Glover’s show is about rap music, race, celebrity culture, the city of his birth, and how those things all intersect. But it can also be a moody relationship drama, a madcap sitcom, a social commentary on gentrification, or, most recently, a surreal sketch comedy. The show’s seventh episode, “B.A.N.,” took place entirely within a fictional program called Montague, a roundtable chat show seemingly modeled on PBS mainstays like Charlie Rose or Tavis Smiley, in which one of Atlanta’s lead characters, Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), was challenged by hosts over the sexist and transphobic content of his lyrics.
The episode never strayed from its format, even cutting to brilliant parody commercials for real brands like Dodge or Arizona Iced Tea. “B.A.N.” joined an impressive recent run of episodes that have analyzed questions of identity from wildly different angles—sometimes with quiet pensiveness, other times (like this week) with hilarious bluster. Atlanta doesn’t always try to be laugh-out-loud funny, but at the very least it never fails to be inventive.
The pilot episode gave the impression that Atlanta might follow a prescribed plot course, charting Earn’s (Glover) efforts to make Paper Boi a star. The series wisely dispensed with that narrative immediately, instead using Paper Boi’s rising fame to burrow into much thornier issues. On the show-within-a-show Montague, a simpering host batted questions at Paper Boi and a trans activist named Dr. Debra Holt about the outrage inspired by some of his lyrics mocking Caitlyn Jenner. “There’s no extra layer,” he protested when challenged on the deeper meaning of his words. “I don’t think about what I’m rapping half the time. I’m just trying to get paid.”
Throughout the roundtable discussion, Paper Boi and Dr. Holt argued over the idea that art has to speak to larger issues, and over the concept that prejudice is something learned rather than ingrained. “You’re whining about chickens coming home to roost,” Dr. Holt said to Paper Boi’s complaint that rap’s language is being increasingly policed. “No. Rap is chickens coming home to roost,” he countered, demanding understanding for the simple fact that he works within an art form that often pushes against the boundaries of acceptability. “I should be able to say something that’s weird without people hating on me,” he later added. “I never said anything about taking away anyone's rights.”
It was a profoundly interesting discussion in which neither character was allowed to be right or wrong. It was also extremely, extremely funny, as Paper Boi’s initial exasperation over being put on trial for all rap music’s content evolved into empathy for Dr. Holt, his supposed opponent, and vice versa. Montague then shifted to a segment about a supposedly “trans-racial” black boy named Antoine who “identified” as a 35-year-old white man. In shifting from a legitimate topic to a ridiculous one, the show subverted the gentle, comfortable window dressing the media puts on the evolving and sensitive topic of identity in America—and the frequent inability to distinguish real issues from invented ones. Montague himself (Alano Miller) seemed like an obvious parody of CNN’s Don Lemon, a news anchor often criticized for his absurd TV stunts supposedly investigating racism.
In the age of Netflix, television, even in the half-hour comedy genre, has become overly dependent on the power of the serialized narrative. Great shows like Bojack Horseman and You’re the Worst build much of their comic force from the overarching stories they’re telling; the delight of Atlanta, meanwhile, is its utter changeability. Last week’s episode “Value” threw its focus entirely on the show’s only female regular, Van (Zazie Beetz), as she navigated an awkward night with an old friend and the repercussions of the morning after, becoming a moody meditation on the difficulty of maintaining female friendship in a class- and image-conscious society.
The week prior, “Nobody Beats the Biebs” was a wild investigation of celebrity in which Paper Boi clashed with an obnoxious Justin Bieber—except Bieber was played by a black actor, Austin Crute. The show never acknowledged the bizarre theatrical device, but it didn’t need to; every reaction you as a viewer had to an African American Bieber (who was otherwise guilty of the same bad-boy antics as the real singer) forced you to analyze if his race affected your opinion of him. As Vice’s Pilot Viruet said of the episode, the series is great at talking about race without ever actually talking about race; it’s neither polemical nor apathetic. Still, Atlanta’s biggest achievement is how it layers slice-of-life insights with weird sketches and departures from reality, while also telling a different story every week. With just three episodes left this season, “B.A.N.” is the latest evidence of how beautifully Atlanta can strike that balance.