Atlanta, Donald Glover's delightful new show starting Sept. 6 on FX, is nominally about three guys navigating Atlanta's music scene. This might sound like familiar territory; between Nashville, Empire, Vinyl, and The Get-Down, there's been a recent deluge of ambitious television about music. But Atlanta's priorities are more dramatic than musical. The show is much less about rap — or the heroic rise of a rapper — than it is about the stutter-starts and awkwardness that come with that first taste of success.
Glover's a poet when it comes to writing chance comedic encounters; in Atlanta, he explores the random sociality a certain kind of poverty engenders, especially when ambition is in the mix. If you have to hustle, you don't have the luxury of being lonely. People are going to talk to you, even (or especially) if you don't want them to.
Our hero is Earn Marks (Glover), a father and college drop-out with a dead-end job and big impractical dreams. An outsider and kind of a loser — his parents won't let him in the house, he tries to order kids' meals at McDonald's — he offers his "managerial" services to his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who's rising to rap stardom as "Paper Boi" and is groping for ways to live up to the expectations that come with that role. Alfred's pal Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) helps; he's simultaneously the most street-smart and so lyrically high he almost makes sense. There are too many great Darius moments to choose from, but an early favorite is when he asks Earn's dad — having just met him — whether he can measure his tree.
Atlanta could easily zero in on the drama of being a celebrity in the making. Instead, it's really just about the banal crummy work of dealing with people constantly. Maybe a member of the Nation of Islam solemnly offers you a sandwich on the subway. Maybe some guy makes fun of your rap career online. Atlanta highlights the absurd side of the upward climb and the sporadic, ugly magic of early fame.
FX has earned a reputation for granting its creators massive leeway, and Atlanta is no exception: The show glows with the wry specificity of Glover's vision. The network's trust in him pays off. Like Louis CK, Glover writes, acts, and directs many episodes of his own series. A rapper and stand-up himself, he's also produced and written: He studied to be a playwright and spent three years writing for 30 Rock before striking out on his own and landing a role on Community.
Although he's an Atlanta native and a rapper (Childish Gambino), Glover doesn't play the rising rap star in his show. He's said that doing so would muddle him artistically and make it harder for him to make music: "There's a level of magic realism and suspended disbelief that you need for all genres, and it's important for me as an artist to keep those all intact."
The care Glover takes to carve out differences between Earn's background and his own seems deliberate: Atlanta completely avoids the meta semi-autobiographical hijinks that characterize other comedians' shows. There are certainly some tonal similarities, but this is not the territory occupied by Louis CK or Aziz Ansari (or, more recently, Pamela Adlon and Tig Notaro). Unlike Earn, Glover was raised a Jehovah's Witness in Stone Mountain, Georgia — which Glover once described to Marc Maron as the "pimple on the ass of the Earth" where the Ku Klux Klan rose up a second time. Glover has often admitted to struggling with the ways in which he didn't conform to his Georgia peers' ideas of Southern blackness. This, again, is not exactly Earn's problem.
In fact, Glover stayed away from race in his comedy for a long time. He's confessed to disliking racial comparisons ("black people do this, white people do that"). But — as he tells Maron in that interview — that indifference to race wasn't sustainable. "It became very important to me. A friend was like, the more you try to pretend, the more you try to make it not a thing, it becomes a thing." He eventually started incorporating race into his comedy through unexpected lenses (one example is his famous sketch "Black Peter Pan").
You might not expect someone who was mocked for "talking white" growing up, and who stayed away from race in his comedy, to take on the challenge of dramatizing Atlanta rap culture, but no one has ever called Glover artistically timid. He once cited Tina Fey as his greatest influence, in part because she was so comedically fearless. "She's just not afraid," he said, recalling that when she hired him to write for 30 Rock, she said, "I don't give a f--k. Be you. If it's funny, it's in the script."
That advice paid off. The show strikes an interesting compromise that strikes me as typically "Gloverian": While Atlanta is less about race or rap than it is about circumstantial hilarity, telling a messy, creative, specific underdog story in a city that's majority black means that the show is majority black too. Atlanta is going to be a big deal; it's a pleasure to see Glover's brash, off-kilter genius is on full display.