“Atlanta,” written and created by Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), may be one of the best shows on TV right now. The show is funny, remarkably well-crafted, and full of humanity. Glover has created a world that takes place in a very realistic version of Atlanta, one in which you can almost feel the stale humidity and smell the roadside kudzu as you travel through the scenery. These characters are so well written, you will swear that you “know a guy just like that” as they navigate through sporadic poverty and constantly-evolving relationships.
It’s inaugural season spanned 10 episodes last year, in which we were introduced to some of the most dynamic and empathetic characters on TV. The premise focuses on 20-something Earn and his Cousin, “Paper Boi,” a rapper who is quickly gaining a local following. Glover portrays Earn, who, throughout season one, reveals that he is a little bit more than the sum of his parts. Without learning the whole story, we know that Earn was at one time enrolled in Princeton, and that he now has a toddler daughter, whose mother is not quite his girlfriend, but not quite his ex-girlfriend either. Paper Boi, aka Al, is a talented rapper who has been making money selling drugs for the last decade. He’s recently created a record, which has earned him a bit of a following, but not an income.
With a vested interest in getting a better paying gig, Earn, who has been signing people up for credit cards at the airport, suggests to Paper Boi that he become his manager. Paper Boi is reluctant, but also hopeful that his smart cousin can help him out, and eventually agrees to the arrangement. Paper Boi has a roommate, friend, buddy (not sure) named Darius, who is remarkably funny from his very first scene. Darius is breezy and confident, not rattled by stressful situations, and full of random and dubious nuggets of wisdom.
The first season focuses heavily on developing the characters, and establishing them all as our fatal heroes. Paper Boi is involved in a shooting early on in the season which cements his status as a thug rapper, which isn’t exactly what he wanted to be. Earn sees some moderate success in his new career, but not fast enough. He is constantly struggling with his ability to provide for his family, and impress his daughter’s mother, Van.
Van is a tremendously complex character, a refreshing departure from the shrill, holier-than-though significant others so commonly seen in shows about down-on-their-luck protagonists. Van loves Earn, but she knows he’s barely treading water. She has a dream of opening a fashion boutique, and her own problems holding down employment at a public school. Van has wide eyes for the future, and at first reluctant, wants to help Earn succeed too.
Glover, who is known for his writing and acting work on comedies like “30 Rock” and “Community,” created a show that is not afraid to tackle a variety of social stigmas and hot-button topics, but with a fresh and candid tone. In season one, a particularly noteworthy episode, “B.A.N.,” directed by Glover, portrayed Paper Boi being interviewed alongside an academic woman, Dr. Deborah Holt. The interview goes remarkably poorly for Paper Boi, at first, but Dr. Holt quickly realizes that the rapper’s honesty about his feelings on a certain issue were his right. The issue in question happened to be a local man who was transitioning from a black teenager to a 35 year old white man from Colorado with blond bangs.
Sporadically violent, and at times lacking in hope for the main characters, season one concluded with a promise of some sunny days ahead, as Paper Boi is invited on tour, and Earn finally gets a pay day.
Season two, “Robbin’ Season,” premiered just a few weeks ago with the introduction of some new characters, and some new potential issues for Earn and crew. Paper Boi, still selling drugs to make ends meet, is robbed by his associate of over 10 years, and Earn is having a hard time saying “no” to some appallingly bad suggestions. Episode three is dedicated to Earn trying hard to impress Van, to finally be at the top of the totem pole instead of the bottom. This is, of course, a complete disaster. Earn cannot catch a break or get out of his own way — eventually challenging Michael Vick to a parking lot foot race.
“Atlanta” is at once hilarious and devastating. There is an overload of talent in front of the camera, behind it, and in the writer’s room. The humor is sometimes subtle, and never goes for the cheap laugh, but gets the big laughs regularly. Whether or not you grew up poor in Atlanta, you will be able to relate to these guys. They are far from real success, and far from having it figured out, but you will root for them.