If anyone had any doubts that representation matters, they haven’t checked out Donald Glover’s new FX series, Atlanta. After last week’s premiere that garnered critical acclaim (and 3 million viewers), the show that takes its name from the capitol city of the Peach State is poised to be one of Fall’s most talked about shows.
And none of that is by accident.
In an interview with Vulture that made the rounds in the week before the show, Glover talked about pushing back against the network’s insistence that one of the show’s characters, a rapper named Paper Boi “live in a home as run-down and ‘traplike’ as possible.” The end result is a show that intentionally sidesteps the cartoonish, buffoonish stereotypes that have come to define southern life for young Black people courtesy of hip hop and reality TV, and instead runs toward an embrace of Black people living life the best way we know how.
What makes Atlanta extraordinary is the ordinary. These are the Black men we’ve always known, but in a media landscape where everything needs to be super-sized the men shown on Atlanta are rarely reflected on the big or small screen. Even the scene that occurs in jail lacks the big, scary ogre-like characters we’re used to seeing. What we’re treated to are moments of humor, frustration and a brief discourse on the fluidity of male sexuality.
Judging by the reviews, to non-Black audiences Atlanta may be just another critically acclaimed show with an alternate take on day-to-day living for non-Black audiences. Slate’s review casually mentions race, and the New York Times calls it a “layer cake of African-American life,” while also giving a nod to the show’s acknowledgement of cultural appropriation. Atlanta is much more than that, though. It’s a show set in one of the country’s Black Meccas featuring a Black cast. For Black people, and Black men particularly, the show serves as a mirror for most of our realities, regardless of social class or geographic location. It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotion that tugs at the heartstrings with its raw simplicity, which comes courtesy of its all-Black writer’s room.
The show’s main protagonist, Earn (played by Glover) is a Princeton dropout and proverbial fish out of water in the ATL. Like a lot of Black boys who grow to be men, Earn is one or two decisions away from having a radically different life. While some Ivy League dropouts have gone on to start game-changing companies, Earn finds himself back at home and stuck in a dead-end job while repairing strained relationships with his family.
Had Earn stayed in school, the show could easily be a tale of what happens when a Black man works on Wall Street or a hot new tech startup while navigating the realities of life with a family that didn’t make the journey with him. But that isn’t what Atlanta is about.
Despite his shortcomings, it’s easy to root for Earn because—like so many Black men we know who are always one move away from greatness—for every positive, there seems to be a disastrous fatal flaw. In one of the show’s more lighthearted but particularly powerful moments, Earn recalls a dream to Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his child, about hooking up with a “fat” woman (his words, not mine). Following a brief back and forth, Earn struggles to tell Van he loves her. In just those few minutes, Atlanta hits on so many themes of dating as a single person in our hyper-connected world: the desirability, or lack thereof, of bigger bodies; the woman who desperately wants the man with potential to do right; and the man who inexplicably can’t express emotion to the woman he clearly cares about and with whom he conceived a child.
Atlanta’s other two protagonists are just as familiar as Earn. His cousin, Alfred (Bryan Tyree Henry), better known in the streets by his rap moniker, “Paper Boi,” is balancing a life on the brink of breakout success (thanks to Earn bribing a local radio station DJ to play his music) while managing the stress of dealing drugs to make ends meet. It’s the latter where we find Alfred at his most vulnerable, reminding Earn that there’s no glamour in slanging drugs. Alfred is almost the quintessential artist for art’s sake. Where the rap game thrives on celebrity in our social media world, he’s visibly shaken when he’s recognized by the local police or hailed as one of the last real rappers alive by a server at the local wing spot after being arrested for shooting a man. The latter serves as a subtle reminder that although we can rewind tales of murderous mayhem on wax, lives lost on the streets don’t return — something Alfred seems well aware of.
On the flip side, Alfred’s roommate Darius (Keith Stanfield) is someone viewers should know well. Darius smokes a lot of weed and asks a lot of wild questions (at one point, he asks Earn’s father if he can measure the tree in the family’s front yard). If you didn’t have one friend like Darius in your young adult years, question your entire young adult experience.
Ultimately, Atlanta wins because of its real life depictions of Blackness and Black men. It doesn’t need to be outlandish and stereotypical to be successful. It wins because Earn, Alfred and Darius are people we know, and in some cases, they are us. We want them to win just like we want our fathers, cousins, nephews, sons and friends to win, too. We want Alfred to make it in rap, Earn to work it out with Van, and Darius to, well, keep being Darius.
And most importantly, Atlanta wins because it delivers what many Black viewers have been clamoring for: an authentic Black experience that shows real life depictions of Black masculinity, which beats caricatures seven days a week.