Donald Glover is a little difficult to pin down. He’s been a mainstay in the New York-centric comedy nerd circuit for a solid decade now, cutting his teeth as a writer for 30 Rock and getting famous as Troy Barnes, the sweetly dopey jock on Dan Harmon’s NBC comedy Community. And now he’s the star and creator of Atlanta, his brand new FX dramedy which premieres Tuesday.
But there’s also Childish Gambino, Glover’s hip hop alter ego, an early adopter of hip hop’s love affair with the sort of indie rock you’d hear in a 2010 Urban Outfitters dressing room. As an emcee, Childish Gambino was provocative, lovelorn, blistering and deeply indebted to the fiery hip hop coming out of Atlanta, Glover’s hometown. He also got onboard what Pitchfork started dismissively calling “hashtag rap” — stating something in one stanza and finding some sort of clever, pop culture savvy-synonym for it in the next.“You can fucking kiss my ass // human centipede,” for example:
It’s a far cry from the carousel of Arrested Development-indebted weirdness Glover showcased in his comedy gigs, and it gave us two very different depictions of the same Donald Glover, occupying two ostensibly different circles of pop culture stardom simultaneously and in seeming contradiction to each other.
But in more recent years, this contradiction has become so commonplace as to be normal. Childish Gambino was part of the vanguard of new rappers whose pop culture vocabulary was shaped more by Tumblr and Adult Swim than Martin and MTV. There is a fast-rising generation of pop culture auteurs for whom Michael Jordan is a shoe, Jay Z is Beyonce’s sheepishly supportive husband and hip hop exists in conversation with Arthur memes just as much as it does police brutality. A few years ago, Kanye’s well-publicized adoration of Will Ferrell movies and SNL skits seemed at odds with his vaunted reputation as an artistic mastermind on an entirely different level of creative energy than the rest of the world. But that tension helped fashion a world in which hip hop’s long and vibrant relationship with comedy sketches could finally break into the mainstream. Glover was merely one of the first to cross over into rap from comedy instead of the other way around.
But Glover’s other achievement is that he blends his music and his comedy to the detriment of neither. Will Smith became a major comedic star with a number of era-defining hit singles, that were squeaky clean compared to the rap stars of his day. Granted, Smith is more socially conscious than he lets on, and a few episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air weave sly racial commentary into the laughs. But he looks positively timid compared to Glover who, either by accident or design, started writing at his most woke right around the time white American audiences had accepted him as a relatively safe talent. He was using Grizzly Bear and Sleigh Bells in his music, for crying out loud. How dangerous could he be?
Pretty dangerous, as it turns out. That’s illustrated by Glover’s newest venture, which is likely to be his defining one for the next few years. Atlanta — which Glover created, executive produces and stars in — is a trip and it’s one in which all Glover’s distinct personal quirks and interests finally coalesce into something coherent, singular, powerful and masterful. Atlanta manages the neat trick of being both sly and forceful, telling an engaging story wrapped in real world events with a dreamlike touch that borders on magic realism. This level of idiosyncrasy is rarely accepted on TV, even in our brave new world of Auteur-Driven Prestige Television Drama Overload, and kudos to FX for trusting Glover to carry out his vision. (For my money, it’s time to bump the network to the top of our list.)
Glover has called Atlanta “Twin Peaks with rappers,” and while that could mean any number of things, including both shows’ general weirdness. But I’m guessing he’s referring to Twin Peaks’ air of threat. Being young, black and male in Atlanta means living at a level of constant danger. Some of that danger comes from police, drugs and institutionalized racism, yes, but there are less obvious sources too. There are no simple relationships in Atlanta. Familial ones are tinged with discord. Romantic ones are stuffed with tension. The writing avoids easy decisions, from obvious plot points to well-worn punchlines.
Glover has spoken at length about his commitment to avoiding “clapter” (an excellent portmanteau Tina Fey once attributed to former SNL co-star Seth Meyers’ creation, a term for when the audiences are laughing as a way of applauding a joke that makes a point they agree with, even if the joke itself isn’t that funny), and it’s a testament to both how gifted a writer he is and how lazy most network comedies are that his dedication pays off huge dividends. The laughs in Atlanta are deliberate, earned and most importantly, interesting.
Still, it’d be a mistake to call Atlanta a comedy when there’s so much else going on here, though it sure has its moments. But the show is at its strongest when it ventures into wilder, woolier terrain. There are a million TV shows you could watch right now, so it’s really saying something that Atlanta makes you sit up and pay attention by virtue of not just its writing, its performances and direction (although all are solid), but just its overall vibe. It’s difficult to think of another show this fresh that came out of the gates with such confidence.
That’s sort of where Donald Glover has spent his career though: Striking daring artistic stances with such fearlessness and skill that you can’t even tell if he knows how brave it is. “Risk averse” isn’t quite right. “Risk unaware” seems closer to the mark, and it’s paid off. It paid off in his Community portrayal of Troy Barnes, who started off as a stock black male athlete before evolving (along with the rest of the show) into something far more meta. Glover’s risks paid off with his music, where he’s successfully insisted that he be taken seriously, working alongside such luminaries as ScHoolboy Q and Chance the Rapper. His risks have even paid off on social media, where a 2010 campaign to get him cast as Spider-Man picked up enough steam to get a nod in Community. That campaign didn’t work (perhaps for the better — Andrew Garfield ended up starring in what’s largely considered to be a failure of a reboot), but it did inspire Marvel to create a new half-black, half-Latino Spider-Man named Miles Morales.
And it succeeds fabulously on Atlanta, one of the weirdest shows to appear on primetime in recent memory. It almost surely won’t be for everyone — the show is too patient and interested in its own mysterious ends to have much mass appeal — but it’s certainly the show Glover wanted to make. And when the show is as wild and offbeat as this, that’s no mean feat.