One of the big ironies of comedy is that for it to work, it needs to be both universal and specific. If it’s not universal, people won’t get the jokes; if it’s not specific, you end up with general observations so obvious there’s nothing to laugh at. It’s a fine line to walk and Atlanta makes it look easy.
The show thrives because the city of Atlanta is as much a part of what makes the series such a richly rewarding show, with its depiction of the lives of its residents - the personal struggles of low-level rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), his low-energy Princeton drop-out manager, Earn (Donald Glover, the show’s creator and main writer), and Paper’s spaced-out friend, conspiracy expert Darius (Lakeith Stanfield).
It’s success is owed more than the geography of Atlanta, with the show filmed in the kinds of real-life locations most comedy series avoid (more than one article about the series has mentioned filming being interrupted by the sound of gunshots). It's the culture of Atlanta and its people that resonate with viewers.
The hip-hop references here run deep – this season's opening scene references rapper Tay-K’s alleged (second) involvement in a deadly shooting at a Chick-fil-A restaurant, and when Paper Boi’s single goes gold after a white woman uploads a YouTube video where she tearfully reads out and denounces his “offensive” lyrics - it’s a riff on a similar video attacking Vince Staples’ track “Norf Norf”. The white boss at the streaming platform Paper Boi visits in the hope of boosting his career refers to himself as “35 Savage”, a dad joke riff on rapper 21 Savage. Paper Boi isn’t impressed.
In lesser hands, such specific cultural references could leave viewers out in the cold, a mess of in-jokes and obscure references that alienate rather than welcome. But in Atlanta, when they make a throwaway reference to cult cartoon series BoJack Horseman, it doesn’t feel like some kind of hipster treasure hunt where you get brownie points for spotting the reference. It’s just a series where characters watch odd shows on television – like people do in real life. And there are a lot of jokes here. It’s easy to go on about the lived-in reality and surreal moments (we haven’t even mentioned the invisible car from last season) of the series, but any show that can serve up a black rapper named Justin Bieber – his name is never explained – is definitely a show not afraid to get a bit silly if there’s a good laugh to be found.
Underneath the specifics that give Atlanta its unique flavour, there’s almost always something universal. You might not have Robbin’ Season in your neighbourhood, but when it’s explained – that in the lead-up to Christmas times are tight and people need money – not only does it make sense, but it’s probably something you’ve experienced yourself. You may not rob your neighbours, but most of us definitely need to make some extra cash to pay for Christmas. The sense of increased desperation is universal; the way it’s expressed is pure Atlanta.
When Paper Boi visits the all-glass, all-white-staffed offices of a streaming service in the hopes of getting a deal, it’s a depressing and occasionally nightmarish situation. The CD they’ve brought with his music on it can’t be played – it might as well be on a wax cylinder, the technology there is so far beyond burning CDs. In a distant office in the glass-walled complex, another rapper is performing standing on a desk while white workers watch, making it feel like some kind of creepy assembly line. We may not have gone through the same situation, but the experience of trying to get work at a place where we don’t really fit in? That’s something most of us know a little about.
Even more than the first season, which made sure to occasionally drop in a few steadying sitcom moments, Atlanta Robbin’ Season works hard to keep viewers off kilter. Stories take surprising twists, and random chats can lead to violence or an alligator coming out someone’s front door. But the hard-earned sense of a specific reality is always there. Earn initially seemed set to be a story-driving hustler trying to make Boi rich, but most of the time, he’s passive to the point of coma, a man living between the big events in his life who’s on pause while he waits to see if anything is going to fall into place. He’s not the kind of character you normally find at the heart of a comedy, but he’s a specific type – in real life those guys are everywhere.
It’s a show firmly set in a small corner of the world, but Atlanta is all about the big picture. The cast are low-level hustlers on the fringes of a hip-hop scene where fame is cheap and money non-existent, but over and over the show pulls back to show the connections between levels, the way that big trends in society have real impact on the ground. It’s a show about being black in America, being poor in America, being on the margins in America. That’s some big subject matter – Atlanta makes it work by always keeping it specific.
Watch Atlanta on Fridays at 9:20pm on SBS VICELAND. You can catch up with the show anytime at SBS On Demand: