For me, Atlanta is partly mythical. It’s a place where urban legends sit next to you on the MARTA bus; where supercars from rap songs break the sound barrier on lazy interstates; where business meetings, graduation parties, and radio shows coincide at strip clubs; where goat pens and international banking headquarters share neighborhoods with condominiums and subsidised housing; and where roads named after southern icons of civil rights cross roads named after southern icons of the Civil War. Years ago, it was the place where I sat as a country-bumpkin college freshman glued to the television watching the local news, enthralled with the idea of black weathermen and stock analysts. It’s the city that demanded the music world’s attention after André 3000 told the world that the South had something to say. Atlanta is a magic city.
Through the four episodes that I’ve watched so far, Donald Glover’s FX show Atlanta manages the herculean feat of portraying all of that magic, and plenty more. The show seems solely dedicated to portraying the peculiarity of the city at first, name-dropping a ridiculous amount of hotspots and traveling at warp speed between rural, urban, and suburban sets. But along with rapid-fire references to (and portrayals of) famous strip clubs and restaurants, its 30-minute episodes deliver characters who navigate their own American dreams, all while beginning to outline a mythology of the hip-hop renaissance that has defined the city as much as anything else since the ’96 Olympics.
Glover’s Earnest “Earn” Marks is a character who can only exist in the city — a nerdy Princeton drop-out working at Hartsfield-Jackson airport who’s also a homeless deadbeat dad trying to connive his way into the rap game as a manager — and his eclectic cast-mates are just as unique. Brian Tyree Henry plays “Paper Boi” Miles, Earn’s cousin and a rapper who lives in the stereotypical “trap” and sells drugs to fund his career, but also struggles with the ramifications of his own caricature. Darius, played by Keith Stanfield, is a Nigerian American weedhead-mystic who plays the part of Paper Boi’s hype man. Zazie Beetz rounds out the cast as Van, Earn’s love interest who’s already the mother of his child and puts in the emotional labor of supporting his antics while also harboring her own entrepreneurial ambitions.
The series juxtaposes the surreal elements of Atlanta with the real problems in different characters’ daily lives. Earn becomes a rap manager in short order, but he still struggles with money. His lofty ambitions play well in the black-lit glow of the city, but sound hollow, arrogant, and self-serving in the light of day when he explains to Van why he can’t provide for his daughter. Following in the tradition of several prominent Atlanta rappers like Gucci Mane, Paper Boi soon finds himself in trouble with the law. This actually kickstarts his career, and further advances him within its constellation of minor and major stars, but it deeply troubles his conscience in real life as he marinates on his career in a neighborhood off Edgewood. While many shows and films about music feature similar contradictions between the glitz and the grit, in the world of Atlanta they feel like natural extensions of the city itself.
This article was originally published on theatlantic.com: Click here to view the original. © 2016 All Rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.
Multi-award winning US show, Atlanta airs on Saturday, 6 May @ 8.30pm on NITV Ch. 34