It’s May of 2018. Donald Glover has just released his brand-new song, “This Is America.” The song debuts at #1 on the Billboard charts and the music video quickly racks up tens of millions of views. It goes on to win multiple Grammys, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
It’s May of 2018. Donald Glover stars as Lando Calrissian in Solo, a Star Wars film charting the adventures of a young Han Solo. The film receives a tepid critical response and bombs at the box-office, losing the studio over $75 million. Plans for future standalone Star Wars films are effectively torpedoed. But Glover’s performance is singled out for praise.
It’s still May of 2018. The second season of Atlanta, subtitled “Robbin’ Season,” wraps its 11-episode run. Its highlight: “Teddy Perkins,” an episode which sees Donald Glover play a psychologically scarred man in whiteface. The episode is nominated for five Emmy Awards, winning two.
Did I mention he also hosted SNL?
It’s inarguable that, not long ago, the former Community star had a moment. He was a singer. He was a comedian. He was an action star. And yet the irony is that his best and most innovative project at that moment was also the one with the lowest level of publicity.
Created by and starring Glover, Atlanta premiered on FX (I like this network, don’t I?) in September 2016. The show followed Glover’s character, a down-on-his-luck college dropout who’s turned to managing the budding rap career of his friend Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who goes by the moniker Paper Boi. Other castmembers included Lakeith Stanfield as oddball Darius, and Zazie Beetz as Earn’s sometimes-girlfriend Van.
It took some time, admittedly, to warm to the series, largely because it took a while to figure out what Atlanta actually was. Early episodes played it cool, providing an introspective look at the characters and the obstacles they face in the titular city on the road to success. The show’s offbeat sense of humor was there in the early going, but it felt subdued, particularly coming from the guy who previously made up one-half of “Troy and Abed in the Morning.”
Then, late in the first season, Atlanta threw a major curveball in the form of “B.A.N.” Styled like a talk show episode, complete with interviews and even fake commercials, the episode mocked racial and gender stereotypes while playing its core premise entirely straight. At the time it aired, I didn’t know what to make of “B.A.N,” which felt like an absurd anomaly to the series at that point. But as the show ended its first season and, a year and change later, began its second, it became clear that absurdism was the show’s new normal.
Atlanta’s tone is not a silly show – it takes its premise and characters seriously, almost disarmingly so. Yet its tone is unlike any other series, comedy or drama, on television. The show can be funny one week (“Barbershop”) and unsettling the next (the aforementioned “Teddy Perkins”) without ever wavering from its innate style. Its characters simultaneously inhabit a real world – filled with issues like racism, class struggles, and bottomless debt – and a surreal universe filled with invisible cars and race-flipped Justin Biebers.
Atlanta’s unique style – helped in no small part by Hiro Murai’s vivid directing and Christian Sprenger’s immersive cinematography – has also, unfortunately, made it a difficult sell for new viewers. But its mere existence heralds the greatest advancement of television in the 2010s: a rise in visionary, creator-owned sitcoms that are just as raw and compelling as the dramas which fit that vein in the 2000s.
Atlanta did not begin this trend, but with future seasons, it may well perfect it. Long may it reign.
One week down, three to go. Tune in Monday for the 15th-best show of the decade, which proved that the good can still die young.