Game of Thrones may be the popular show we all collectively watch and discuss at nauseam, The People vs. OJ may have caught everyone’s attention with stand out performances, Netflix may have dominated the summer with Stranger Things and Narcos, but Atlanta is the best show of 2016.
It seems weird to say that a 20 minute show could capture the title, but it has.
I’m calling this fight early. Sorry Mr. Robot, sorry Veep, sorry The Night Of. The creator and show-runner of Atlanta, rapper/comedian/writer Donald Glover, seemed to always sit just on the periphery of the mainstream. From online sketch comedy to his role in Community, he had carved out a niche acting career and for a time was even rumored to be up for the roll of Peter Parker in Spiderman. Through all of that though, his real passion always seemed to be hip-hop. In the early stages of his rap career, dropping mixtape after mixtape, he simultaneously encountered hate and praise. His sound was both derided and lauded depending on whatever side of the industry spectrum you sat on. In other words, just how much of a rap snob you were. No matter what you thought about Glover aka Childish Gambino, you knew his work was always coming from a place of authenticity. He wore his reactions on his sleeve and reacted wildly to criticism sometimes, you know…because the Internet. Mixed reviews from Pitchfork and Radar showed that they either didn’t get what Childish Gambino was going for or thought there wasn’t a place in hip-hop from him. Either way, his existence seemed problematic for them.
This is important because all of this would end up informing the show that eventually became Atlanta.
Atlanta has dominated the hip-hop scene from about the early 2000s maybe even earlier than that and anyone who doesn’t recognize that they’ve supplanted New York as the most influential city in Hip-Hop is intentionally being tone-deaf. It’s to the point now where almost every rapper sounds like they’re from Atlanta or at the every least the south. Even New York rappers have fallen into this trap. After all it’s how you “get on.” So Glover, an Atlanta native who raps but doesn’t sound like Future, TI, Gucci or Migos, left a network sitcom and decided to create a show based on a music scene and a city that at times isn’t even sure what they represent – the black community or America at large.
For anyone that’s a tall task, for someone who’s never been a show runner or had his ability as a rapper questioned, it’s even more daunting. On top of that, somehow they needed to do this in 24 minutes, and if it wasn’t great and transformative it would be panned for being fake. Made by someone who wasn’t Atlanta enough, someone who wasn’t black enough…whatever that means.
How good could it be? A young black guy with a semi-successful career who walks around with a chip constantly on his shoulder was about to attempt to make something culturally important. The apprehension on the quality of the show was there perfectly encapsulating the soft bigotry of low expectations.
And then it debuted September 6 with the second episode available online. And just like the music from Atlanta.
It was lit as fuck.
The show follows Glover’s character “Earn”- an airport worker living in modern day Atlanta, giving the show the flexibility to react to our current social climate, which I’m sure will come into play this season. Like many 20 somethings he works, but that doesn’t mean he has money. He’s living in a constant state of never enough between his baby mama’s and his parents’ home. This is the star character. It’s real to the point that your initial thought is that you actually know Earn. The catalyst for the entire show revolves around a revelation of the hot new rapper on the scene, Paper Boi…who just happened to be his cousin. Earn sees this as his chance to get on, take care of his daughter, and get his light-skin ex back in one fell swoop. That’s real character motivation that anyone that’s ever envisioned winning the fame lottery can relate to in heartbeat. You know what makes this show really work – the guy who plays Paper Boi, Brian Tyree Henry. He embodies the feel of an “on the rise” rapper to a tee and it’s outstandingly believable. I actually had to look up if he was an actual rapper and was a little bummed when I found out he wasn’t. By the way, how has no rapper named Paper Boi blown up yet? Then you listen to the song and yooooo…
Like for real listen to this. This is podcast intro music. Every Atlanta rapper had to hear this and think I need to be on this beat. Did Metro produce this? Did Mike Will? Gonna wildly speculate and say had to be one of them.
The writers room for this show is at Glover’s home and is made of all black writers, the complete antithesis of most other TV shows. This is the black experience in Atlanta transformed into a TV show and its given the time and introspection that will make it difficult to duplicate. You won’t be able to easily appropriate this version of Atlanta.
It’s not a 30 second dance video on Instagram or just a southern drawl. Living here in The Bahamas I’ve always wished we had a version of this that truly addressed what it was like living here in real time and that spoke to social issues we dare not say in polite conversation. So yeah it was inspiring to watch and like I’ve said, I’m typically not a huge fan of the 30 minute format. Being great at it is rarified air. Just ask Seinfeld, Curb, Veep, Masters of None, Martin, South Park. Be funny, relevant, speak to real issues and provide drama. That’s asking for greatness without a net. If this show can do that for Glover, for Hip-Hop for Atlanta then this show would be more than just a television show and Glover knows that.
In one of his more infamous freestyles you hear his creativity coming from a place of almost sounding stifled and shackled.
Not anymore, now he has his shot at real greatness.
Go to Atlanta. Listen to Childish Gambino and Stay Woke.