Fetty Wap, King Louie, J. Cole, and Wiz Khalifa are among the legion of rappers who have declared in song that their lives are “like a movie.” The new FX dramedy Atlanta—which is ostensibly about hip-hop, but largely about black life in the titular city—swiftly bludgeons the rap cliche with scene after scene of routine normalcy, which exists even in the most trying of circumstances. At the beginning of episode two, when Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), a small-time drug dealer who raps under the name Paper Boi, posts bond following a shooting, he inquires about his cousin, Earnest “Earn” Marks (show creator Donald Glover), whose paperwork remains in processing. When Alfred asks what Earn is being charged with, he’s told, “This ain’t a movie. You better wait till he’s in the system.”
Atlanta presents these moments with patience and somber lucidity. The program, which aired its first two episodes last Tuesday, debuted with a bang—the first episode opened with a disagreement that boiled over into the aforementioned shooting—but nothing about Atlanta feels heightened for effect. Much of the show’s gravity comes through in its intimacy, be it the whispered conversations that require viewers to crank up the volume or the body language so subtle it can be hard to read.
As Earn, a Princeton dropout who’s convinced that managing his cousin’s rap career is the ticket to financial stability (or at least to having a bank account with more than $64 in it), Glover carries the weight of his protagonist with comedic deftness while at the same time injecting pathos into his every facial tic and silent stare. In episode three, Earn seeks to reconcile with Van (Zazie Beetz), his on-again, off-again girlfriend and the mother of his baby, by taking her out for a nice meal. As Van deliberates over which pricey seafood option to select, Earn struggles to maintain his smile as he calculates the damage the meal will do to his meager bank account.
Glover’s sure grasp of mood, emotion, and human flaws enriches the heaviest elements of Atlanta. And like the rest of the show, the challenging moments aren’t always overt. In the first episode, Dave (Griffin Freeman), a white DJ from Earn’s past, tells Earn a story in which he scolds another DJ, casually using the N-word. Earn chortles, his polite grin just as it was before Dave launched into his story, and asks, “You actually said that?” Dave is oblivious to Earn’s shock and disbelief, but the conversation’s residue remains long after the interaction has passed. White men like Dave can check out of conversations about race relations in the U.S. at their convenience, but Atlanta, which is scripted by an entirely black writing staff, ensures that its audience absorbs the complexities.
Atlanta Tuesdays at 9 PM on FX