Ever hear someone talk about “The Wire” like it is a high-level sociology class? I have. I have probably done it myself too. Part of what makes the show resonate is the way it fosters a conversation. One season is about blue collar workers, another is about the education system. Of course, its social value is not the only thing that makes it great; it is just the aspect of the show that lends itself most readily to conversation.
Part of what makes the new FX show “Atlanta” fascinating, eight episodes into its first season, is the way it resists playing into an easy cultural dialogue. What drew me toward the show was its title, because Atlanta is a place with a compelling music scene—think Young Thug, Gucci Mane and Future. One of “Atlanta’s” protagonists is a rapper and drug dealer named Paper Boi, so it explores the music scene—just not in the way I expected. From where I am standing—which is far away—a show that celebrated the city’s cultural output or reflected its dynamism made sense.
What “Atlanta” actually offers—which is deadpan, absurd and depressing—feels more realistic and more honest. The show’s other protagonist is Paper Boi’s cousin, a Princeton dropout named Earn who is played by showrunner Donald Glover. After Paper Boi’s song “Paper Boi” gains some popularity, Earn tries to latch on as a manager, homeless and desperate for money to support his daughter.
Paper Boi and Earn are not similar, and their differences shed light on an overarching feeling in the show that human connection is a struggle. “Atlanta” sees what keeps people apart, including distinctions in class, race and education. Earn in particular, as a homeless Princeton dropout trying to manage a rapper and be a father, feels pulled apart by the different cultural spheres he inhabits.
In one scene, a white radio DJ tells Earn a story about making fun of a black DJ for playing Flo Rida twice in a row, casually using a racial slur in the process. Earn, unlike the white DJ, does not feel that Flo Rida justifies the flippant use of a racial slur. Later in the episode, Earn asks him to retell the story in front of Paper Boi and his other manager, but this time around he omits the racial slur, and the implicit reason is that Paper Boi looks more intimidating than Earn. The viewer understands the white DJ does this out of fear and racism towards Paper Boi, but to everyone on screen it just seems like Earn wanted to hear a dumb story.
That is the way conversations go in “Atlanta;” they rarely end with the response the person who starts them expects. And while the minor notes of discord are incisive on their own, they also contribute to a broader sense of failure. Since finding a job, doing a drug deal and getting a song on the radio all require delicate acts of communication, the small, accumulating missteps feel foreboding even when they are funny.
The reason Earn was talking to the white DJ in the first place was to try to get Paper Boi’s song on the radio, and he didn’t get help. Earn sneaks the song in by asking a janitor outside of the building though, finding someone he could connect with and who was willing to help. The victories happen at the same level of minutia that failures do.
Another reason I expected a more vibrant show was what I had heard of Donald Glover’s rapping under the name Childish Gambino, and what I have seen of him performing in the Derrick Comedy sketches. Both of those projects are more playful, more in your face. Flashes of that comedic voice show through Earn from time to time, but they feel like an attempt to escape the show’s world rather than an integral part of it.
“Atlanta’s” tonal restraint is what earns its title, as it feels like an exploration of place and feeling rather than the product of someone’s self-expression. You could not call a show like “Girls” or “Louie” “Brooklyn” or “Manhattan” because they exist more within the headspace of the main characters than in an actual place.
Moments like the one with the white DJ make “Atlanta” feel like an essential and timely show, but it does not explore social issues in Atlanta, or any subject matter, in a way you might expect. One episode features Paper Boi getting into a fight with Justin Bieber at a celebrity basketball game, and weirdly, Bieber is depicted as black. The results of that change are hilarious, but it also allows the show to avoid a more obvious racial conflict while still drawing attention to race. Paper Boi’s failure to understand Bieber, even as another black performer, sharpens his sense of alienation.
The delivery, here and in other places, is deadpan, murmuring “this is crap we have to put up with,” rather than shouting at anyone to make a change. While people continue to take sledgehammers to discussions about race and class, “Atlanta” just asks for some commiseration. The depressed laughter and thoughtful silences it provokes have their own kind of social value.