Donald Glover's Atlanta, post-This Is America
In the wake of This Is America, his scintillating treatise on the state of America, we revisit the first season of Donald Glover's game-changing comedy as it airs on BBC Two
The nature of being a publicly-funded broadcaster means that every penny the BBC spends is subject to intense scrutiny; when a project fails, the fallout can be massive, with a government that will jump at any excuse to cut the corporation's funding. Imagine the relief then for whoever signed off on the acquisition of the free-to-air British broadcast rights (it was previously on Sky Atlantic) for Atlanta. In between the announcement that the Beeb would be showing its critically-adored first season and the airing of the pilot episode, its creator, writer, star and occasional director Donald Glover dropped new single This Is America – his scorched-earth treatise on a country in hock to division and violence.
Glover is as close as anybody has come to resembling a 21st century renaissance man. In addition to his illustrious credits on television, both in front of the camera and in the writers' room, he plays Lando Calrissian in the new Han Solo movie and is already being tipped for his own spin-off. His career in music was perhaps the one area in which critical acclaim hadn't come altogether easily to him. Under the pseudonym Childish Gambino, he released the deeply muddled concept album Because the Internet in 2013, before redeeming himself three years later with Awaken, My Love!, an eclectic funk odyssey that marked a stylistic turning point for him akin to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly.
Unlike Lamar though, Glover hadn't used his music to incisively take America's societal temperature until now. The video for This Is America, directed by regular Atlanta helmsman Hiro Murai, is loaded with symbolism and has already been extensively deconstructed by critics looking for Glover's message on race. He debuted it during a hosting slot on Saturday Night Live and it's been viewed in excess of 160 million times already – certainly far more people have seen it than have seen Atlanta.
Had more watched Glover's TV series, they'd know that he's been making pronouncements on the present state of black America with laser-guided focus long before This Is America. They'd also know that, as brilliant and vital as Get Out was, Jordan Peele isn't the only person to have used surrealism to skewer his country's racial biases. Atlanta follows Glover as Earn, a perennially-broke college dropout who spots an escape route from his present circumstances when his older cousin, who raps under the name Paper Boi, appears to be on the brink of breakout success. What ensues is a remarkably weird and consistently funny reflection on every aspect of Glover's lived black experience in his hometown.
Much of this is reflected not just in Glover's character but in those around him, who are equally well-drawn. It quickly becomes apparent that FX, who commissioned the show, didn't place any kind of restraints on its creator but Glover remarked in a recent New Yorker profile that one of the things his bosses found strangest about the show was the ambiguous relationship between Earn and his on-off girlfriend, and mother of his child, Van – brilliantly played by Deadpool 2 star Zazie Beetz. "[She] is every one of my aunts – you have a kid with a guy, he’s around, you’re still attracted to him. Poor people can’t afford to go to therapy,” says Glover.
Atlanta delights in its diversions into surrealism – from the presentation of Justin Bieber as an African-American rapper to an uproarious skit in which a black character becomes convinced he is 'transracial' and therefore a 35-year-old white man who talks as such ("what IPA do you have on tap?"). But it's concessions like that one from Glover about the nature of Van's character that suggests that Atlanta is a far more personal project than he'd perhaps like; he has been opaque about his private life in interviews. In the wake of the deeply provocative This Is America, and with him looking like more of a polymath than ever before, most would want you to think that this is Donald Glover's world, and that we're just living in it. But Atlanta actually is Glover's world, a show every inch in the image of its creator, and with a deeper message than he can convey in a four-minute music video. Of everything he's done, this piece is the most essential.
Atlanta series one is currently being broadcast on BBC Two and is available on iPlayer
Atlanta series two is broadcast on FOX UK from 17 Jun