After “Atlanta” went the full Adult Swim with the Oct. 11th satirical episode “B.A.N.,” it’s high time we talk about what on Earth Donald Glover is doing. Or rather, what on Earth has Donald Glover been doing, for the past ten years?
You could look at Glover’s resume and call him a Renaissance man, but the truth is more complex: Follow the line of seemingly erratic jumps — from “Community,” to rap persona Childish Gambino, to standup hits like “Weirdo” — and you’ll see him creating a string of pockets of fans across demographics, who seem (at times) to feel challenged to determine, once and for all, exactly which version of Glover is worth our collective time.
A third of the time, he’s the brainy comedy writer who was on staff at “30 Rock” at age 23, a third of the time he’s a sadboy rapper who feels like an island, a third of the time he’s the kind of guy who would host a pep rally at your high school. Now he has the audacity to give us a genre-bending, experimental TV show with arthouse cinematography, richly drawn characters thick with contradictions and complexities, and a world-sized worldview that was indelibly clear from the first half-hour?
“Atlanta” is telling a story — quiet, high-stakes — about the push-and-pull between desperation and a dollar, in an age where everyone is screaming to be heard among the noise. But “Atlanta” is even more a worldview. It’s ten episodes of a vibe, a snapshot of Glover’s hometown, a lens into the underwater half of the iceberg that is hip hop: Gritty and turbulent, a candle burnt at both ends. Dark cinematography and lived-in graphics make it feel like a humid summer midnight in Georgia. “Atlanta” is what the world through the eyes of people we — historically, collectively, unnecessarily — don’t always listen to.
And after “B.A.N.” there’s no arguing that “Atlanta” isn’t prioritizing point of view over all else. The episode’s satirical version of B.E.T. took us through a series of segments and commercials on a talk show, commenting on everything from luxury car commercials to the slippery slope of media sensationalism. It’s shocking, in its abandonment of genre and narrative, but does it really shock us that much?
“Atlanta’s” every episode is more a trip into Glover’s brain, a half-hour spent wearing his eyes. It’s an amalgamation of his artistic identity up until this point: Equal parts music, comedy, sadness, and racial identity unfiltered through the usual passive re-centralizing mechanisms through which white privilege strains so much. There are a lot of very talented people at work here, but it’s no insult to them to say that ultimately, Glover is sitting back and screaming his truth through this show.
Glover’s always maintained his interest — and level of output — across many genres, many different versions of himself. For an industry that’s so quick to box people up, especially artists of color, there’s always been this question in the margins, especially among white music journalists, that there’s something to “get” about Donald Glover. Something to comprehend.
Except Glover is one of the most honest voices in Hollywood. He has told us time and time again exactly who he is. He’s shown us every side of him through his work, given us Instagram confessionals when he stepped away from projects, and written album after album telling the story of a boy-turned-man who feels alone, all the time. With “Atlanta,” any gaps in Glover’s public identity come together seamlessly — not merely closing the gaps or papering them over, but showing us the whole from an entirely different vantage point. And with it, the world.
“I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture,” Glover said recently: That when so much of an lived experience is portrayed through a secondary filter, that portrayal can become reality, possessed and owned by the consumers of those images until the truth is lost entirely. If you don’t come from a world that looks anything like Glover’s Atlanta, it takes a forthright ease and code-switching finesse to break through those walls of interpretation. To be seen and heard and loved as it is, not how we’re used to seeing it.
Through the default lens, a lot of cutesy signifiers get put on black people in fiction, to make them feel safer for parts of the audience: “Community’s” star quarterback, a million ironic nerds, “You’re the Worst’s” hyperverbal walking thesaurus. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles) is as lovable and complex as the best of those classics, and he also shoots people. Female lead Van (Zazie Beetz) is more compelling and relatable than a lot of characters in highly praised all-women ensembles. Earnest Marks (Glover) and Darius (Keith Stanfield) aren’t just your friends, they’re specific and whole people from a different universe than a lot of us, and from most characters on television.
Most television, throughout its history, has been a conversation between white people — made by overwhelmingly white artists for a presumed, incorrectly imagined white audience — with the rest of us begrudgingly along for the ride. Instead — like Issa Rae’s “Insecure” on HBO — “Atlanta” is “relatable” in the actual sense of the word:
Uncompromising in its humanity, rather than the common definition of that word, which has properly meant until now something closer to approaching the white, straight male sitcom default — Ted Danson, Tim Allen, Kevin James — as a limit. “Atlanta’s” all-black writers’ room demonstrates what a smarter, more honest reversal of all that could look like, and therefore what all television should, and increasingly does, feel like: Welcoming. Moving, hilarious. Warm.
But we aren’t just hearing from and living in a world a variable distance from our own: We’re also getting the sum total of Donald Glover’s creativity. We talk about artists putting everything they’ve got into their work, but usually that entails doubling down on key details of a personal brand and hoping truth results: Here we’ve got a rap-infused drama with honest — blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smart — humor, and capsule moments (black Bieber, “B.A.N.”) as chaotic and random and perfectly produced as a random Gambino reference.
In Earn’s conflicting relationships with Vanessa, we hear “Kids” from Gambino’s “Camp” album, about a man who doesn’t feel mature enough for the affection of a woman who grew up quicker than him: “If we were kids, I’d want to give you everything that you could want.”
In the “B.A.N.” interview — on show-within-a-show-within-a-show “Montague” — we meet a black teenager who claims to be a 35-year-old white man inside: A pretext for some weird Paper Boi references to trans oppression and a welcome slash at Rachel Dolezal, but also a callback to the young man from Stone Mountain who helped create “30 Rock’s” Stone Mountain native, Kenneth Parcell, and the somber, surreal album “Because the Internet.”
And in a show that gives us all of Glover, not only the versions a network might perceive to be most comfortable, we hear and see everywhere echoes of that best-known Gambino refrain: “Don’t be mad ‘cause I’m doin’ me better than you doin’ you.”
“Atlanta” brings back a tonal memory of the poem Glover tweeted in the wake of Ferguson:
‘childish gambino is a white rapper’
‘i wanna be a white rapper’
‘i hope i’m so white they let my friend out of jail sooner.
‘i hope i’m so big and white my cousin wasn’t shot and stabbed twice in the neck twice
That space, between the person speaking and the person hearing — not alienation, but its more compassionate cousin, mindfulness — remains a two-way street in everything Glover does.
He became a household name as “Community’s” Troy Barnes, lovable ex-jock with a nerdy streak, whom fans loved as much as any sitcom character: Our friendly friend, but not our best friend — close enough to us to cheer us up on a bad day, but not close enough to weigh us down with their problems. Suicidal, Dungeons & Dragons-playing white nerds are in the demo, but a similar story about a young black man in community college going through a life-threatening emergency, say, would read as instantly political. Too dark.
When Glover left “Community” mid-fifth season and shifted focus to his rap career as Childish Gambino, that Troy following never quite followed; for some it felt like betrayal. And in tone, Gambino is Troy’s antithesis: Existential, sentimental, angry, and deeply sad — and as a rapper, a product and voice of a culture Troy’s largely white fan base did not own.
“Camp,” Glover’s 2011 album, is wringing with nostalgia, telling the story of Glover’s childhood and adolescence: The narrative of a boy who felt too white for his black peers and too black for his white peers. And when critics assigned Childish Gambino a predominantly white audience, he earned a reputation as a “rapper for white people,” which the Ferguson poem directly addresses.
For years Donald Glover has shown us time and time again exactly who he is, but — for reasons that are so obvious it’s hard to look at them directly — but the arbiters of culture just couldn’t seem to hear it. Now that the Louis CK/FX machine has pre-vetted “Atlanta” for quality and universality, we can look at him with fresh eyes, and see Glover at his best: Not one of several different, assonant celebrities, but a unique artist, with the experience and confidence to show us all those faces at once.
“Atlanta,” recently renewed for a second 10-episode season, airs Tuesdays at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on FX.