The opening scene sets up a seemingly standard television drama, with a dash of Donald Glover charm as the earnest Earn. A man and woman waking to a conversation about dreams, morning breath and protestations of love. Soon as Earn pushes Vanessa too far in frivolity she escapes to the bathroom and readies her fro, iconic to her character. As we are introduced to their daughter, all appears to be relatively normal in the lives of this young family. Vanessa reminds Earn that he is babysitting in the evening, whilst revealing that she is going on a date. Immediately the viewer is thrown into a state of disarray, as what we thought we were watching is thrown to the wind. This mother and father are not a couple because Earn is simply not able to provide for them, as he has a very poor paying job with no roof over his own head. The desperation of the situation amplifies because his parents won’t let him into their home because he will quite simply cost them money. The only hope to improve his situation is to convince his cousin Alfred to let him manage his burgeoning career as a rapper. The ridiculousness of the show pronounces itself with Alfred aka Paper Boi greeting Earn through the barrel of a gun and his pot smoking friend Darius, yielding a knife in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other. Welcome to Atlanta.
The writing accolades mainly fall to Donald and Stephen Glover who bring an intimate feel to every encounter as the exaggerated supporting cast bounce off the firmly grounded central trio of Glover, Beetz and Henry. Though the colloquialisms are in keeping with the poverty stricken Afro-American communities, there are scenes where indigenous ebonics make you feel rooted in a deep south city. Each episode has a deliberate place setting and provides varying situational circumstances that provide contrast the very real central cast. Examples of this include Earn waiting in a police station for processing with a selection of misfits who he finds himself interacting with whilst simultaneously trying to keep his head down. It is that meek and mild character expression that Glover portrays so well which bears the hilarity of a conversation about not being allowed to sleep in jail or a thug realising his own inadvertent homosexual encounters. Vanessa’s indignant interactions with a former friend turned Wag to the football stars that brings the tragedy of failing a cannabis test. Paper Boi has some of the most intriguing interactions as a drug dealer come indie rapper who is classically aggressive and physically whilst being able to be quite charismatic at times. His deadpan expression is hilarious whilst having his photo taken with a police officer fan, equally matched by the physicality of his inherent entitled jealously towards a black Justin Bieber during a charity basketball match.
The Tokyo born director Hiro Murai masters quite creative and artistic photography. His sense of drama in intuitive and takes the camera to unique angles and expositions. The opening episodes sees a violent climax filmed directly from above. The show is littered with examples of this such as Earn being guided around a corner walkway; he leaves the shot and re-enters closer to the camera or using a window along a desk wall as a viewfinder for a conversation between Earn and Alfred. Murai employs a liberal use of focus given how far from the conversation he sets up the scene, allowing a purposeful blurring of different characters in the frame. These cinematic strategies fit with the importance of every scene and actor/actress being pivotal towards the lives of the protagonists. There are no opening credits, only the title of the show being written inventively such as a tattoo on the lower back of a near naked lady or the tiled floor of a fast food joint. There are creative moments and homages throughout the show but the most ingenious satire takes place in episode seven, which is completely filmed as a Black American Network television show, including advertisements. As a guest on a talk show Alfred has to account for his misogyny and transphobic lyrics to a doctor of transgender politics. His short temper and exaggerative reactions provide some of the funniest of the show, whilst also addressing issues rarely seen in any show about rap music.
Atlanta covers a host of themes and merges satire, black comedy and tragedy in very ambitious yet impressive style. It functions more as a set of individual episodes then as a long running story but they are enjoyable in highlighting the personas of Earn, Alfred and Vanessa. There is deep seated pain and hardship that is so palatable between the non-functioning family. Zazie Beetz portrays Vanessa’s resentment towards Earn with vigour and passion, which is difficult to appreciate given his innocent and playful demeanour, implying a greater disappointment befell their relationship in the past. His desperate attempts to survive on minimal finances are not as much amusing but gut churningly upsetting. It is his affability that makes us feel for him so passionately as he fails to order a child’s meal for his lunch. Paper Boi manages his Z-list celebrity status with little dignity especially as he is involved in a shooting from the very first episode. This stain on his reputation is carried through the series and becomes central to his character exposition. It is far from the real heart of the show which one of pure day to day survival, as we watch Earn and Vanessa try to be competent parents. Atlanta is realistic and emotive at its core but contrasts with the sensationalised and caricaturist characters to a point which makes it all the more poignant.