Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” Wraps on a High
The eclectic, Emmy-winning FX series concludes as confident and unorthodox as ever
Written by Jake Mohler
In the age of streaming, it has become increasingly rare to see a show end on its own terms. Whether it’s cancellation, a shift in writing teams or the loss of actors, the constantly shifting media landscape makes consistent storytelling extremely hard to capture. Some shows find success by settling on a formula that works and repeating it for as long as they can. Predictability lends itself to marketability.
FX’s “Atlanta” never aimed for predictability, marketability or even consistency. Through constantly defying the expectations of its format, “Atlanta” explored its characters and world in deeply resonating — yet unconventional — ways.
“Atlanta” ended its four-season run this past fall. The show is best known for its ties to its creator, Donald Glover. It began as a surreal dramedy focusing on the career of rising rapper Al “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry). Managed by his cousin Earn (Glover), the show follows the dangers and complications of Al’s rising stardom. The cast is rounded out by Paper Boi’s enigmatic best friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Earn’s intermittent lover, Van (Zazie Beetz). Despite the show’s talented cast, its premise could easily veer into clichés. However, the “Atlanta” team elevates an uninspired format to a series that collects diverse, subversive and culturally significant storytelling.
Through constantly defying the expectations of its format, “Atlanta” explored its characters and world in deeply resonating — yet unconventional — ways.
The first season of “Atlanta” was released at a time when Donald Glover’s popularity was skyrocketing. Between his acting, stand-up and music, Glover had become a prolific and widely recognized artist. He had recently departed a five-season stint on the sitcom “Community” to pursue his own creative endeavors. With a burgeoning hip-hop career and a long history of writing for comedies such as “30 Rock,” a satirical rap series seemed like a perfect fit for Glover.
Season one prioritized comedy and crafting grounded drama for its core cast. Al gains a reputation and promotes his music. Darius does his best to assist Al with his mellow and offbeat spirituality. Van and Earn struggle in their relationship while doing their best to raise their infant daughter. While key scenes have surreal undertones, these are mostly subtle and delivered by eccentric side characters. Early on, Donald Glover described the series as “Twin Peaks with rappers.” The David Lynch influence is certainly palpable, but it became more direct as the show grew.
Season four, which premiered only five months after season three concluded, stands as one of “Atlanta”’s strongest.
In season two, Glover strengthened the concepts of the first season by keeping continuous plot threads, but giving more focus to episodes that tell isolated and satisfying stories. The Emmy-winning episode “Teddy Perkins” is almost devoid of comedy, instead functioning like a stand-alone horror film with a Michael Jackson equivalent as the antagonist. It is preceded by “Barbershop,” a purely comedic episode about a smooth-talking barber who procrastinates Al’s haircut.
A key element of what makes “Atlanta”’s approach so successful is its fluctuation in tone. It presents sharp satire of racial inequality with heightened comedy. At the same time, it depicts the effects of inequality with a gruesome realism. Whenever there is tension, the viewer is unsure whether the resolution will be a punchline or an event with real ramifications for its characters.
This balance mirrors Al’s experiences with fame. As a Black man in America, he is constantly looking over his shoulder. Over the course of the show, Al is robbed, attacked and targeted in multiple shootings. These are not treated like grand events. They are depicted as random, brutal aspects of his daily life. With its 30-minute runtime, “Atlanta” has no time to waste beating around the bush.
Episodes focusing on Al are notorious for his intense and emotional journeys. To thrive, he is expected to compromise with the system. Al and Earn have to navigate a network of predatory tech companies, tour managers and producers for publicity. Much of the humor is derived from the way they are received in a white, male-dominated industry. The oblivious racism, both blatant and subtle, is a prime source for awkward comedy. Its absurdity is a mirror that mocks the irrational treatment Black Americans face as a daily reality.
Glover attempted to extend the scope of “Atlanta” even further for season three, to varying degrees of success. Almost half the season is made up of anthology episodes that center on entirely new characters. This was a result of coronavirus complications and the increasingly busy schedules of the main cast. The season premiere doesn’t feature any members of the existing cast beyond a single scene with Earn at the end. The anthology episodes are heavily tied to the themes of the series, addressing reparations, cross-cultural influence and multiracial identity. Even so, they feel disconnected from the other episodes in the season, which focus on Al’s world tour across Europe. The episodes are bold, and retain most of the sharp writing and direction. They still make an uneven whole, and the season received mixed reception.
Given that season three premiered four years after the second, there was already a large loss in viewership. The experimental nature of the show’s new direction exacerbated the dwindling numbers. However, season four, which premiered only five months after season three concluded, stands as one of “Atlanta”’s strongest. It fuses all the best elements of previous seasons. The story returns to the city of Atlanta, downscales the anthology episodes and presents a renewed focus on the main cast. Its formula feels familiar, but never retreads what the show has already covered. Each character gets episodes that peel back their layers in ways the show had been reluctant to in the past. It is slow and methodical, but ultimately a mature approach.
“Work Ethic!” focuses on Van’s feelings of inadequacy and desire to provide as a parent. “Snipe Hunt” sees Earn opening up to try and establish a family. “Andrew Wyeth, Alfred’s World” centers on Al attempting to escape his career and live a quiet life. The finale, “It Was All A Dream,” is one of the finest episodes the show has ever produced. With Darius as its protagonist, it is an existential — but primarily hopeful — meditation on perspective and the importance of relationships.
“Atlanta” never cared to cater to any type of format or expectations, but it is a show that cares deeply for its characters. While their development happens slowly and sometimes abruptly, it is always pointed and profound. The balancing act of genuinely clever comedy and considered character work is not something many shows can accomplish. “Atlanta” built that dynamic at its own pace. In the end, its spontaneity became its greatest asset.