8 times Atlanta intersected with the real music world

 Takeoff as himself, Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles in the season-one episode “Go For Broke”
Takeoff as himself, Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles in the season-one episode “Go For Broke”

There have been several shows about the music industry, from period biopics about specific subcultures to flashy soaps that focus on the drama of the business side. The FX series Atlantawhich premiered in 2016 and quickly became the most hilarious, incisive contribution to Black TV of the past decade—shows the organic come-up of local rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), aided by his determined manager and terminally broke cousin Earn (Donald Glover). Created by the Community actor and Childish Gambino rapper, Atlanta serves as both a love letter to southern rap and a magnifying glass pointed toward the mechanics of the culture, digging into how artists, fans, and the industries that interact with both keep the rap game going. Fans and critics have praised the show for its authenticity, thanks in part to the several real-life artists who’ve contributed to the show and even appeared in cameos throughout its six-year run. With the November 10 series finale around the corner, here, in chronological order, are eight times that Atlanta brought the real-life players in the rap industry to the small screen.

“Paper Boi” by Paper Boi (“The Big Bang” [season 1, episode 1])


Childish Gambino - Paper Boi (Longer)

Earn’s career as an entertainment manager begins when a co-worker puts him on to local rapper Paper Boi’s (a.k.a. his cousin Alfred’s) viral mixtape. The self-titled track catapults the rapper from hood fame to citywide recognition, but actor Brian Tyree Henry isn’t even the voice behind the rap. Instead, Atlanta writer and rapper Stephen Glover performs the song, with producer Christopher Cobb (a.k.a. Chemist) crafting the beat. In a 2016 interview, Cobb said he tried to capture “the essence of Atlanta” circa ’03 or ’08, with “heavy horns and electronic synths.” Mission accomplished.

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Migos guest-stars (“Go For Broke” [season 1, episode 3])


Atlanta Season 1 Ep 3 Go For Broke | RIP Takeoff from Migos

The trio of Atlanta rappers has been linked with the series since its first episode. Their 2015 track “One Time” is the first music we hear, playing on Al’s radio even before the traditional title card. A needle drop in the show’s premiere is enough to solidify the group’s contribution to the show’s excellent soundtrack, and that was before Glover showed his appreciation for the group as artists during his Golden Globes shoutout. When the men actually appear in the show, playing intimidating versions of themselves in Al’s first-ever menacing scene set in the woods, it’s a fun and memorable nod to the Atlanta rap community. (Rest in peace, Takeoff.)

The Black Justin Bieber (“Nobody Beats The Biebs” [season 1, episode 5])


Atlanta | Black Justin Bieber

There were a hundred ways that Atlanta could have skewered the music-industry staple of the child-star-turned-obnoxious-superstar. The series’ solution was the show’s first instance of warping reality: 2010s-era Justin Bieber, but he’s Black. Played by actor and musician Austin Crute, Atlanta’s Bieber acts out publicly, gets in an embarrassing situation, and apologizes with new music from his album Justice (three years before his real-life counterpart used the same title). The character offers a new perspective on the intangible limits of a star’s bad behavior, and instead of getting preachy, it just presents everything through jokes and lets the audience form their own opinions. (Bonus points for Al’s “Is it too late to say I’m sorry?” diss.)

White people discover Paper Boi (“Sportin’ Waves” [season 2, episode 2] and “Money Bag Shawty” [season 2, episode 3])


Paper Boi (Acoustic Cover - Bryce Hitchcock)

Atlanta is known for its insightful racial commentary and ability to tap into the zeitgeist without becoming a corny rehashing of whatever’s trending on Black Twitter. In addition to Paper Boi’s awkward day at the Spotify stand-in, two great bits from Robbin’ Season tapped into the viral moments that pop up when hip hop reaches Facebook’s audience, with the show parodying the viral 2016 response to Vince Staples’ “Norf Norf” by commissioning an acoustic cover of Paper Boi’s eponymous track. The moments serve two purposes: demonstrating the many perspectives a song can offer different audiences and showing that Paper Boi is getting popular enough to reach white people.

Clark County’s recording session (“Money Bag Shawty” [season 2, episode 3])


Atlanta- don’t crash it again dude

Robbin’ Season also introduced Clark County (RJ Walker), the Yoo-hoo-slinging MC who takes Paper Boi under his wing and brings the crew on his European tour. Fans have considered the character a loose stand-in for Glover’s real-life collaborator Chance the Rapper, which has never been confirmed. Whatever the inspiration, Clark gives Paper Boi a corporate co-sign and brings him to a recording session. According to a Complex interview with Walker, the scene where unassuming Clark sets his muscle on the studio engineer was inspired by something Glover actually experienced. (Other from-real-life moments that make it into the show include Paper Boi’s selfie with the cop and an up-and-comer dancing on a table.)

Reinvest In Your Hood (“White Fashion” [season 3, episode 6])


Reinvest In Your Hood | Atlanta | FX

When Atlanta returned from its hiatus, Paper Boi was big enough to sell out European tours, eventually landing on the radar of a fashion brand that needed a co-sign after they released a tone-deaf jersey. The worlds of hip-hop and luxury fashion have slowly melded over the past decade, with rappers sitting front-row at runway shows and leading campaigns for an industry that often gets called out for cultural appropriation. (See the Gucci and Dapper Dan saga.) While it doesn’t directly reference a real-life story, “White Fashion” is one of those great episodes that says the quiet part out loud in regard to the music industry’s power dynamics. (See also: “Born 2 Die” and the Young White Avatar.)

Blueblood’s final mixtape (“The Most Atlanta” [season 4, episode 1])


Darius and Paper Boi Learn Blue Blood is Dead - Scene | Atlanta - Season 4 | FX

While Donald and Stephen Glover penned most of Atlanta’s original songs, they tapped L.A. rapper Earl Sweatshirt to provide the vocals for a secret mixtape that doubled as a post-mortem scavenger hunt. In the season-four premiere, Al began a season of soul searching by following a set of clues laid out in the latest EP from local rapper Blueblood, who was dead for three months before his passing was made public. The storyline both references the late underground rapper MF Doom and nods at several real-life treasure hunts from rappers including JID, Cam’ron, and Childish Gambino himself. (The casting of Sweatshirt could also be a nod to his and producer The Alchemist’s fabled YouTube album.)

Artist cameos (“Light Skinned-Ed” [season 4, episode 4], “Crank Dat Killer” [season 4, episode 6])


Paper Boi Calls Soulja Boy - Scene | Atlanta | FX

Six years after meeting Migos in the woods, Al has gotten so successful in season four that he’s rubbing shoulders with big-deal artists who are now his colleagues. This means Atlanta gets to drop in some fun surprise cameos, with Paper Boi getting into a brief Uno-fueled argument with Gunna and learning the definition of a Safe Home from Soulja Boy, driving home that Team Paper Boi has really made it in the final season.

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