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Atlanta, the new half-hour FX series from Donald Glover (Community), is satisfying and exciting on every level. It’s a funny — often laugh-out-loud funny — saga of an ambitious but struggling young man, Earn Marks (Glover), who’s living hand-to-mouth in Atlanta and trying to better his life. The show is also frequently dead serious. It never makes the stakes at risk in Earn’s life seem less than grave.
Atlanta, which premieres Tuesday, Sept. 6, also manages to achieve the rhythm of a hip-hop album consisting of medium-tempo, bumping grooves — it rolls along at a pace that becomes hypnotic. In the space of just a few half-hours (FX made four episodes available to review), show creator and star Glover summons up not just an atmosphere but an entire philosophy of life.
The organizing plot of Atlanta is that Earn wants to manage the career of his cousin Alfred, a rapper who goes by the name of Paper Boi, which is also the name of his new jam, one that has “hit” written all over it. Earn is an Ivy League dropout who has a child with Van (Zazie Beetz), a woman who loves him but is usually exasperated with him, often very deservedly so. Earn has so many layers to his character; Glover maintains a poker face most of the time to suggest multiple reactions to any situation he finds himself in.
These encounters range from nettlesome arguments with his skeptical parents (his dad is played by Isiah Whitlock, Jr. — the profanity-prone Sen. Clay Davis from The Wire) to run-ins with the Atlanta police department. Earn is determined to better himself but solely on his own, stubborn terms; you love him for his determination, but you also completely understand why Van and his parents are so irritated by his obstinacy. Brian Tyree Henry’s performance as Paper Boi is a beautifully varied one; it contrasts with Keith Stanfield’s stoned-nuance turn as Paper Boi’s right-hand man, Darius. I cannot overemphasize how hilarious Atlanta can be, taking shots at everything from blunt-smoking faux-wisdom to a dead-on Don Lemon joke.
All four of the episodes I’ve seen have been directed by Hiro Murai, who has done some notably imaginative music videos with artists such as Earl Sweatshirt, Chet Faker, and Glover’s hip-hop alter ego, Childish Gambino. For Atlanta, Murai frequently achieves effects you usually see only in feature films. There are, for instance, gorgeously languid overhead shots, in which the camera hovers over a scene, rising up to cloud-view, suggesting a cosmic, simultaneous importance and indifference to what is taking place. The second episode, which takes place almost entirely in the holding room of a police station, is filmed from waist-high angles that capture the cold, ominous sterility of the place. When a comic scene of a prisoner dancing goofily suddenly ends with a moment of shocking violence, Murai’s camera maintains a documentary distance that is the perfect way to present such an abrupt shift.
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This is an inherently political show. Its depictions of life in rough neighborhoods of the Georgia state capital carry an implicit critique of how people forced into poor living conditions survive, overcome, or fall into devious socioeconomic traps. That Glover wraps his critique in a very funny show only makes his creation that much more effective, and frequently moving.
Atlanta airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.