You could totally be forgiven for thinking, upon reading the description for the forthcoming FX comedy Atlanta, "I've heard that story before." It is, after all, the tale of cousins navigating their way through the Atlanta rap scene - a milieu not unlike Empire, or a number of movies likeHustle & Flow.
But Atlanta is a very different take on the get-rich-or-die-trying rap story - particularly since the show comes from the mind of writer-actor-rapper Donald Glover. Having made his entry into entertainment as a writer on a very successful show (30 Rock) under the tutelage of a very great writer-comic (Tina Fey), Glover since excelled on Community and widened his range to explore music, earning a Grammy nomination for his album Because the Internet. If there's anything the aforementioned vehicles have in common, it's an unapologetic embrace of all things quirky, left-of-field, brilliant and awkward.
That sensibility comes through wonderfully in Atlanta, turning what might've been predictable in other hands into a complex and even surrealist comedy examining black American life through the prism of a very specific region, and a very specific industry that's a lifeblood of the city.
"The absurdity of the real world is interesting," said Glover, who grew up in Atlanta, which he called a kind of scary "magic jungle" for its lush greenery, perpetual construction-demolition cycle and urban decay. Calling contemporary television shows the novels of our time, he said, "I just wanted to make Twin Peaks with rappers."
The tone, he said, will take time for people to grasp, but the essential elements are easy: Glover plays Earnest "Earn" Marks, who, for reasons that remain unclear in the pilot, no longer attends Princeton University. He's a drifting man-child, who has exasperated parents and a child with his ex-girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz). But when he realizes that his cousin, an enterprising rapper who goes by the name Paperboy (Brian Tyree Henry), has the potential to become the next big thing, he tries to convince Paperboy - and himself - that he can escape his dreadful airport job by managing his cousin's career.
"Manage comes from man. And that ain't really your lane," Paperboy tells him. "I need Malcolm. You're too Martin," using a black history allegory to call Earn a pacifist. Earn is sensitive, even vacant at times; both he and Darius (Keith Stanfield), a spaced-out stoner prone to weirdly insightful utterances, present a spectrum of African-American male characters not often seen. "People tend to forget these personalities exist," said Henry. "Donald is really good at picking lives and characters. I feel like that what this show is good at doing."
Visually, Atlanta has a kind of hazy, often dreamy quality - the speciality of director Hiro Murai, who's done music videos for Glover and electronica artist Flying Lotus. "First and foremost," he said, "our approach was to make it grounded and make it feel like a textured real world. We made [music] videos where there was fine line between reality and surreality, and that's something we wanted to carry over for the show. It feels completely real, but there's always a chance something bizarre or bigger than life can happen."
In one scene in the pilot, Earn is riding the bus at night, holding his daughter. It feels strangely sad, and then gets really weird when a black man in a bow tie - possibly from the Nation of Islam - makes Earn a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and angrily suggests that Earn take a bite, but then bolts from the bus and disappears into the woods. "That scene in particular is the dreamiest, weirdest scene in the episode," Murai said. "I think we're into the idea of having those elements on the fringes of the story, even if it doesn't pertain to the story. A lot of weird things happen in life that are not always pertaining to your main objective. We hope to explore that more."
That may sound really risky, even for a basic cable network, but FX CEO John Landgraf said he's committed to it. "Louie was never a massive hit from a ratings standpoint," he said. "It was beloved and I think groundbreaking creatively and I'm really optimistic [Atlanta] falls in that category. If you guys [TV critics] agree with that, chances are we'll stick with it."
That's great news - not just in light of the increasing calls for diversity in entertainment, or the not-altogether pleasant news about African-American men in the news, but also because the world of hip-hop could really use a jolt of heady satire. Glover said he made this show because he was missing the kind of absurdist, Dave Chappelle-type voice in the landscape. "Rappers are the most existential people - they have the most friends, no friends - all the money, no money. I just wanted to base them on real people and real characters."
Atlanta is set to premiere on FX this summer.