FX's new comedy Atlanta, which premieres Tuesday, could only have come from one person. The show's peculiar, particular point of view comes from the mind of creator Donald Glover, who with this series establishes himself as a TV comedy auteur in the vein of Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari.
Glover, a native of the Atlanta suburb Stone Mountain, began his career as one-third of the sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy, which had an early viral YouTube comedy video with "Bro Rape." In 2006, when he was still in college, he got a job writing for 30 Rock, where he worked for three seasons. In 2008, Derrick Comedy wrote, produced and starred in a movie called Mystery Team, in which Glover was the lead. He left 30 Rock to take a role on another NBC sitcom, Community, which never achieved high ratings but developed a dedicated cult following. There, Glover played Troy Barnes, a jock who transformed into a nerd as the series progressed.
On a parallel track to his comedy career, Glover also found success as a rapper. He released his first mixtape in 2008, under the stage name Childish Gambino. In 2011, he released his major-label debut, Camp, which was followed up by his highly-regarded second album, 2013's Because the Internet, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Album. Glover's work as Childish Gambino has a sense of humor, but it isn't comedy. Because the Internet in particular found Glover tackling bigger themes, like how the Internet has changed the way people interact with the world, while grappling with his place in it. The album was accompanied by a short film, Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, which is the clearest precedent for Atlanta.
Atlanta is the culmination of both tracks of Glover's career to this point. It continues to explore Because the Internet's and Clapping for the Wrong Reasons' themes of displacement in the world with a similarly surreal, genre-defying style.
The show, which has been in development since 2013 (Glover left Community during that show's fifth season to work on it), tells the story of Earn Marks, a smart but rudderless young man who dropped out of Princeton and returned home to Atlanta, where he's adrift. He's butting heads with his parents and the mother of his child, broke and totally aimless when he realizes that his cousin Alfred, a.k.a. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), is on the verge of breaking out as a rapper. So Earn tries to convince Paper Boi to let him be his manager.
Describing the plot doesn't really explain Atlanta, though, because the plot is not the most important part. Atlanta is more concerned with setting and mood and showing the variety of the African-American experience in a way that's never been shown on TV before. Glover said at the Television Critics Association fall press preview last month that "the thesis with the show was to show people how it felt to be black."
In a profile of Glover for New York magazine, Rembert Browne writes:
Glover's been thinking about this sense of place for a while. "I needed people to understand I see Atlanta as a beautiful metaphor for black people," he said to me when I interviewed him last year. In other words, the city — encompassing Martin Luther King Jr., Aquemini, Freaknik, Madea, Gucci Mane, a cluster of historically black colleges, the legacy of Jim Crow, the legacy of the Black Mafia Family, extreme black poverty, 40-plus years of black mayors, extreme black wealth, and perhaps America's largest black middle class — is an ideal laboratory to explore the true variety of the black experience.
And Atlanta succeeds at depicting that complexity in a way most shows don't bother to even try. Its closest emotional analogue is the aforementioned album Aquemini by the Atlanta rap duo OutKast, which also went deep into the complexity and contradiction and surreality of being a black person in Atlanta in particular, and in America in general.
The show is also thrillingly weird. Glover described it to TVGuide.com earlier this year as "Twin Peaks with rappers," which perfectly captures its digressive, mysterious structure and ambient strangeness. David Lynch and Mark Frost's oneiric early '90s thriller series is a clear influence on Atlanta, especially in Hiro Murai's direction. Murai, who previously directed several Childish Gambino music videos, makes everything dreamlike, or like the camera smoked a blunt before showing up to work and is trying to comprehend what it's seeing.
It's harder to pinpoint them as direct influences, but Atlanta also feels a lot like its FX predecessor Louie and Aziz Ansari's Netflix series Master of None. Not in any thematic or humorous or tonal way, but in that they're cinematic works of deeply personal, emotionally complex comedy that aren't always trying to be funny. Glover, like Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari, is making a show that couldn't be made by anyone else. Watching it is like seeing the inside of his mind. C.K. and Ansari are auteurs whose shows are like arthouse cinema in a way that comedy — especially television comedy — usually is not allowed to be. With Atlanta, Donald Glover joins their rarefied air.
Atlanta premieres with two back-to-back episodes Tuesday, Sept. 6 at 10/9c on FX.