Donald Glover, Community alum, rapper (under the name Childish Gambino) and creator, writer and star of FX's upcoming Atlanta, initially called the comedy a "hip-hop Twin Peaks" — a description you'll find apt when watching its first funny, trippy episode. As the series progresses though, you'll see a range of elements — the dark humor of Louie, the existential angst in Curb Your Enthusiasm — that Glover and crew blend into a fresh and enjoyable ride down South.
"The thesis with the show was to show people how it felt to be black," Glover said at the Television Critics Association fall previews Tuesday. "It was a tonal thing." He filled a lot of his speech with "ums," blank spaces and abstract answers, which is exactly how watching Atlanta feels — in the best possible way.
Thanks to the hazy, dream-like imagery director Hiro Murai paints on screen as well as the drifting, wavy quality of the action, Atlanta keeps you suspended in a state somewhere between real and surreal, a very deliberate choice on the part of the creative team.
"I don't know," Glover said in explaining Atlanta's suspenseful ambiguity. "Life has more questions than answers. I want people to be scared. That's how it feels to be black... there are awesome things, but it can be taken away at any moment."
Glover plays Earn, a man-child from a solid middle class family. In the pilot, he's inexplicably home from college, working a soul-sucking menial job and annoying his parents and baby momma Van (Zazie Beetz) with his lack of focus. When his cousin gains steam as a local rap star Paperboy (Brian Tyree Henry) Earn positions himself as Paperboy's manager and is thrust in the Atlanta rap scene — and a world of drugs, guns and violence. Nearly everyone in the series, like Earn, is somehow adrift, living in a bubble of ambiguity that's confusing as it is funny. There are weird, nonsensical turns too, and times when you're not sure if the homophobia, police brutality or gun violence is intended to make you laugh, cry or what.
"We talked a lot about tone," said director Hiro Murai. "A lot of the stories are about gray areas. We can make jokes, but also people can get shot and die."
One scene screened at the panel illustrated Glover's approach: Earn, in jail, wonders aloud why a mentally ill man in police custody isn't getting treatment rather than being locked up. The question is laughed away — the absurdity of his legitimate question being ignored making for great, tense humor — and the man is then violently beaten by a cop. It's awful but, as Glover said, funny depending on who's watching (since, for a significant portion of the population, systematic inequity is a simple fact of life). This isn't the "Black people do this! White people do this!" comedy of generations past, he said.
"We talked about how people were gonna feel about it," Glover said. "Some of them will be like, 'Oh that's cool.' Some will be like, 'I don't get him. I don't understand.' I think that's good." Earn, like a lot of black men, is mandated early on to define himself as either Malcolm (as in X; seen as aggressive) or Martin (as in Luther King; seen as pacifist.) "What's the third option, is there like, a [James] Baldwin?"
What Atlanta set out to do, Glover said, is make a world that felt big. "Hopefully people will feel like they're on a ride, like when you're at Universal and like, 'We're really at Hogwarts!'"
Atlanta debuts Tuesday Sept. 6 at 10/9c on FX.