"Twin Peaks with rappers." That's how Donald Glover has described his new FX series Atlanta, premiering at 10 p.m. Tuesday.
The description tells you nothing of substance about the show — it features no dead homecoming queens, no log ladies, no damn good coffee and cherry pie. It's not particularly suspenseful and, to be honest, not even as funny. Twin Peaks with rappers would be an excellent show, but Atlanta is definitely not it.
Yet somehow, Glover's description still fits, if only for its sheer strangeness. Atlanta is an odd, hard-to-define show, one that drifts along at its own leisurely, Southern pace with seemingly little desire to fit the convenient trappings of other shows.
Parts of Atlanta feel like a prestige drama, a beautifully filmed portrait of an underrepresented community whose characters are grounded in unglamorous reality. But at a half-hour, it's never the depressing, arty slog those shows often turn out to be. Its title and setting imply a gritty urban setting, yet the action often lingers in Atlanta's suburban, even rural fringes. It's not really a comedy, yet it has a light touch. It feels rational and reasonable, not overstylized and mythic. Imagine The Wire filtered through Master of None, or Hustle & Flow by way of Louie. (But definitely not Twin Peaks with rappers.)
Created, produced by and starring Glover (Community, The Martian), Atlanta is set in and around its titular city's enormous and influential hip-hop scene. Glover plays Earn Marks, a dead-broke Princeton dropout who's struggling to support his baby daughter and more successful ex (newcomer Zazie Beetz) when he learns his cousin Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles (Brian Tyree Henry of Broadway's The Book of Mormon) is getting some serious buzz as a rapper. Earn tracks down Paperboy and his space-case buddy Darius (Straight Outta Compton's Lakeith Stanfield), and asks to be Paper Boi's manager.
The first episode is built around what seems like a pretty good inciting incident: A shooting that turns Paper Boi from an underground mixtape mover into a mild national name. From there, you think Atlanta's course is set; Paper Boi and Earn are off to fame and fortune, and Season 1 will chart their rise.
But then the plot ... just ... stops. For the next three episodes, Atlanta turns inward, fleshing out its characters and world. And that's not a bad thing. You start to feel the anguish that gnaws at Earn over his dire financial state; the discomfort that creeps over Paper Boi when he starts noticing the unexpected downsides to notoriety.
They both want the same thing, but for different reasons — Earn because it feels right, Paperboy because it's either that or keep slinging dope.
Says Earn: "I know I have a daughter, and I know she deserves the best, but I don't think I have to compromise what I want out of life to do that."
Says Paper Boi: "I scare people at ATMs, boy. I have to rap. That's what rap is — making the best out of a bad situation."
This notion of African-American men clawing their way from poverty via drugs or rap isn't novel, but it holds some truth for Earn and Paperboy, and Atlanta's approach isn't heavy-handed. Race impacts their daily lives, often in very subtle ways, but so do class and culture and fame and family. Nothing, pardon the pun, is totally black and white — not even a trip to the police station, where the cops aren't outright racists, and in fact aren't even key antagonists.
Not everything about the show is so understated. An episode in which Paper Boi confronts an aggressively self-branding YouTube personality feels like a clunky critique of social media culture. On the positive side, Stanfield is engaging as the happy-go-lucky Darius, the closest thing Atlanta might have to a character who jumps off the screen. And director Hiro Murai's eye and staging are wonderful, at times audaciously so.
Glover is a Georgia native and successful rapper in real life. And while his own alter ego, Childish Gambino, doesn't have much in common with Paperboy, the show's deliberate pacing and attention to character are proof he understands that nothing good comes overnight, that it takes patience and focus to get what you truly want in life.
That same patience will reward viewers. It's weird: After four episodes, it's not clear where the characters are going, or even if they've gone anywhere so far. But you find you don't really mind. Atlanta might get weirder down the road, but for now, it works well floating along at its own dreamlike pace.
Kinda like a show called Twin Peaks.
-- Jay Cridlin