Before I begin, I want to state that I am as besotted with Twin Peaks as Coop is with his his-sub-average filter coffee or The Log Lady and her cherished log. But by re-writing the future of television Donald Glover has stolen David Lynch's genre-demolishing crown, and I'm all-hailing Atlanta.
Watching FX’s Atlanta is like watching the boundaries of television simultaneously collapse, disperse and reemerge - not as boundaries - but as tangible relics of history. I haven’t experienced anything quite like that since Lynch’s ode to owls, log cabins and the absurd. Described as a comedy, a hip-hop drama or as Glover himself expressed, ‘Twin Peaks with rappers,’ the essence of Atlanta defies conventional categories and in doing so far exceeds Glover’s own post-Lynchian definition.
Don't believe me? Just check out the Trailer:
There is a reason why journalists, critics and even fans are having a hard time conveying exactly what it is that makes Atlanta such a forward-thinking, important show and that is because on paper, it's nearly impossible to describe. This might sound like a cliche, but its essential 'elevator pitch,' or the blurb you can read on IMDB, simply does not convey the essence of the show. In a bid to show that Atlanta is so much more than just another FX TV show, and so much more than 'Twin Peaks with rappers,' I've tried to unpick exactly what it is that makes it so astoundingly brilliant.
Atlanta's Elevator Pitch:
- The show's protagonist, Earn (Donald Glover) a Princeton drop-out who’s down on his luck, seizes an opportunity to turn his fortune around when his cousin, Paper-Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), releases a successful rap track.
What Atlanta's Elevator Pitch Excludes:
- 1. Atlanta's Minor Characters are the Heart of the Show
The complex richness of Atlanta's minor characters is such that they manage to seamlessly embody themes as diverse as ageism, drug culture, racism, the prison system, mental health, the cult of celebrity, homophobia and transphobia all within the first two episodes alone. Whilst never holding the screen for longer than a few seconds at a time, they are the true pulsating heart of the show, and flesh out the world in which Earn and Paper Boi live in a way that makes the Atlanta universe entirely tangible.
Speaking to The Business Insider, Glovers' focus epitomizes why the background chorus and their representation of everyday issues are so essential to the show:
"Most people who live in everyday lives — white people, Chinese people, Mexican people — they're living their lives, and they're trying to eat. I was more interested in that.”
- 2. Comedy is the Language of Atlanta
Atlanta is funny. Not in a laugh out loud, eye watering way, but in a much deeper, familiar way. As if they were comical anaesthetists, the scriptwriters managed to put the viewer into a state of heightened humor to the point that youtube clips of cats freaking out at the sight of a cucumber seem serious by comparison. Glover integrates comedy into every aspect of Atlanta. It's the language his characters speak.
Whilst contextually very often on the verge of tragedy, Glover transforms the situations his characters find themselves in into hyper-real, hilarious yet distressing capsules of life in its most essential form. Whilst we are guiltily laughing along with a group of men making fun of a fellow mentally ill detainee whilst awaiting bail in the police station, below that we are also empathizing with Earn's concern that he isn't getting the help he needs which is underpinned by a deeper sense of anger at the corruption behind the incarceration system.
- 3. All of Atlanta's Writers are Black
Essential to the success of the show is that Glover only worked with other black writers when creating the script. Given the scarcity of having an all-black screenwriting team, this in part goes a long way to explaining why Atlanta feels so new, refreshing and incredibly well characterized. Speaking to Time Magazine, Glover stated:
"The thesis was: How do we make people feel black? It turned into something more attainable than that, but that was the idea. I was like, ‘Let’s make something that shouldn’t be on the air, something controversial.’ If it’s canceled in 10 episodes, I’ll be happy with those episodes."
And he achieves what he sets out to do. In the first few episodes we are introduced to an almost token white character, Dave, who regales Earn with an anecdote about a party he'd attended the night before, and in doing so casually uses the N-word. Later, when Earn asks Dave to re-tell the story to Paper Boi, Dave omits the N-word. This subtly brings up issues of appropriation, holding a mirror to behavior that many white viewers may have never even considered before, but which all to often comprises the experience of being black.
Glover also highlighted a particular scene in his interview with Vulture that Atlanta director Hiro Murai had difficulty shooting purely because he couldn't understand what the on-screen character was saying:
"To Hiro, this nigga is speaking patois. That character is an artifact. Culturally, we’re becoming very homogenized....It’s important that dude gets represented in this show.”
And it's precisely this kind of sensitivity which has paved the way for the much richer and much needed diversity of on-screen representation which Atlanta thrives on.
- 4. Atlanta is Not Afraid of the Surreal
Intensifying the reality of the show is its surreal foundation. Perhaps in his biggest nod to Twin Peaks, Glover has included in his cast of supporting characters a sage-like drug dealer who goes by the name of Darius (Keith Standfield) and seems to be operating on an entirely different plain than the rest of us.
In the very first scene of the pilot we see Earn and Paper Boi get into a potentially violent altercation with another couple, but instead of the danger at hand, Darius is more concerned by the fact that he's experiencing a form of de ja vu, and recognizes a dog who is sat in the distance. At one point asking Paper Boi's uncle on their first meeting if he can measure the tree in his garden, at another discussing the virtue of being able to use rats as mobile phones, Darius conflates the line between stoner and mystic so that they become one and the same thing.
In a more direct reference to David Lynch, Earn encounters a tall stranger on a bus who arrives just as mysteriously as he disappears but not before telling him:
This is just a symptom of the way things are, not the way things necessarily should be....Let the path push you like a broken branch in a rivers current.’
He delivers this line shortly before aggressively telling Earn to take a bite of an ominous looking sandwich that he's spent his entire bus journey making, somewhat mirroring the more bizarre characteristics of the mysterious giant of Twin Peaks fame.
Ultimately, whether you're into comedy, drama, hip hop or Twin Peaks, it doesn't matter. Atlanta is currently changing the face of television and if you've got any sense of what's good for you, you'll start watching it, immediately.
Do you agree that Atlanta is worthy of all the hype - is it more than 'Twin Peaks with rappers?'