I’m happy. Scratch that, I’m happier den a mug. I’m elated. I’m ecstatic. Because I just watched the first two episodes of Donald Glover’s new show, Atlanta.
It’s good. IT’S HELLA GOOD, fam. And it’s so because it’s genuinely black, AF. Since its premiere Tuesday night, there has been no shortage of praise for Glover’s brainchild and handy work. Much kudos to Glover for assembling a novice writing staff comprised entirely of BLACK PEOPLE. If this past season of OITNB–or any other show that features Black characters written in a majority white writers room–taught us anything, it’s that authentic Blackness is captured in the nuance of things. That stuff matters. A LOT. Especially to Black people. It also makes for great television. The script reflects that authenticity. It’s real and subsequently, incredibly heart wrenching! But it’s also funny. It addresses relevant issues within the Black community, such as homosexuality, mental illness, and being called a nigga by White folks, with sincerity and pert humor.
The show centers on a trio of Black dudes in Atlanta seeking to capitalize on recent success in the rap game. I know, I know, Black people stay rapping, or playing basketball, or dealing drugs when it comes to television shows. (See Empire, Survivor’s Remorse, Power, as proof.) But it’s real. I currently live in Atlanta. Everybody is a rapper here. EVERYBODY! You can’t go to Publix, or even church (yes, church) without somebody peddling their “fire” mixtape. However, this show isn’t necessarily about the rap game, it’s more about the experience of being Black, in America, in the Black Mecca of America.
The cast is amazing. I MEAN EVERYONE! First, there’s, of course, Donald Glover, who stars as Earnest “Earn” Marks, a really good kid and a mad city who just wants to win. He’s rebounding from a short stint at Princeton and can’t seem to stop catching Ls like the Lakers, or Lena Dunham. (Side note: Did you know Glover had a brief role on Dunham’s mediocre show, Girls? He played a Black Republican, whom she smashed. Shocker!) He’s stuck in reset, trying to make it in these streets by peddling credit apps at an airport. Yet he’s getting out-hustled by a Black woman whose name looks like it ought to be Delores. Add in that he’s living with his baby moms (because he’d be homeless otherwise) who he wants to be with, but can’t because he won’t shake his own immaturity. I could give you full recap, but I’m digressing. Simply put, Donald Glover is acting his butt off.
Then there’s Earn’s cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, played by Brian Tyree Henry. He’s a 2Chainz-like rapper looking to blow up after years in the game. I’ve been a fan of Henry for a little while, but I’ve grown to appreciate him a lot as of late. He’s had some brief roles in The Good Wife, Boardwalk Empire, and The Knick. But he really got me when he played Dr. Brown’s estranged husband on HBO’s new irreverent comedy, Vice Principals. He’s a dry-funny type of cat with a knack for executing one-liners with a straight face. (Side note: Atlanta is gold for one-liners, bruh. GOLD!) He’s convincing as Paper Boi, providing the much-needed skepticism, grit, and bravado an aspiring rapper needs to make it out of the hood.
There’s also Darius, Paper Boi’s roommate, drug dealer, ghetto philosopher, and magical Negro (played by Lakeith Stansfield). Darius also has an impressive sneaker collection (I peeped those OG Spiz’ikes and Black History Month LeBron 13s. Again, it’s the nuances.) You’ve probably (certainly) have seen Lakeith in a few roles here and there. He made us cry in Selma as Jimmy Lee Jackson, the cat that was murdered by the PoPo in front of his parents. He made us cringe when he beat up Malcolm for his Jordan’s in Dope. He was Long Beach smooth as Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton. (I also see that he’s in Oliver Stone’s Snowden releasing this fall. Get that Friend‘s money, fam). But Keith’s best role (in my opinion) was in Short Term 12, where he beautifully portrayed Marcus, an at-risk youth afraid of embracing life on the outside once he’s released from the cocoon of a foster-care facility. It’s a riveting performance. The movie’s quite good too. It also stars Brie Larson (the cute chick from 21 Jump Street), John Gallagher Jr. (that snarky producer from The Newsroom) and Rami Malek (the creepy hacker everyone loves from Mr. Robot).
Darius serves as the comic relief, and Stanfield does a remarkable job of providing humor, randomness, and punch to the stark reality of the show’s premise. This is best illustrated when Darius answers the door of his residence, revealing a big, Black nigga in a toy Batman mask. The dude asks if Paper Boi lives there, to which Darius replies with a faint, suspicious,”Uh, yeah.” Ol’ boy then runs off (like he probably did on the plug, twice), to which Darius turns to Paper Boi and instinctively says, “You too hot!” Again, the writing is gold, but it’s nothing without the execution.
Then we have Van (played by newcomer Zazie Beetz), Earn’s baby mama, who’s a school teacher and has morning breath that smells like Curry. The chemistry between Beetz and Glover is both electric and genuine. Van and Earn have a profoundly flawed relationship, mostly due to Earn’s lack of consistency. But they share a child and, for the time being, live together. And, she’s Black AF (much like the entire show). Namely because she was quick to tell Earn to stop taking her child to his mama’s house because she has a home of her own and is willing to bail Earn’s dumb-ass out of jail. Plus, she took her Bantu knots out like a pro after curbing Earn from getting some morning nookie for saying some nonsense. She’s not the angry Black, single-mom you’d expect, courtesy of Tyler Perry movies. She’s calm, collected, but savage if necessary.
Lastly, the remaining supporting roles are stellar. Earn’s parents are played by Myra Lucretia Taylor and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (You know him as Senator Clay Davis from The Wire. Sheeeeitt!!!) They display a supportive, yet incredibly guarded, affection for their child. For instance, Earn’s barred from their house because he always asks for money and leaves Anaconda like dumps in the toilet without flushing. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care about their boy. They just want him to shake his funk and, as Earn’s mom puts it, “…eat something real. Instead of all them candies and cookies and whatever other stuff was in there.” It’s a tough love that I personally know all too well.
It’s refreshing to see Black millennials credibly represented on the tube. Atlanta excels at creating a portrait that resembles the Black experience in America at a frenetic pace. (The show is only 30minutes.) It’s a show that is rooted in pure, supreme, Blackness and is truly reflective of our existence. Whether it’s Earn retrieving money from a pair of Double Nickel 10s, the Black cop asking for a pic with Paper Boi to post to the ‘gram, or Paper Boi’s excitement after getting the hookup with some lemon pepper wings (wet), the show is exceptionally nuanced. It’s thoughtfully written and superbly acted. Perhaps that’s why it’s so remarkably beautiful. Not just for Black folks, but for everyone.