By Aryav D. ’23
Donald Glover, otherwise known as rapper Childish Gambino, created and starred in FX’s Atlanta in 2016, a surrealist comedy-drama about an up-and-coming rapper, Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), and his cousin/manager, Earn (Donald Glover), as they navigate the rap world in Atlanta. Upon first glance, that’s not a particularly inventive premise, or at least one you may expect for a show that has garnered a never-ending onslaught of praise and awards over its two short seasons.
But the catch is that Atlanta is anything but a show about a rapper and his manager. Despite the occasional jabs at or parodies of hip hop culture, the show exists in a realm entirely of its own and serves as an antithesis to more run-of-the-mill shows about the music industry, like Fox’s Empire, instead boldly and flippantly tackling a variety of social issues with commentary that whizzes past the screen with all the absurdity of a dream and occasional terror of a nightmare. Pitched by Glover as “Twin Peaks with rappers,” Atlanta is a show that is truly impossible to categorize as it leaps from genre to genre within minutes, skipping from satire to horror to drama to slapstick and all the way back again.
Coming after a four year hiatus, during which he took on the roles of Lando Calrissian and Simba before retiring and un-retiring from the rap game, multi-hyphenate Glover is back with a new third season of the show, preceding a fourth and final season this fall. Known for its sharp social commentary that it tends to deliver through episodic genre diversions or almost unbearably dark comedy, Atlanta manages the impossible task of staying topical, taking the sociopolitical climate of the last two years and wringing it through Glover’s unique kaleidoscopic vision. The Season 3 premiere is made up of two new episodes, one a Jordan Peele-esque detour whose central conceit sounds basic, but ends up a uniquely twisted fable, and the other a Christmas episode sent straight from hell.
The season picks up with Paper Boi on tour in Europe, reaching across the Atlantic to hilariously skewer racism in all of the unsettling, truly absurd ways only Glover and his writing team (which includes Glover’s own brother Stephen, given the writing credit for the first episode) could dream up. Helmed by Hiro Murai, who directed much of the first and second seasons as well as some of HBO’s Barry, the first two episodes each serve as a reminder of the unique visual presence of Atlanta: each new location is shot with such a clear eye for tone, and Murai can effortlessly switch up the entire mood of a scene with a shot choice. Murai, whose accomplished history in music videos includes Childish Gambino’s unforgettable “This is America,” has referenced how the show has completely evaded using an original score for the first two seasons, and it does the same here; instead, the eclectic music choices are, time and time again, pitch-perfect, used as anything from a punchline to an indelible set-piece built around a Tupac joke too outlandish to even describe to the complete tonal release to all of the dramatic buildup of an episode. Fittingly for a show set in the rap industry, the music choices in Atlanta shock, excite, and often anchor many of the show’s best moments.
Tonally, it strikes the perfect balance of the macabre and silly, often simultaneously, as it weaves together and satirizes real-life tragedies, viral moments, and one particular rapper’s recent arrest to make for two of the most unforgettable episodes in the show’s history. In November of 2020, Glover boldly proclaimed in a rare public sighting of a tweet that Seasons 3 and 4 of Atlanta will be some of the best television ever made, only to be matched by The Sopranos. If this is what’s to come, it’s looking like he may just be right.
Categories: Arts & Culture