Atlanta Season 1 Review
Narrative comedy on television is changing.
It is a change long in the works, one that began years ago. The first seeds of T.V. comedy’s evolution were evident in shows like The Office and 30 Rock, which began injecting elements of nuanced emotion and realism into their plotlines, delivering a needed dose of pathos to the form. In the years since, single-camera and documentary style comedies have dominated the T.V. laugh market, and with their expansion to cable, have become something of a new art form.
Cable single-camera comedies are analogous to comedies in the Ancient Greek tradition – artful, carefully laid-out stories laced with irony and amusement. These new types of shows do not aim so much for big laughs (although they often get them) as much as they aim to describe realities that are best expressed through the comedic form. The brilliant FX show Atlanta, which has just concluded its first season, is one of these transformative new comedies that succeeds at pushing the genre in ambitious creative directions.
Atlanta, created by actor, rapper and former 30 Rock writer Donald Glover, details the story of Earn (Glover), an aimless young Atlantan man living with his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and their daughter as he scrapes up a living by managing the burgeoning rap career of his cousin Alfred, better known as “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry). Atlanta is very much Earn’s story, but it is also a story about a city, about race, about relationships, and most of all, about the true nature of success.
The theme of success permeates the storylines of every character in Atlanta. Vanessa seeks success in her job as a schoolteacher, is cynical towards the growing upward mobility of her jet-setting, basketball player-dating friends, and ultimately strives to gain personal vindication by furthering herself while providing a good life for her daughter. Meanwhile, Paper Boi, an aging rapper, finds himself struggling to reconcile his old-school rap views of excess equaling success with the hip-hop community’s changing attitudes towards female objectification and violence. Earn’s personal concept of success is perhaps the one most in turmoil; he wants to validate himself as a father in Vanessa’s eyes by helping her to support their daughter financially, but is also constantly being presented with alternative ideas of success, whether through the lavish lifestyle of Paper Boi or through the bizarre entrepreneurial ventures of Paper Boi’s eccentric friend Darius (Keith Stanfield).
Darius is perhaps the most important key to understanding Atlanta’s fundamental ideas. Some kind of cross between an unaware child, a clever con man, and a guru drawing his wisdom from various aspects of African-American culture, Darius is a major foil for Earn. Although Earn spends most of the season actively pursuing ambitious goals, he finds himself unable to solidify what his personal view of success even is. Darius, meanwhile, seems both spiritually and materially successful, yet lacks any kind of pragmatism or drive, and makes most of his decisions on a whim. Earn, as well as Vanessa and Paper Boi, struggle to define their notion of success, while Darius searches for no such answers, but enjoys the most personal prosperity.
It is bizarre characters like Darius (who, at one point, takes Earn on an episode-long journey that involves exchanging a samurai sword for a racing greyhound) that inject Atlanta with a distinctly postmodern brand of comedy. Such supporting characters include a black man who bewilders Paper Boi by identifying himself, literally and culturally, as white, a nightclub owner who avoids paying an irate Earn by using a trapdoor built into the club’s walls, and a student of Vanessa’s who wordlessly taunts her by sporting whiteface in class. These jarring and often surreal characters ground the plot of Atlanta in an absurdity that helps us see the world as Earn, Vanessa, and Paper Boi do: bizarre, confusing, and constantly changing.
These recurring oddities and ironies make it clear to viewers that Atlanta is, unmistakably, a comedy, but a comedy that is hardly concerned with making its audience consistently double over with laughter. The comedic elements in Atlanta are beneficial to the show’s story, which could, arguably, not be told to maximum effect in a dramatic setting. The uncertainty and struggle at the thematic core of the show are reflected in the confusing world it portrays, demonstrating Glover’s masterful ability to translate Earn’s inner conflict into story-necessary humor.
Shows like Atlanta mark a decisive turning point in the way comedic television is presented. The program’s commitment to character and story is an achievement in television writing, an achievement that indicates the impact a story can have when viewed through a humorous lens. In successful narrative comedy television of the past, the story existed to support the jokes. In Atlanta’s new school of comedy, the jokes exist to support the story.