I recommend Donald Glover’s FX show Atlanta to just about everyone with the articulate exclamations that it’s “so awesome” and “just wow.” But as the second season nears its end, I’ve been wondering: what makes Atlanta so wow? Besides the superb acting and writing, I think it’s Atlanta’s thematic and formal boldness which makes it the best show on T.V. The show centers Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry, who has absolutely showed out), a rapper on the ups after his eponymous song becomes a local hit. Paper Boi is not making much money rapping—as he says, “there is no money anywhere near rap”—yet everyone around him wants a cut of money he doesn’t have. He is simultaneously too famous for his liking and not as famous as he wants to be, which causes the oft-scowling rapper much frustration. The show’s thematic aim seems to be to analyze the intersection of fame and authenticity—and ultimately what fame really costs. It accomplishes this goal by making original, surreal, and wholly unexpected episodes.
This show is very much Donald Glover’s (the writer/comedian/actor/rapper/everything that created the show), but he plays a secondary character, Paper Boi’s cousin and (not-great-at-his-job) manager Earn. Glover’s work has always been strongly influenced by internet culture, and in Atlanta he captures the milieu of Instagram stars and Soundcloud rappers adroitly. Paper Boi is not household name famous, but he’s well known enough to be blowing up on his local scene. However, low profits mean that he’s stuck in a kind of limbo in which his authentic personality has gotten him this far, but he’s going to have to sell-out to level-up. This news is broken to him by his Instagram-model friend Cierra, when she and Paper Boi are getting pedicures, and she tells him people can’t be real and famous at the same time. This idea seems to upset Paper Boi who believes he can.
In the third episode of season two, we meet a rapper who has reached the next-level Paper Boi aspires to. We get our first glimpse of County in a Yoo-Hoo commercial (that not-so-coincidentally recalls Lil Yachty’s work with Sprite). Paper Boi sees this commercial and grumbles, “I hate this shit.” However, Earn takes him to the Not Spotify (yes) offices where he meets Clark and they agree to make a track together; the whole vibe of the all-white administration at the offices makes it clear that Paper Boi is going to have to become more palatable to the mainstream (read: less street) if he wants to make it. Later at the recording studio, Paper Boi and his friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield from Get Out, who I hope to see much more of outside this show) offer Clark Hennessey and a blunt—which he rejects right before going into the booth and rapping about blunts and Henny. This crack in Clark’s authenticity proves him to be everything Paper Boi is trying to avoid.
Earn and his girlfriend (and mother of his child) Van break up in a creepy episode that was reminiscent of Get Out—though Get Out’s tone and influence is all over this show, specifically in the horror-comedy vibe the show exudes and the recurring critique of what white people expect from black people. But then Van gets her own episode that harkens back to the themes of fame and authenticity and highlights some of the show’s wonderful surrealism. Van and her friends get invited to a party at Drake’s mansion, and Van is desperate to get a selfie with him to beef up her Instagram so she can make Earn jealous. Van wanders around the mansion and ends up finding an old Mexican man who says he’s Drake’s abuelo and points to a wall calendar that reads “European Tour.” She realizes Drake isn’t there, and as she’s walking back, she sees a big line and two women charging twenty bucks for a selfie with a cardboard cutout of Drake. Her high expectations of what it would be like to be in that high celebrity orbit are immediately shot down, and she’s brought back to the pathetic reality of taking a selfie with a cardboard cutout. She and her friends leave, and the final shot of the episode is them walking back alongside a road when Van has an epiphanic moment: “Drake’s Mexican!” Which is not only a funny, surreal twist, but also a joke on Drake’s tendency to appropriate cultural vibes in his music. I was high when I watched that episode and that joke caught me so off-guard I was talking about it for the rest of the day.
The most stunning episode of the season follows Darius as he goes to get a Craigslist piano at a creepy old mansion and discovers Teddy Perkins, who can easily be interpreted as a stand-in for Michael Jackson at the end of his life. The episode uses Teddy in order to meditate on the cost of fame. (Teddy is played by an uncredited Glover in a grotesque disguise.) The tragedy of Michael Jackson’s life hasn’t really been grappled with in popular culture apart from in tasteless jokes. But Atlanta uses Jackson’s tragedy to illustrate the horrific consequences of lifelong fame and exploitation.
The show tells this narrative via the horror genre, with few moments of levity, and it’s really shocking. During the episode, it cuts for a moment to Paper Boi at a drive through with Earn and another character in the car, and the guy at the window wants to give him free fries and Paper Boi keeps telling him no. Finally the guy yells, “Just don’t eat them!” It’s a very funny scene, but it juxtaposes Teddy Perkins and Paper Boi in an interesting way. Paper Boi is already fed up with being famous, even when it comes to banal perks like free fries, and yet, it seems like he’s still on the chase. What does he want: To be like Teddy Perkins, alone, horrifying, and miserable? Early in season two, there is an argument between Earn and guest star Kat Williams where Earn yells at Kat’s character (channeling Kat’s real life struggles): “What I’m scared of is being you, somebody everybody knew was smart but ended up being some know-it-all fuck up jay that just let shit happen to him.” Paper Boi will have to decide whether he wants to lose his authenticity and probably his friendships in order to level up, or whether he wants to fade into obscurity and return to selling drugs. We’ll have to see what happens at the end of season two and in season three.