Sunday, March 5, 2017

MTVP Binges Out: "Atlanta" Season One

I’m a big fan of Donald Glover from his work on “Community” and his very different, but equally memorable turn as Rich Purnell in “The Martian.” So when I heard positive reviews of his new FX show, “Atlanta,” I decided to check it out. I wouldn’t say it was one of my favorite shows ever, but it was definitely an enjoyable ten episodes with a lot of potential. I liked the lo fi aesthetic and how it just attempted to depict people as they are. There were a couple episodes that were a bit too experimental for my taste, but when the show focused on the misadventures of Glover’s “Earn” Marks, a kind of hapless wannabe rap manager, the show was at its best. I appreciate shows with a sense of place, and while I’ve only been to Atlanta twice, I think Glover achieved that. I can’t vouch for how “Atlanta” the show actually is, but it definitely had a particular viewpoint and Earn was operating in a pretty defined world.

“Atlanta” is, as I mentioned, primarily the story of Earnest “Earn” Marks, a Princeton drop-out who wants to try and finally provide for his daughter by managing the career of his rapper cousin, Paper Boi. Earn is on and off with his daughter’s mother, Van, who really wants a better life for her family and continually tries to push Earn to be a better provider and just a more supportive partner in general. Then there’s Paper Boi (real name Albert) and his crew, most notably his pal Darius. In many episodes, Albert and Darius have some humorous side-plot happening while Earn is experiencing his own misadventures. They really provide more of the overt, more slapstick humor in the series. There are also a bunch of memorable one-off characters, like an overly ambitious vlogger named Zan, a black Justin Bieber (a kind of surreal gag that also had its funny moments), and Craig, a rich white guy who has basically made black culture a hobby.

At the Television Critics Association press tour this past August, Glover said, “The thesis with this show was to show people what it’s like to be black, and you can’t write that down. You have to feel it.” I’m a white person who has lived most of my life in suburbia (I was raised in an outer ring suburb of Philadelphia, went to college in rural Central Pennsylvania, and I currently live in a suburb in Maryland). Other than three years I spent living in downtown Baltimore and a year I spent living in an inner ring Washington, DC suburb, I haven’t experienced as much beyond how I was raised as I probably should have. So I feel like I don’t really have the authority to say whether or not Glover reached his goal. I will say that two of the characters in “Atlanta” have made me start giving more thought to how I go about being an ally to the black community in Baltimore. Or at least these characters have clearly shown what not to do. Both of the characters I’m referencing are major cultural appropriators. One is a DJ at a radio station, and the other is Craig, who I have already mentioned.

My favorite episodes of the first season center around Earn going on sort of wild goose chases to solve a problem. I think the humor of a situation like that transcends cultures. The first episode of this nature that really held my attention was “The Streisand Effect.” Earn needs some money and is going to pawn his cell phone. Darius promises he has a way to get even more cash and encourages Earn to trade the phone for a katana sword. The sword is then traded for a dog that goes to a breeder. The breeder says that when the dog produces puppies, Earn will be paid handsomely. Earn explains to Darius a truth that many of us already know. It’s expensive to be poor. When you’re poor, you’re just trying to survive – you can’t afford to invest. Earn needed the money from the phone now to put food on the table for his daughter, not the money from the puppies months from now. Darius takes pity on Earn and gives him another cell phone to trade in. The other episode of this nature that liked was the season finale, where Earn retraces his steps trying to find a jacket he lost at a crazy party, and increasingly bizarre things happen. It’s not the jacket Earn really cares about though. It’s a key in the pocket of the jacket. And that’s all I’ll say about that to keep the ending of the season a surprise.

There were a couple episodes that were a bit too experimental for my taste, although I wouldn’t say either were bad, per se. One was “Value,” where Van goes out to dinner with an old friend and realizes they don’t have all that much in common anymore (although they do smoke week together, which causes Van all sorts of trouble). I guess this one was really just experimental in that it focused on Van and not the guys. It was an interesting story, and I’m glad the creative team decided to try and tell and episode from Van’s perspective, but I don’t find her all that compelling of a character. The most experimental episode was “B.A.N.” which was entirely a fictionalized talk show that Paper Boi was participating in to discuss transphobia. There were parody commercials and everything. I think this episode was mostly lost in translation for me, since I have never really watched B.E.T. I am sure there were plenty of specific things that they were sharply parodying that I just didn’t pick up on.

Overall, “Atlanta” introduced me to the “real” Atlanta. That is, the Atlanta outside the Peachtree Center hotels I’ve stayed at for conferences and the Poncey-Highland neighborhood where I once had a delicious lamb burger at Richard Blais’ Flip Burger Boutique (the beginning of my foodie tendencies). The Atlanta where people actually live and interact and try to survive. And in that sense, Glover and his creative team were extremely successful. The writers’ room was comparatively green compared to most TV shows, and I think that had a (positive) role in the show’s lo fi aesthetic. The show feels very lived-in, like you’re just dropping into the middle of the lives of Earn and his friends. I’m excited to see what this team does with the concept moving forward as they gain more experience.

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