Status Ain't Hood

Atlanta Is A Good TV Show

I shoved Donald Glover once. This was about five years ago, at a big G.O.O.D. Music showcase in a converted power plant in Austin, during SXSW. Getting into that thing was, as I’m sure you could imagine, a tremendous hassle. And once I staked out a spot I liked — close to the stage, but not too close — I wasn’t going to leave it. When the show was getting closer and closer to starting, I felt a pressure in my back, and, without turning around, I pushed back, hard. That kept going for a few seconds, the way those little jostling-for-position battles sometimes happen at packed-in shows. And then, in the kids standing near me, I heard a weird little buzz. One kid yelled, “Hey, man, you should be Spider-Man!” I finally turned around, and it was Glover, shirtless with a backpack on, smiling, slinking off into a different area of the crowd, evidently not yet famous enough to get into one of the VIP spaces at the show. I felt really bad for shoving him.

In that moment, Glover was one of my favorite people on TV. Community, then in its second season, was my favorite comedy, and Glover’s sweetly dumb Troy character was the best thing on it. He’d also wrapped up a gig as a writer on 30 Rock, my second-favorite comedy, and he was just starting to launch a rap career. I liked the idea of him as a rapper. I wouldn’t like it for long. Over the next few years, Glover, as Childish Gambino, would become a bona fide internet-driven rap star, and I would lose all esteem I had for the guy, even if he did have the good sense to leave Community around the time that show started to flag. As a rapper, I’ve always found Glover to be unctuous, overly clever, eager-to-please, like a kid who sits in front in class and keeps asking for extra-credit assignments. He’s grown more confident as an artist in the past few years, developing a sticky and sometimes sinister funk side that I’ve come to like. But when I’d think of him, I’d get a weird immature “fuck it, I’m glad I shoved him” feeling. And when the news came out that he was working on a sitcom set around Atlanta’s rap scene, I was not exactly optimistic about it. I was wrong. Glover is once again one of my favorite people on TV, and I am once again sorry that I shoved him that one time.

Before Glover’s new show Atlanta debuted on FX last Tuesday, there was a fair amount of pre-release buzz, critics I trusted saying it was the best new show of the year. If anything, they understated things. Atlanta is a quiet revelation. Its pace is the polar opposite of what Glover was doing on 30 Rock. Its jokes are modest and organic, and they unfold with a slow, naturalistic rhythm. Its characters, absurd as they sometimes are, are among the most relatable on TV, partly because they’re broke all the time. (Glover’s internal panic during a too-expensive date on last night’s episode made me internally wince so many times.) Hiro Murai, the director of the first three episodes and most of the others, comes from the world of low-budget music videos, and his whole aesthetic — murky black skies, lingering reaction shots, shaggy surreality — translates beautifully to narrative television. And Glover, who created the show and who serves as its head writer, has a real affection for his characters, no matter how stupid they’re being.

But the thing I love most about the show is how it gets rap, in its current messy internet-driven moment, so completely right. Plenty of other TV shows have built themselves around rap music, but they’ve always had idealized notions of the genre and its practitioners. There’s a longstanding fixation on larger-than-life flash, whether the show in question is dealing with the music’s mythic beginnings (The Get Down) or its corporate intrigue (Empire). By contrast, Paper Boi, the bubbling-under rapper at the heart of Atlanta, is one broke bum among many others. He doesn’t trust his own career prospects, and he doesn’t even like his own biggest hit. He has no ambition. And while he never really discusses his own artistry, it’s clear that he creates music just because it’s what he has to do. He deals drugs to support his music habit, and he doesn’t seem to expect any return on his investment in himself. Rapping is just a thing that he does, and he’s absolutely uncomfortable with any indication that this could turn him into a celebrity, even on a local level.

I can’t possibly explain how happy I am that Glover didn’t cast himself as a rapper. Instead, he’s Paper Boi’s cousin, a college dropout and permanent failure who sees Paper Boi as a possible route to economic solvency, something that Paper Boi recognizes. And the sad thing about the show is that Paper Boi is probably right to expect nothing from his rapping. He says early on that rap is dead, and for a guy like him — a heavy and menacing unreformed street-rapper working a well-trod lane and not relying on gimmicks — it probably really is dead. It’s unclear how old Paper Boi is supposed to be, but he’s not young; Brian Tyree Henry, the laconic and charismatic actor who plays him, is 34. He doesn’t talk in terms of songwriting or collaborations. He’s not a networker. He’s just a guy who raps. (I thought hard about what Paper Boi’s closest real-life equivalent might be, and the best I can come up with is the gifted Memphis journeyman Don Trip.) Paper Boi is a fully fleshed-out character, and his bleak future and bleaker outlook makes him maybe the most realistic fictional rapper I’ve ever seen depicted.

Atlanta isn’t really a show about music, but music thrums through it. Glover has built the show’s aesthetic around grimy, low-budget Southern street-rap, not the attention-grabbingly clever stuff that he himself makes. Earn, Glover’s character, listens to OJ Da Juiceman and Kodak Black, and he admits that he hasn’t been keeping up with new rappers very well. And while last night’s episode, which mostly revolved around that disastrous date, didn’t even explicitly involve music, it still gave some of the leading lights of Atlanta rap a chance to shine. All three member of Migos played terrifying backwoods drug dealers, and Quavo, the group’s most famous member, got a real acting showcase, even though he’d never acted before. As the leader of that drug gang, he got to be alternately silky and fearsome, and he does it without ever breaking the deadpan blankness that fits the show’s rhythms so well. When asked, in this Complex interview, whether he studied the work of any particular actors, Quavo simply responded that he had to “find my Quavo,” which is perfect. In its first two weeks, Atlanta has been an instant success, drawing more viewers than any cable comedy in years. That’s great. It deserves to be huge. Donald Glover has really found his voice with this thing. I hope he never goes back to rapping.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Zack De La Rocha – “Digging For Windows”
I’m torn as to whether this even really constitutes a rap song, whether it belongs in this column or not. But whatever De La Rocha is doing, whether it’s rapping or barking or whatever else, he is breathing fire. And El-P noise-bombs like this should be treasured.

2. D.R.A.M. – “Cash Machine”
Another case where I’m not exactly sure if this guy is rapping, but whoooo! It’s been a long moment since I’ve heard pure, distilled joy expressed so loudly and clearly.

3. TM-88 – “Been Thru A Lot” (Feat. Lil Yachty & Young Thug)
Yachty’s bright, psychedelic cartoon-warble turns bluesy, while Thug continues to exist on a planet that most of us can only glimpse with a high-powered telescope.

4. 21 Savage – “No Target”
French dance producer Brodinski does his best impression of an Atlanta trap producer, while 21 Savage does his best impression of someone who will bite all the face meat off of your skull. I want John Carpenter to start directing movies again so that this can soundtrack the ominous moment before all hell breaks loose.

5. Swet Shop Boys – “Zayn Malik”
Not that this is saying a whole lot, but “Zayn Malik” shows a whole lot more promise than any actual Zayn Malik songs, at least since the solo career popped off.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO