It’s hard not to be reminded of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None while watching the auteurist Atlanta, Donald Glover’s new FX comedy. Both Ansari and Glover were underutilized in the supporting roles that made them famous (Tom on Parks and Recreation and Troy on Community, respectively), but their current shows make full use of their supple talents as actors, writers, and thinkers. Master and Atlanta each follows a 30-ish dude of color who isn’t a manchild, exactly, but has definitely failed to live up to his potential and his family’s expectations. Featuring diverse casts and an indelible sense of racial consciousness, the two shows spotlight urban lives we rarely see on screen. But Atlanta can also boast that it’s funnier than the feted Netflix series, benefiting from a lighter touch and higher stakes.
Debuting on Tuesday, September 6, the show paints Glover’s hometown, which is more than three-fifths African-American, as a city full of dreamers and eccentrics, teachers, criminals, and ne’er-do-wells. It is, in other words, a place like any other, but also a metropolis of 5 million that has its own subcultures and celebrities. And yet Glover’s Earnest (aka “Earn”) still hasn’t found a home in it. He’s not “real homeless,” he insists to his upcoming-rapper cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) — it’s not like he’s using a rat as a phone, he jokes. Still, he’s got nowhere to sleep but in his ex Vanessa’s (Zazie Beetz) bed, just a few feet away from their baby daughter. When he volunteers to manage Paper Boi’s career to flee his dead-end, commission-only sales job, he’s told there’s no position for him — he’s a Martin, when what’s needed is a Malcolm.
Earn’s lovely and thorny relationship with “Van” is one of the series’ instant highlights: It’s easy to see why they got together — and why they can’t stay together. Beetz charms even when Van pushes all of Earn’s guilt buttons for pursuing his aspirations — though he’s not sure what they are yet — instead of providing for their child. But no performer glows with as much wattage as emerging star Keith Stanfield, who plays the philosopher-dolt Darius, Paper Boi’s idiot-savant sidekick. He’s as likely to marvel at what a brilliantly efficient use of pests a rat phone would be as he is to drop some knowledge about how Genghis Khan caused climate change back in the 14th century. Between the show’s rash violence, the goofed-up drug deals, and the simmering rage at upselling jerk waiters, Darius’s ditziness is a sprinkle of elf magic.
The eventual plot of Earn and Paper Boi’s team-up unfolds slowly. The wannabe rep gets some wheels turning, but he lacks the ball-breaking gusto of an Ari Gold. It doesn’t matter; it’s impossible to mind. The shaggy hang-out feel in these early episodes revel in the slight surreality of local D-list hip-hop fame: selfies with star-struck cops who arrest you, social-media beefs with pizza-delivery guys, and disses of anyone with more success. (On Flo Rida: “Moms need to enjoy rap, too.”) A gunshot from Paper Boi’s itchy trigger finger (and his inability to just be cool, man) does more for his profile than Earn could at this juncture. When Earn finally figures out what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, well, you can get in his way — he’s not very intimidating. But once he finds his path, there’ll be no stopping him.