Quantrell Colbert/FX

All About The Sweat-Soaked Benjamins: On Atlanta’s Terrific First Season

Donald Glover’s hilarious FX comedy is a no-nonsense love letter to his hometown, and to the characters who populate it

The season finale of Atlanta’s impressive debut year begins with one of the show’s recurring motifs: Earn (Donald Glover) waking up in a strange bed (or chair or couch or, in this case, a beanbag). Over the last 10 episodes, Earn has stirred next to his on-and-off girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz); been roused from sleep in a jail by cops; opened his eyes to face the barrel of a resting gun on his rapper cousin Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) sofa; and waked and baked courtesy of his slumbering one-night stand. He’d probably have crashed at his parents’ at some point, except they’ve stopped letting him in their house. Earn’s not “real homeless,” he contends in the pilot. Not anymore, anyway: The closing shot of the finale finds him laying his head in a room of his own and with some money in his pocket shoe. Never mind that his achievements are a storage space and a couple of sweat-dampened Benjamins. He’s finally reached a place where he doesn’t owe anyone anything.

Like Glover, its creator, Atlanta’s talents are manifold. It’s an essential portrait of ordinary black life, a grounded account of underground hip-hop fame, a no-nonsense love letter to Glover’s hometown, a thorny relationship drama, and a fantastically funny comedy. Vital to all those modes is the series’s exploration of Earn’s broke-ness — notable in a pop culture that’s still dominated by unrealistic apartments and trust-funder lifestyles. Of his Princeton dropout son, Earn’s father (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) observes, “When he wants to do something, he does it. On his terms.” That sounds affirming, but it’s as much a judgment as it is a compliment. Earn’s terms have made living in a storage facility a real victory. His efforts to make courting failure a respectable life decision — or at least a reasonable one — despite the pressing need to support his baby daughter, if not himself, gives Atlanta’s first season its unusual stakes. From Van’s pragmatic POV, Earn’s resolve to manage Paper Boi’s career — especially when “there’s no money anywhere near rap” — is selfish and stupid, maybe even delusional. (Not for nothing does she get the last word in several of the episodes, mostly variations on calling her ex an idiot.) But the show cares about Earn’s small triumphs and incremental gains too. As clear-sighted as it is about the perils of dreams, Atlanta is ultimately on the side of the dreamers.

The series’s affection for the strugglers and strivers comes through most clearly in the ways those characters get by. Until Paper Boi gets bigger, he and Darius (Keith Stanfield) sling drugs. (“It’s easy,” Darius assures Earn. “People are addicted to them.”) The skinny sidekick has his head god-knows-where most of the time, but he knows his way around his city enough to trade in a cell phone for a pawn-shop sword for a dog as a medium-term investment strategy. (Darius’s plan illustrates his knack for subsistence and getting out of financial jams. Earn, on the other hand, is bad at being broke, lacking the capital and ingenuity for schemes like this. He can’t even con his way into buying a Happy Meal to save a couple of bucks.) Cluck your tongue, but at least Van’s value-obsessed frenemy, Jayde (Aubin Wise), has found her economic niche. Jayde may be crassly materialistic, but her one-woman business has taken her much further than nearly any other character we’ve seen on the show.

In fact, those scraping by on the nine-to-five treadmill may be the suckers, at least in this hustlers’ universe. The commission-only sales job that Earn needed to wear a suit for — peddling airline credit cards — was barely a job at all. And the only character with a traditional full-time profession, Van, gets unceremoniously fired because she smoked half a joint the night before, in violation of a policy even her principal admits is excessive. (The condemnation of unnecessary employee drug-testing joins Atlanta’s critiques of police violence and the sexual pathologization of hip-hop as one of the show’s strongest social criticisms.) It’s yet unclear why so many of Atlanta’s characters live outside the formal economy, whether that’s due to Glover’s focus on a certain class, the result of structural racial discrimination, a reflection of the financial disadvantages of younger generations, or simply the grouping of several foils around Earn — glimpses of the lives he could be living. But in an economic context where the game is rigged against players like Earn, pursuing unconventional paths toward satisfaction and success makes utter sense. In a vulnerable moment, Paper Boi defines rap as “making the best out of a bad situation.” That’s what Earn is doing too: fighting for his idealistic vision of “the best” to be taken seriously — even if it means crashing in a rented storage unit for a while.