Why Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” is the Show America Needs

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Right now, America is a polarized nation, split by class, by race, and by gender. What it needs more than ever right now is a show like Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” which is not afraid to take on some really big issues without taking itself too seriously. In fact, the FX Network bills the show as an “innovative comedy” and it’s this humor that keeps the show from getting too heavy.

A solid dose of reality

Donald Glover, the creator of the show who also plays the role of the protagonist Earnest “Earn” Marks, has said that, “I wanted to show real people in real situations.” And that’s exactly what “Atlanta” has delivered ever since it debuted in September 2016 – a dose of reality about what it’s like to be black, single and trying to make it in the hip hop industry in Atlanta. This is not some glamorized view of what it’s like to be a rapper, and it’s also not a dark look at the crumbling state of America’s urban neighborhoods.

In other words, this isn’t a show that’s been infected with the deeply polarizing sentiment of the recent election campaign. Yes, it can be tough trying to make a living in urban Atlanta, but it’s not the dark “American carnage” described by the current Trump administration. It’s a reflection that reality can be messy and convoluted. There’s no easy way to make it – you have to keep working at it daily.

Characters we can identify with

Earn is a college dropout with no money, no real home, and no real prospects. He has a daughter, too, that he’s trying to provide for. And he’s still trying to patch things up with his girlfriend, Vanessa (“Van”). He’s hustling to make a go of it, and he spots any opportunity with his cousin Alfred Miles, who is now an up-and-coming rapper in Atlanta known as Paper Boi. Along the way, Paper Boi and Earn are helped by Darius, who has become an indispensable part of Paper Boi’s hip hop entourage.

Starting from Episode 1 of Season 1, the stories of these characters become intertwined in ways that have audiences coming back for more. Viewers are truly invested in the lives of these characters. So much so, in fact, that the series picked up two Golden Globes this year. “Atlanta” won Best TV Series (Musical-Comedy) and Donald Glover won Best Actor for a TV Series (Musical-Comedy).

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Relevant political themes

Atlanta” is not afraid to take on a lot of big issues that Americans are talking about these days – the nation’s drug problem, racial inequality, poverty, and police brutality. It’s far too easy to separate along party lines and come up with a quick and ready response to any of these problems.

But it’s clear that these widely differing approaches to the problem haven’t worked. By politicizing the problems, we’ve only made them worse. Ferguson was only a symptom, not the problem itself. Solving the problem shouldn’t pit black vs. white or urban vs. rural. We’re all in this together.

And that’s why “Atlanta” is such an important new TV show. It sketches out the people who populate the reality. And they are not cartoon characters, either, they are real people. Deep down, they are well-meaning, but they’ve been put into difficult situations. They have families they care about, and people they love, but they also have to put money in the bank and that’s where things are tough because there are no easy answers. They are trying to head down a positive path, even if everything around them is negative.

“Atlanta” should be required watching for any politician or political lobbyist who thinks that the answer to our problems is to “lock them up” or “build a wall.” These are real people with real problems, something we see everyday with Earn, Paper Boi and Darius.

A new kind of binge watching

Some TV critics have pointed out that “Atlanta” doesn’t seem to have a real plot, and nothing ever seems to get resolved. There are “no cliffhangers” and “no jaw-dropping moments.” In short, this is what a comedy looks like when the laugh track has been stripped away; this is what a comedy reality show should look like, instead of having tiny scripted moments intended for TV audiences.

What all this means is a new kind of binge watching, if you decide to watch all 10 episodes of Season 1 at one time. As Donald Glover explains, the city of Atlanta influenced the tone, rhythm and pacing of the show. For some, the pace seems to be too meandering. But it perfectly matches what is happening in the real lives of the characters – they are meandering through life, trying to grab things when they can, realizing there’s no easy answer.

One scene perfectly illustrates this – the scene where Paper Boi goes after the club promoter and gets back the money that’s been taken from him. Earlier, the club promoter had taunted Earn, giving him only $750 instead of the $5000 due him, citing all kinds of things, like extra security for Paper Boi’s shows. But Paper Boi doesn’t even hesitate, “We’re getting our money.” And that’s where the comedy of the show takes over and keeps things from getting too dark: the club promoter has just been beaten up and his money taken from him, but all he can say is, “That boy’s gonna be a star.”

The healing power of music

Finally, “Atlanta” seems to stretch across generations with its appeal, and one way it does this is via music. There’s music from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as hip hop  and rap from the current era. Plus, there’s an eclectic mix of music: jazz, soul, hip hop and rap. The music, one could argue, is the “glue” that keeps all the parts of the show together. It unites races and it unites generations.

And, so, at a time when so much of America seems starkly divided, there’s a sign of hope that the nation can finally find a healing solution. Music and comedy may be the two keys to getting different races and classes to come together as one united society, and that’s something that “Atlanta” makes clear from the very outset. For that reason, Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” is the show America needs right now.

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