The next half-hour sitcom (and I use the term sitcom very loosely here) to hit FX is going to feel different than what most audiences are used to (although that in of itself shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with the network). Called ATLANTA, it follows a couple of cousins struggling in a poor neighborhood in the titular city, hoping for their turn at fame and fortune, or maybe just to not get shot. It’s a grim, subtle, and well-made series from a perspective that isn’t shown a lot.
Creator Donald Glover (Community) stars as Earnest “Earn” Marks, an essentially homeless young man with a baby girl. While Earn is involved in the child’s life, mother Van (Zazie Beetz, Applesauce) is the primary caregiver, especially when Earn is sleeping in a dumpster.
One might think Earn should go his family for help, but he’s sort of the outcast in the clan. When we see Earn’s relations, they are usually bad-mouthing Earn, disappointed in what he’s done so far in life. Earn is in a very familiar extended adolescence, along the lines of what we see on HBO’s Girls, but without the parental safety net to pay his rent and make sure he gets to eat. Earn’s life is hard, and it’s on him to figure it out, which he genuinely is trying to do, at least a bit.
Earn’s first possible break comes when he realizes his drug-dealing cousin, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry, Vice Principals), can rap, releasing a self-made video under the alias Paper Boi, which also doubles as a hit song title. Hitching his wagon to Alfred, Earn’s first obstacle is convincing his cousin to let him get involved, no easy task. But viewers will quickly understand that Earn and Alfred are at the center of ATLANTA, and so they must work together, whether they want to or not.
The cinematography and location shooting for ATLANTA is excellent. One thing that will strike audiences right away is how good this thing looks. Just because the story takes place in a shabby neighborhood doesn’t mean the film must be shabby, and the artistic vision allows us to see the dim reality even more clearly because of the masterful way in which it’s presented.
The humor is sometimes obvious, but there are plenty of scenes that won’t elicit audible laughs. It’s not because ATLANTA isn’t funny, but because the material isn’t cheap. There are some LOL-worthy moments, such as when a white friend of Earn’s won’t use the n-word in front of Alfred, although he freely tosses it around when speaking with Earn. But this is the exception rather than the rule, making this much more of a dramedy than a traditional sitcom.
Now, ATLANTA won’t be for everyone. I’m not even really sure it’s for me. I didn’t relate to the world shown, even as I sympathized with the struggles. But even for someone who isn’t signing up to be a weekly viewer, the quality comes through. I cannot help but respect what Glover has done here, and acknowledge that this show is filling a gap that is glaring on television. Glover may not want the series to be important, but it is, and should be seen, or at least made available to see.
You should give ATLANTA a chance. You may like it, you may not. But if you don’t, it won’t be because the show is bad or the story is full of plot holes. Few series make it to air as finely polished and as interestingly original as this one.
ATLANTA premieres Tuesday, September 6th at 10/9c on FX.
CHIEF TELEVISION CRITIC | Creator of and writer for It's All Been Done Radio Hour live show and podcast. A voracious reader wanting to tell stories of his own, Jerome began writing around the age of 8 and hasn’t stopped, both original works and television reviews. Lives in central Ohio. Favorite current shows include The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones, Flaked, Outlander, and Archer.