Everyone knows of Seinfeld and its famous episode, "The Pitch," wherein George tries to help Jerry with his show and settles on: "It’s show about nothing!" It’s now something of a classic line that described Seinfeld’s focus on the mundane in its entirety. The show has held onto that distinction for years with little to no challengers, but now it may be time to pass that moniker onto FX’s Atlanta, a show that’s not really about much beyond being weird as fuck and relaxing as hell.
That’s my big takeaway as I think about the 10-episode debut season of FX’s fall series, that comes courtesy of Community alum and future Star Wars star Donald Glover. From the starting point of "Twin Peaks with rappers" that Glover provided about the series once upon an interview, there’s a certain vibe of both that reverberates throughout each episode from beginning to end.
There’s a bit of a performance art to how weird and carefree Atlanta is, like the disturbing image of having a black kid in whiteface giving the world’s most sinister smirk. This is a show where a black guy can play Justin Bieber with absolutely zero acknowledgement from anyone about the race swap, or a club owner can keep trying to duck out of owing someone money by revealing one of his walls is a secret door like it’s a fucking episode of Scooby-Doo. The best way I can describe it is if it was like Cartoon Network’s Regular Show, but dialed down a few notches so you aren’t completely overwhelmed by all the absolute madness going on, give or take an animated cereal ad turned commentary on police brutality. (Or, if you haven’t watched that, imagine what a live action version of what The Boondocks would likely be if the cartoon hadn’t come and gone a few years back.)
Recent FX shows have had concepts that are less cut and dry than they seem, as American Horror Story and The Americans have shown us. With Atlanta, the same idea holds true: Glover plays Earn, a Princeton dropout mooching off his parents and girlfriend Vanessa (the mother of his daughter), who later becomes the manager of his rapper cousin Paper Boi. It’s an incredibly basic premise, and one that would seem like it has a much more predictable outcome than what it does, given that its star and creator is a well known rapper. Thanks to other shows and films about up and coming rappers, you could understandably think that every episode is going to relate to the two of them and Paper Boi's friend Darius working on building themselves up. Hell, it even felt like that in practice — Atlanta’s first episode ends with Paper Boi and Earn heading to jail after a shootout, which in turn increases Paper Boi's fame and notoriety.
Instead, Atlanta does a complete swerve after its first episode and goes for a different route. Earn and Paper Boi’s goal is to make it big, but the path to getting there isn't something that's constantly on their mind. In fact, it's barely on their mind at all, and it's a move that gives the show more of a realistic feel. Atlanta is trying to be reflective in real time, and one of the ways it does that is by showing that things only matter to our characters right in the here and now. Frankly, it’s weird how well this approach works for them. If many sitcom episodes open with characters telling a story about something weird that just happened, Atlanta is that weird story with the full context intact.
While some have pointed out that this approach can make the show a disappointment in terms of building up plot threads and then dropping them off, I think it's another point in the show's favor. It helps sell the realism of the show and its "give no shits" attitude. I’ve heard Atlanta described as aimless, and in that regard, I actually agree. While Earn’s age is never explicitly stated, he definitely looks old enough to be classified as a "millennial," which as a whole makes the show about black millennials. Like the criticism goes, Earn has the appearance of just screwing around, but it’s clearly not the case; he’s always got the idea of doing right by his family on his mind, he just refuses to compromise and work at a call center or somewhere he’d definitely be miserable. As someone still in that situation, I can’t deny how it felt to see him buckle down and tell Van "I’m doing this my way," especially given that speaking honestly, he really has no right to be picky when it comes to how he makes money.
Atlanta’s "give no shits" attitude manages to extend to the series' main cast. Just from meeting them and hearing them talk, there's just a genuine sense of familiarity that makes Earn, Paper Boi, Darius, and Vanessa richly defined. You've met these people, or you've been them at one point or another. It's not like other shows where you sometimes wonder why these people hang around with each other; Paper Boi and Darius hang out because that just feels like what these two would do. Likewise, Earn and Darius' first meeting gives you a great indicator of how these two will play off each other instantly with a brief talk about why Darius can't have kids. ("I'm sure I'll learn why when the time's right." "When's the right time to talk about how my balls got smashed in?" " ... Apparently now.")
Above all else, it’s the carefree attitude that sticks out the most about Atlanta. There’s a constant, underlying theme at each episode’s end that everything will be alright for these guys. Yes, there are threads established throughout the season, like Earn and Van reestablishing their relationship, or Paper Boi under the very real threat of getting shot as payback for his actions in the pilot, but it’s not something that demands to be commented on or mentioned each episode. It’s there when it’s there and not when it’s not.
With that aforementioned calmness in play, it makes Atlanta one of the most relaxing shows to watch right now. Even the commercials for the show reflect this, choosing to go with soft percussion and shots of normal people going about their business to give the impression that this is a place where you can just kick back and hang out with some good friends. It's not too often you get to say that about a show right out of the gate of its first season, and that's gotta count for something.