To show all that he can do, to show something of what life's actually like, Donald Glover first has to break your heart.
Glover — the star, creator and often writer of FX's tense, downwardly mobile hangout comedy Atlanta — is best known, still, as a handsome clown on NBC's Community, Dan Harmon's funny and curiously grandiose sitcom/self-help course. Community peddled a utopian hive-mindedness, exalting multicultural group friendship as an ideal that transcends all else, even family – while always presenting that group as ruled by the comedy's white leads. Glover's Troy was a sweet-dumb jock joke, and it's not hard to understand why this smart, prickly comic distanced himself from the show over its run. Community stuck him in one mode, a second-banana Tony Danza.
There's no Troy in Atlanta, and there's not much community. It's set in spare exurban homes, in parking lots and pawn shops, the characters rarely commanding the frame. You have to peek through a gap in the desk of a police-station bureaucrat to spot Glover and co-star Brian Tyree Henry at the start of the second episode, set in a police holding room. These characters are stuck, overlooked. They exercise little power in their surroundings. The show (directed by Hiro Murai) presents the under-employed life in edge-city Atlanta as a series of small hassles, some absurd, some demeaning, some edging into danger. Atlanta's rhythms are skittish and surprising, easing you into a groove and then jabbing just when everything seems comfortable. In that holding room, the arrested men, bored and sleepy, get briefly invested in the comedy of a troubled street character who elects to drink a glass of toilet water. Then that man spews a mouthful at a cop, and the nightsticks come out.
“The thesis with this show is kind of to show people how it feels to be black,” Glover has said of Atlanta. The perspective is more specific than that: Atlanta is about being black, male and broke. But it often hits against the biggest and most painful of American truths.
Glover stars as Earnest “Earn” Marks, a local boy of promise — he got accepted into Princeton — who now has come back home a failure. In its first four episodes, Atlanta doesn't dish why Earn bombed out of college. There's nobody Earn trusts enough to spill that to. But there's great hurt behind his eyes, and we witness his everyday wariness, his uncertainty about how much of himself he can reveal, as he buses from work (at the airport, trying to sign up suckers for credit cards) to his temporary, uncertain home (with the mother of his infant daughter), to the opportunity he's set his sights on. That's a chance to break into music as the manager of local rapper Paper Boi (Henry), whose raw, hook-y mixtape has won caused a local stir, despite its occasional corniness, especially that track about “mucking,” a combination of massage and sex.
Earn has the savvy to help Paper Boi, who happens to be his cousin Alfred. But both men — accompanied by Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), a stoned, philosophical comic wonder — have to get through their days in a city that's always suspicious of them. Alfred, a big man, says he got into selling drugs because there weren't other opportunities for a man who can't even go to the ATM without scaring off strangers.
Earn has an easy smile and Glover's leading-man looks, but he's still seen, everywhere he goes, as a threat or a mark or a pretty-ass schoolboy who thinks he's better than the neighborhood. Sitting there in the police station, he has to prove he isn't looking at anybody else — simply not looking isn't enough. Meanwhile, one of the few white men he speaks to in the first four episodes, a payola-craving toady at a local radio station, relishes the power he holds that Earn doesn't — and can't resist causally saying “nigger” just to show how down he is. Earn needs his help and can't object. Piercingly, with outrage and tenderness, Atlanta exposes the complex variations on his own identity that Earn must play just to get through a day. It's self as a run of improvised jazz chords, each trickier than the last, each of which must be struck without letting on that there's even a performance. If simply being is this hard for him at home, among people he knows, of course Princeton must have been hell.
With so much on its mind, Atlanta is surprisingly laid-back, its episodes as likely to be powered by baked chatter and sharp observation as they are by sitcom setups. (The third episode, a standout, splices together two standard plots, the too-expensive fancy dinner date and the criminal deal gone wrong, but it switches up which is played for suspense and which is wrung for laughs.)
Glover doesn't try to make Earn a lovable Everyman. He's sullen and disdainful of his responsibilities as a parent, toting the baby around when he has to but never connecting with her. In the series' most painful scene so far, Earn insists to Van (Zazie Beetz), his co-parent, that it's too early for him to go get some spirit-killing grown-up job, that he can still make something of himself, that they owe it to their daughter to give Earn his freedom. Beetz invests pepper power into a role that, so far, mostly calls upon her to be annoyed, then come this close to smiling as Glover turns on the charm. The writers — Glover and his brother, Stephen Glover — seem aware that this is a problem, but so far their solution is to give Van a speech chewing Earn out for making her have to act like a stereotype of an angry black woman.
Atlanta is one of TV's best shows, honest and sometimes hilarious, a slice-of-life that slices back. It's so astute and well-observed as it tracks the lives of Earn and Alfred that I can't help but hope Van will get her own episode, soon — that it can show what it's like to be her, too.
Atlanta airs Tuesdays on FX.