In anticipation of Sunday’s Emmy Awards, this week WIRED staffers are looking back at some of their favorite shows from the past year.
When the first season of Atlanta quietly ended last November, it did so at a turtle’s pace: low-key and unhurried. The episodes that preceded the finale embodied the same spirit—a farcical and surrealist satire bounded by Southern, downtempo cool. Along the way its creator-star Donald Glover seemed to be saying, I’ve got a destination in sight, but there’s no rush; we’ll get there when I’m ready.
Atlanta, akin to the city itself, is pure sprawl—thematically sweeping if sometimes implausibly lush, with its cabal of lovably thorny characters and its conceptually exhaustive format. Much to the credit of Glover and his all-black writers’ room, it is a show without a roadmap that isn’t afraid to take detours to uncharted territories (or get lost and find its way back). As such, the Emmy-nominated comedy (it’s up for four awards on Sunday) has no precedent. In the short history of contemporary television, there have been more than a handful of shows that have traversed the highs and lows of black life—some of them exceptional, most of them simply OK. But there’s never been a vision quite as specific and as versatile and as wonderfully gonzo as Atlanta: It speaks with a cultural knowingness that, until its debut, had never been given space on TV.
Glover plays the part of Earn Marks, an Ivy League dropout who can’t seem to get things going (he’s pinned down by a job as a low-level credit card salesman at the airport), until an opportunity to manage his cousin Paper Boi’s on-the-rise rap career presents itself. The only thing is, Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) would rather trade in fame for a simpler life: dealing drugs, playing Xbox, and smoking weed with his partner-in-hustle, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield’s oddball performance is a series highlight). Across 10 episodes—each one stubbornly original in its conceit—the trio take us through Atlanta, its people and their folkways. At points anticipated and paradoxical, the show concerns itself with issues such as trans identity (as it relates to both gender and race), celebrity culture, police brutality, mental health, and the ethics of gun violence. During a midseason episode (“Nobody Beats the Biebs”), Darius visits a local shooting range where he’s confronted by white patrons for using a target they consider unconscionable. “You can’t shoot a dog!” one man fumes, to which Darius, in his typical stoner pragmatism, responds: “Well, why would I shoot a human target?” And because the distance between life and death is precariously ironic for black men, and because Glover knows this, Darius is quickly kicked out—at gunpoint.
The shades of black life are many, and Atlanta has attempted not to speak for the whole—really, what show could?—but for the few. Glover’s result is a world structured around hyper-specific moments of joy and terror and mundanity. In his stratosphere, we encounter a black Justin Bieber, a teen who mockingly wears whiteface to school, an affluent couple who fetishizes Juneteenth, and the contentious Charlie Rose-styled talk show Montague, which is bookended by commercials that exclusively feature black people in satirized and true-to-life situations. It’s a way of talking about race without explicitly talking about race. It’s also the kind of storytelling that is resilient but never so overly reckless that it sacrifices the impact of the joke or the grace of the message.
Still, the genuine brilliance of the show lies within its mutability; its form and function are constantly changing—unhurried as it may seem. Months ago, writing about the new season of Insecure and its placement within the current TV landscape, I mentioned how Atlanta straddled the line between reality, situational farce, and morose surrealism. Its episodes are a direct reflection of this kaleidoscopic viewpoint—they’re elastic formulations that reject trite formulas. Sneakily enough, it also feels like Glover’s way of saying this is what being black often feels like now: That on any given day you might find yourself in a comedy, or a horror, or an absurdist fantasy—and sometimes all three at once.