‘Atlanta’ thoughtfully balances comedy, commentary

The new show “Atlanta,” starring Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Keith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz, explores the rap scene and masterfully combines a comedic and serious tone. Photo courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls via Wikimedia
The new show “Atlanta,” starring Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Keith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz, explores the rap scene and masterfully combines a comedic and serious tone. Photo courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls via Wikimedia
The new show “Atlanta,” starring Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Keith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz, explores the rap scene and masterfully combines a comedic and serious tone. Photo courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls via Wikimedia

What a trip. “Atlanta” is proof that a TV show can juggle a serious subject, co­medic writing and great characters in 30 min­utes or less. “Atlanta” is the passion project of entertainment mogul Donald Glover. If you haven’t heard of Glover before, you’ve prob­ably watched or heard something he has been involved with. He was a writer for the fantastic “30 Rock,” was Troy on the show “Community” and makes music under the stage name Childish Gambino. In short, the dude gets around.

“Atlanta” is about a lot of things, but mainly cen­ters around the fictional up-and-coming rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (played by Brian Tyree Henry) and his cousin/manager Earn (played by Donald Glover) in the city of Atlanta. Along with these two characters, there is also Paper Boi’s friend Darius (played by Keith Stanfield) and Earn’s baby momma Van (played by Zazie Beetz).

“Atlanta” is a procedural show, so each episode is its own self-contained story, like a sitcom. At the same time, each episode doesn’t reset everything about the world around the characters. Over the course of the season, the relationships between characters develops naturally. Van and Earn’s in particular is one that gets a lot of focus over this 10-episode season.

One of my favorite parts of the show was the cinematography. The majority of the episodes were directed by Hiro Murai (who directed many of Childish Gambino’s music videos), and he brings a consistency to the cinematography that is sorely lacking in television today.

Murai applied a filter to the show that gives everything this really subtle bloom and casts ev­erything in a soft sort of glow. Not only is it very pretty to look at, but it really sets the show apart visually from everything else on television.

Along with this, the way the show is shot works wonders for the comedy. Shots are always held to the perfect length for a joke to have a full effect. There is a fantastic use of pans, long takes and zooms throughout the season that only add to the comedy in the show.

Then there is the serious side of the show. Despite being a comedy, this show can turn on a dime. Don’t be surprised if your laughter stops abruptly in the middle of a scene. I haven’t seen a show to be so concerned with social commentary, and do it so successfully, since HBO’s “The Wire.”

I’m not just talking about how this show deals with race, because it is limiting towards the show to label it as only being about race. “Atlanta” isn’t just focused on race in the modern day; it’s about what it’s like to live in the modern day. The show tackles issues such as poverty, inner-city school­ing, family planning, music and the media’s role in day-to-day life, and handles them all with a deft hand.

One episode in particular, “B.A.N.” tackled a number of these issues in a really unique way that I won’t spoil. While the episode isn’t exactly the first to play with television form like this, it might be the most successful in how it plays with form. There were some really funny jokes throughout the episode and the ending had me rolling in laughter.

That’s another fantastic thing about this show; it’s really funny. I don’t know what it is about FX and comedies, but they’ve struck gold again. The jokes are rarely flat, delivered in a hilarious dead­pan style and are always perfectly timed. Some of the jokes are just meant to get some laughs, but others are pretty biting satires of today’s world.

The show doesn’t limit its satire to anything in particular either. It calls out everything from You­Tube celebrities to extreme cases of white guilt. I don’t want to go too in-depth about what the show brings up, but I have to say that there is one gag halfway through the season involving face paint that is one of the funniest things I have ever seen on TV.

The comedy is not restricted to jokes or gags either; the characters in this show are wonderfully realized and wonderfully comedic. Paper Boi as a character strikes a great balance between soft and caring while still having a skewed sense of pride and justice, and then there is Darius.

Darius is the oddball of the group, is usually stoned for most of his appearance and almost al­ways drops some knowledge when he opens his mouth. Put simply, he’s a joy to watch on screen.

I have to end the review with the two main characters: Earn and Van. I have to applaud Glover for his writing in this department. First off, Glov­er has gained some self-awareness. One thing that has constantly bothered me about Glover’s works is just how self-centered they are, but this show goes to great lengths to belittle Glover’s character and it works greatly.

Along with this, the writing for the character Van is nothing short of amazing. She gets an en­tire episode devoted to her character, and while it has some hilarious moments, the episode is one of the more somber ones. We really see what drives this character and it helps to add dimensions to a character that could have easily been written into cliches.

Although I’ve been calling this show a comedy, somber is a really good word to describe this show. “Atlanta” is funny, but a big part of the comedy comes from pointing out just how absurd some of the things around us are. Somber is a good word to describe this. Yes, the show is funny and heartfelt, but there is a bittersweetness to this happiness.

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