A surreal daydream. Why ATLANTA is a MASTERPIECE of television

“Atlanta” is a sum of freely woven stories, arranged into something like a dream, or perhaps more like a psychedelic trip, in which the mundane of life is intertwined with abstraction.

Tomasz Raczkowski

29 April 2023

The broadcast of Atlanta, Donald Glover’s signature series, ended in 2022. Spread over four seasons, awarded with two Golden Globes and six Emmy awards, it was one of the more acclaimed television productions of recent years, which grew into a cinematic showcase of the filmmaker’s quite rich film career after all. Now that Glover has shown the totality of his vision, and when the dust has settled after the premiere of the final series, it is possible to assess the quality and significance of Atlanta – a series that, while it may not have (yet) reached the same status as the biggest hits of the series market, should be listed among the best television productions not only of recent years, but of all time.

Why is "Atlanta" a unique series?

Some have described Atlanta as “Twin Peaks with rappers,” and this phrase is somewhat apt. With David Lynch’s iconic production, Glover’s series shares a certain spiritual affinity in terms of atmosphere, in both cases striking tones of strangeness peeking out from under the seemingly realistic dramatic layer. Both series mix themes of morality, absurdity and darker intrigues hooked on crime or thriller, building a colorful panorama of characters and places. The difference is that while in Twin Peaks the surreal story was set in motion by the murder of a teenage girl, in Atlanta the narrative axis is rap, or more specifically, the career of a certain rapper from the title city in Georgia – hence “Twin Peaks with rappers.” However, Glover is by no means offering a copy of the Lynchian formula in a new variant, and his inspirations are much broader than the revolutionary 1990s series.

At first glance, Atlanta doesn’t look like a revolution in serialized convention. It premiered in 2016, when this form of filmmaking was already established and established as a prestigious medium, booming. With titles such as the aforementioned Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, episodic stories were no longer seen as inferior to cinema productions and were attracting the industry’s biggest names. By the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, even the stereotypically less ambitious sitcoms had shed the envelope of television cottage industry, increasingly turning to more qualitative single-camera conventions and more ambitious themes. It was in such an environment that Glover’s series debuted, stepping onto the already blazed trails of the limited format with season one, consisting of 10 half-hour episodes (later only the second series had 11 episodes) covering a coherent story, while genre-wise offering a neat blend of comedy and drama. So what makes Atlanta a special position? First, how perfectly it is executed. Second, where it goes, gradually moving away from a readable and grounded story, and what path it takes in the process. And on these two foundations grows the social importance of the series, which can be located in the vanguard of critical discourse on the topics of racism, inequality and social mechanisms.

Perfect execution

As has been said, Atlanta is built on the story of a rapper’s career. In the first episode, the protagonist, played by Glover himself: Earn Marx offers his cousin Alfred, who records under the alias Paper Boi, to be his manager. Earn is a bright but down-on-his-luck haunted and barely making ends meet former Princeton student, while Alfred is a street-experienced neighborhood boy. Although the latter doesn’t seem initially thrilled with the proposal, they begin working together to develop Paper Boia’s brand, thus forming an odd trio with Darius, Alfred’s friend and roommate. The essential tale of the rapper’s pursuit of success gives Atlanta a plot foundation for the next four seasons, but is not the clou of the whole game. It is almost not even a theme, but rather a pretext for the situations that follow. Throughout the entire series, we hear just one whole stanza of Paper Boi’s song, and the concerts, recordings and other elements of the musical career happen somewhere beside it, outside the frame. Instead of them, the series focuses on episodes in the lives of the characters, without shying away from digressions and even excursions into entirely separate micro-stories, creating successive levels of fiction within the presented world.

The driving force behind Atlanta is the acting quartet, playing the characters around whom the meandering story orbits. In addition to Glover himself, the core of the cast consists of Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred aka Paper Boi, LaKeith Stanfield as Darius, and Zazie Beetz as Van, Earn’s (ex)partner. These four essentially swap lead roles from episode to episode and build an organic set of relationships between the characters that builds the character commonality needed in the series format, but at the same time is able to highlight the intersecting plots of the individual characters. Thus, next to the central line of Earn, trying to break through the barriers that limit blacks in the US and put together a life with or without Van, we get the autonomous threads of the girl herself, simultaneously struggling with the limitations of her own identity and social roles, the struggles of Al’s balancing stoicism and misanthropy with the surreal horror of reality, and the impenetrable trip of Darius seeming to live in a completely different dimension, combining the figures of a metaphysically inspired sage, an awkward happy wanderer and a sensitive man suppressing his traumas.

Each character is given a consistent dramatic thread and each is deepened over the course of the series. More importantly, however, the creators place interpretive keys in their plots – each can be used to read the whole story slightly differently, and together they can lead to yet another interpretation. There is also a large group of actors and actresses running through the series in episodic and guest roles – especially in the third and fourth seasons, more strongly open to digressions and separate stories within the universe. This includes Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd, Jane Adams, Justin Barth, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Liam Neeson, who scores perhaps the most spectacular cameo, alluding to his infamous racist comments in the 1990s. The presence of prominent side and episodic roles further expands the possibilities for reading Atlanta’s storyline with further points of view.

However, the acting displays are not a value in themselves, but complement the precise construction of the world. Atlanta is characterized by extraordinary attention to detail, often very small and requiring attention to be caught. The way in which the series’ title appears on screen can be considered significant in this regard – each time it is integrated into the scenery, sometimes as writing on a can, sometimes as letters arranged from a spilled drink, sometimes on a billboard. In a similar way, nuances appear as elements of the staging, sometimes even the background, which affect the perception of the whole. Sometimes a trivial line of dialogue, a character passing through the background or a situation that rhymes with an event creates a fractious context for a particular situation, building a network of references and intersections that connect the various threads and digressions present within the narrative. Atlanta is the sum total of stories woven in this way, forming something like a dream, or perhaps more like a psychedelic trip, in which the mundane of life is intertwined with abstraction.

Although on the surfaceAtlanta appears to be a casual series about absurd situations, with a rather loose construction of place, time and plot succession, it is in fact a well thought-out whole in the smallest detail. The meandering plot, seemingly insignificant side episodes and dialogues that may seem to be merely comedic tension relievers turn out to be a complex web of meanings, analogies and subtexts. The level of correlation of sometimes very distant elements has to be awe-inspiring, all the more so given the successive expansion of the world of Atlanta with more minor stories. Glover and his team succeed in the arch-difficult art of building a coherent story with an open-ended ending that doesn’t spill over at the end – in anecdotal convention, it’s not about a spectacular finale, but a narrative tie-up of all the elements. Atlanta doesn’t make the mistakes of, say, Lost, by convoluting the plot too much, nor does it divert nuance with a blunt punchline. Instead, we get a multithreaded story with open ends, while delivering dramatic concreteness and clear reflections.

Open structure

Glover’s series can be divided into two clearly distinguishable phases. The first consists of seasons 1-2, released a year apart and spinning the story along the arduous, often bumpy path of Earn, Al and Darius to professional stability and success. In this section, although the narrative is full of loosely interconnected threads, often forming virtually autonomous stories, Earn, Al, Darius and Van serve as a conjunct for all the digressions. Even in the penultimate episode of the second series, FUBU, which is the first episode of Atlanta completely separate from the main story and in which no members of the main cast appear, is a flashback illuminating the history of Earn and Alfred’s relationship. This state of affairs changes in the second phase of the series, comprising seasons 3-4, created after a four-year hiatus and premiering in 2022. Although ostensibly the third season picks up the thread where we parted with the characters in the finale of series two – as they leave Atlanta and embark on a European tour – we quickly see that a little more time has passed, reflecting the gap between the creation of the subsequent seasons. In the second half of the series, the characters are already at a different stage of their careers, and the story created by Glover increasingly loses sight of them. The unity of place and time of the plot is also loosened, and more space is taken up by unrelated stories to the main plot – there are even episodes in which the main characters do not appear.

This turn, however, is not so much a change of convention as a consistent development. From the very first episode, tense with an ambiguous, until the end of the series, unresolved buckle, Atlanta built its identity as a semi-open-ended narrative, often deviating from the main plot path and created through minor stories, only partially connected, more even by characters than by the sequence of events. Glover in Atlanta constantly tested the form of the television series, its storytelling conventions and the strength of its structure. This resulted in episodes such as Black Asshole, realized as a talk-show featuring Paper Boi, the notorious Teddy Perkins, telling the grotesque story of Darius’ trip to the estate of a wealthy ex-musician, following Alfred’s surreal wandering through the outskirts of Atlanta Forest, or providing a moving vivisection of Earn and Van Helen’s relationship. Thus, the initial plot of Paper Boi’s rapper career was for Glover from the beginning the canvass on which he and his co-screenwriters (including his brother Stephen who had significant creative input into the entire series) spun anecdotal observations about reality. The result was a peculiar hybrid of a multi-episode story with a main plot and theme and an episodic, closer to sitcom fragmentation or thematic anthology formula of small stories. The third and fourth seasons developed this formula even further, inserting into the world of the main characters created in the series other stories exploring selected issues and contexts that expand Atlanta’s social perspective. In this way, through the stories of Earn, Al, Darius and Van, Atlanta created a much broader story about social life as experienced from the perspective of African-Americans.

What is "Atlanta" really? Social criticism, absurdity and Afrosurrealism

Here we touch on a key issue that needs to be mentioned when discussing Atlanta. It is also an issue that determines the value and innovation of the series. The structure outlined above – an anecdotal tale in which different stories interlock, and at times the continuity and realism of events are curved – is derived from the cultural context from which the creators come and their inspiration from the black tradition. The series is set in a predominantly African-American-populated underserved part of Atlanta – the Glovers’ hometown neighborhood – and this environment is both the perspective from which we view the story and its theme. The theme of race recurs in almost every thread of the series, taking on a sometimes dramatic, sometimes humorous, and sometimes grotesque face.

One example is the aforementioned character of Teddy Perkins – a ghostly pale freak, holed up in his mansion, living with memories of his brother’s glory and digesting the trauma of his harsh upbringing. Perkins, who is signed as “himself” in the credits and appeared with Glover at the Golden Globes gala, is a figure who plays with the media image of Michael Jackson, through which Atlanta explores a fundamental strangeness concerning the intersecting lines of race, fame and show business violence. With the help of plots such as that of Perkins, or Justin Bieber, in reality Atlanta being a black teenager, they generate a surreal ungluing of the narrative, making it not so much a realistic story as a kind of dreamlike journey, becoming a reservoir of events that put the viewer’s perception and feelings to the test.

The theme of unreality also returns in episodes such as The Big Paycheck, which tells the story of the reversal of power dynamics and persecution in the relationship between the heirs of white slave owners and the black descendants of the latter, and Rich White, Poor White, in which Glover substitutes a distorted mirror for the structural racism of the education system in the story of a teenager struggling to “be black enough” in order to obtain a scholarship. This kind of play with audience expectations and (dis)comfort – regardless of skin color – is a hallmark of Atlanta. There are very few obvious figures familiar from pop-culture reworkings of American racism, and few zero-sum situations with a simple division between victims and persecutors. Glover and company comment on reality, in many places ruthlessly attacking the racist status quo and social hypocrisy, but just as often criticizing consumerism, corporate media, bureaucracy or the education system. Pushing the action often to extremes, Atlanta takes care to nuance and problematize the phenomena depicted, intertwining issues of identity and economics, as well as gender.

The strategy the filmmakers take is to subtly but unequivocally mock individual events, characters or situations; to exaggerate or reverse the balance of power that highlights the absurdity of things we often accept as natural. Atlanta plays with the formula of cultural rearrangements, revealing the fundamental “whiteness” of the social constructs around us, and at the same time shows the multidimensionality of the problems. Although there have been such accusations, Atlanta does not offer a simple optic in which African-Americans are glorified and whites are demonized. The critical blade of irony is also directed at the black community itself, which is the subject and narrative horizon of the series. In it, racism appears in the context of broader processes such as capitalist exploitation and the instrumental use of equality discourses, and it is these structural dependencies that produce inequality and hatred that are stigmatized.

Atlanta is told fundamentally from the perspective of African-American realities of life, takes up many critical threads of reflection on social mechanisms and at the same time inscribes them in an abstract, ironic formula. With such characteristics, Atlanta fits into the artistic convention referred to as Afrosurrealism – a particular variant of surrealism that bends the logic and coherence of reality, in which the key factor generating this curvature is the experience of existential-social alienation, rooted in the color of the skin and the associated contexts of exclusion and ambiguous diaspora identity. In Glover’s own words, the series was intended to be a representation of the experience of growing up in the black neighborhoods of Georgia’s capital – an experience of inequality, discrimination, but also of absurd situations and the bizarreness of the world. By creating a story located at the intersection of his own experiences and abstract aberrations, exploring the tensions between “black” and “white” reality, Glover offered something completely fresh. Atlanta recycles many inspirations, mixes the contexts of mainstream pop culture and minority counterculture, so that it does not shallow the issues without falling into hermeticism. The series offers the perfect balance between entertainment and artistic-political ambition, creating a fertile space for analysis and discussion of social issues, accessible to representatives of different worlds. As a result, Atlanta is an impressive series of precision and complexity, electrifying, setting new artistic horizons, perfectly composed and socially charged; even made for repeated viewings and hours of analysis and discussion.

Tomasz Raczkowski

Tomasz Raczkowski

Anthropologist, critic, enthusiast of social cinema, British humor and horror films.

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