In television, there’s typically a clear divide between episodic and serialized shows. Episodic works focus on single-episode stories instead of overarching plot lines, while serialized shows depend more heavily on season-long arcs. The best show of the decade, however, earns such a title precisely because it refuses to belong to either category.
Atlanta, Donald Glover’s inspired creation, mostly centers around a 30-something named Earn navigating the rap scene with his rapper cousin Alfred (aka Paperboi) and perpetually stoned friend Darius. Glover often describes the show as “Twin Peaks with rappers,” but in reality, the show is more like an all-black, extremely temporal version of Seinfeld. Atlanta episodes often feel random and about nothing. Even the aforementioned plot description offered is only superficially true, as many episodes barely reference the music industry. Like Seinfeld, however, it is also simultaneously about everything. Every episode of Atlanta packs in countless pop culture references and social commentaries. For instance, in the sixth episode of Season 2, entitled “Teddy Perkins,” the main plot centers around Darius attempting to buy a piano from an intensely creepy Michael Jackson facsimile, but the episode pays homage to Jordan Peele’s blockbuster film Get Out and addresses topics from skin bleaching to the purpose of art.
Recently, shows like Black-ish and Master of None have garnered acclaim for directly tackling social and political issues, but they have done so on an episode-by-episode basis. Black-ish has dedicated episodes to police brutality and interracial dating, while Master of None has addressed immigration and LGBTQ issues. Atlanta raises the bar, touching on many cultural hot button issues in a single episode, unlike Black-ish or Master of None, which do so over several months. While this style may seem overly ambitious, packing so many ideas into a given episode actually works for Atlanta. In the second episode of Season 1, Earn pleasantly converses with a man and his trans former girlfriend in one moment and witnesses a police officer brutally beating a mentally ill man in the next. Neither Earn nor the show acknowledges this violent tonal shift, and the episode moves seamlessly into another scene, which seems intentional. In this episode, Atlanta is reminding its audience that discrimination is a daily reality for many, and a drawn-out existential autopsy is not required every time we witness it. Problems of race, gender, sexuality and more exist and intersect with every other part of our lives. Such blending and blurring of lines is another reason behind Atlanta’s unique greatness.
There are comedies, there are dramas, there are combinations of the two, and then there is Atlanta. Many of the show’s writers are television rookies, a fact clearly evident in how they blatantly ignore storytelling conventions. First, there are four main characters in the show – Earn, Alfred, Darius and Van (Earn’s baby mama and sometimes-girlfriend) – but each of them sometimes goes weeks without appearing on screen. Van didn’t appear until episode 4 this season, and since then, Earn has only been featured on screen in one episode, the most recent one. So, when such important characters swerve in and out of the literal and figurative picture, the show becomes more of a short story anthology series. When Alfred is led on a wild goose chase all over town in pursuit of a simple haircut or when Van drags Earn to a weekend getaway in an eerie German town, the show feels like an open-world video game. Every turn down a random street or interaction with a new Atlantan feels like the gateway to a whole separate story, and that makes Atlanta a show worth returning to week after week.
Despite being one of the best shows of the decade, Atlanta is frustratingly hard to praise because it’s so hard to characterize, categorize and contextualize the show within the arc of television history. That seems to be by design. Donald Glover and company aren’t just rewriting the rules of storytelling on screen; they’re rewriting the rules for how we talk about storytelling on screen. It’s on us to figure out what those rules really are.
Mandela Namaste ’19 is a political science major from Buffalo, N.Y.