The first thing you hear in The Chi, Showtime’s new series, is Chance the Rapper’s triumphant “All We Got.” The song, which opens his 2016 mixtape Coloring Book, features a majestic horn line, courtesy of Nico Segal (formerly known as Donnie Trumpet), and an angelic outro from the Chicago Children’s Choir (and Kanye West). It’s regal and categorically optimistic, the kind of song that would pop out of thin air after someone discovers that they’ve just won the lottery—or, as in Chance’s case, when they’ve earned a spot in rap’s upper echelon and just become a father.
It’s a fitting backdrop for the show’s lighthearted opening sequence, as 16-year-old Coogie (Jahking Guillory) bikes around 79th Street in Chicago’s South Side. Dressed in neon-bright colors, Coogie passes kids doing flips on a mattress and pretends to outrun a motorcycle, his wildly curly hair flying behind him. Then the skyline emerges (not the actual view from 79th, as some Twitter users were quick to point out) and the stage is set. A perfect portrait of charisma and youthful innocence, Coogie charms the neighborhood corner-store owner into giving him a discount on jerky and a pop. The jerky, it turns out, is for a neglected dog that he takes care of. Almost immediately, though, the idyllic scene becomes entangled with another—one that’s more in line with Chance’s haunting “Paranoia.” Coogie happens upon a dead body on the sidewalk and, having to think quickly (or perhaps not thinking at all), steals the sneakers and necklace off the corpse before riding away. His escape plan fails after the cops accost him, cuff him, and slam him on the hood of their car before detaining him.
Within its initial five minutes, The Chi sets up the premise that it hopes to unpack throughout the series: to highlight the complexity of black lives in a city where mythologized narratives stretch a lot further and faster than the truth. In doing so, it hooks viewers early by presenting a kid who is immediately likable but not above capitalizing on a quick come-up—a decision that first proves to be unfortunate and then, in the same episode, fatal. Coogie’s brief story line plays out in moral shades of gray; being a decent but flawed person isn’t enough to save him from his unforgiving world. The show’s first two deaths force viewers to consider which loss of life stirs them the most: that of the nameless dead man (he’s eventually identified as Jason) or Coogie’s, the one who had a story and a family to identify with. Lena Waithe, the show’s creator and writer and a Chicago native, set out to illustrate her hometown in a way that would add context to the conversations that are too often reduced to loaded statistics and stereotypes. Waithe says her goal was to reveal the “humanity behind the headlines.” The show has already been renewed for a second season, and its fifth episode will air this Sunday.