The Honesty of “Atlanta”

The Honesty of Atlanta

After four seasons, Donald Glover’s television show leaves behind a fascinating and complicated legacy.


In 2018, The New Yorker ran a profile of Donald Glover that characterized him as someone who’s “constantly watched but rarely seen.” He was portrayed as a self-assured writer and performer, a canny businessman, and someone who can “Trojan Horse” his potentially uncommercial ideas to mostly white entertainment bigwigs. He also comes off as a fundamentally distrustful person, someone who’s fiercely protective of his power but innately skeptical of his celebrity. At one point, he compares himself to Jesus and claims he’s been “chosen” for greatness. He also claims that the only person who might be better than him is Elon Musk, with the crucial caveat that he doesn’t yet know “if he’s a supervillain.”

Though one could certainly dismiss Glover based on his words, which betray a certain supercilious, borderline-delusional attitude, the New Yorker profile does not adopt a disdainful attitude toward him. Rather, the story captures how Glover’s racial anxiety and warranted cynicism about the industry have informed his sensibility as an artist. His exhaustion with code-switching between white and Black environments and his contempt for inequitable structures were all present in his series Atlanta, which ended its four-season run in 2022 after an extended hiatus.

The show, which premiered in 2016, ostensibly follows Princeton dropout Earn (Glover), who returns to Atlanta to manage his ascendant rapper cousin Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), but that plot was merely a springboard for a more extemporaneous enterprise. Glover used the broad outlines of a rags-to-riches narrative and the Atlanta rap milieu to examine the experience of being Black in America, and he appropriately hired an all-Black writers’ room (most of whose members hadn’t written for TV before) to shape it. The results were largely unparalleled and, crucially, irreducible. It would be inaccurate to describe Atlanta as “about” racism or capitalism or systemic oppression or any other capital-T theme, despite all those ideas’ being present in the story’s framework. Rather, the show depicted the marginal moments in a life lived between the margins and the mainstream, mirroring Glover’s own experience as an artist.

This modus operandi was why Atlanta felt excitingly “off” relative to its peers. Its approach to comedy was casual and deadpan; the punchlines were constantly tossed off or thrown away. Atlanta’s camera never underlined the jokes and emotions with close-ups or reaction shots; instead, it captured the series’ bizarre events from a distance. Nothing on-screen was ever translated for white (or unfamiliar) audiences. Observations and cultural references were always left unsubtitled, frequently presented as a language for certain ears. Atlanta owes debts to a handful of influences. Boyz n the Hood and The Godfather left their fingerprints on the premise. David Lynch’s work haunts the show’s oneiric imagery and surrealist undertones. The series’ core foursome falls into a Seinfeldian paradigm. Atlanta samples these inspirations, but they’re blended and integrated so that the show feels entirely like itself.

Atlanta’s first two seasons aired between 2016 and 2018, roughly 14 months apart. They chronicle Earn’s attempts to raise Al’s profile as he struggles to stay above water financially while juggling his responsibilities to his ex-girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) and their daughter, Lottie (Mia Atehortua). Glover favors constant digressions over traditional serialized narrative arcs. Many major plotlines, such as Earn’s finding lodging after spending a season unhoused, or the deterioration of Earn and Van’s romantic relationship, or Al’s disappointment with Earn’s passive management style, occur offhandedly or in the background as otherwise “tangential” action. Atlanta often built its episodes around almost digressive premises: a Black version of Justin Bieber obnoxiously terrorizing a celebrity basketball game, or Earn’s Zen-like stoner compatriot Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) buying a piano from a disturbed pale-skinned man, played by Glover in whiteface. Even when potentially seismic action occurs, such as Al being robbed at gunpoint (or any other moment of casual violence, really), it’s presented as just the persistent hum of chaos that exemplifies the characters’ precarity. Peripheral events make up Atlanta’s bread and butter because, as the show argues, truth rarely lies in the center of one’s vision.

Atlanta’s final two seasons premiered in 2022, and in the four-year interim when the show was off the air, the profiles of the four main cast members rose exponentially. The accolades include starring in a remake of The Lion King (Glover), appearing in Marvel/DC films (Beetz and Henry), and eye-catching lead performances in critically acclaimed independent films like Sorry to Bother You and Jesus and the Black Messiah (Stanfeld).

When Atlanta returned after its extended hiatus, its hazy aesthetic, established by the series’ resident director Hiro Murai, remained the same, but its concerns had changed to fit the changing lives of its cast and writers. “I’m poor, Darius,” Earn says early in the first season, “and poor people don’t have time for investments, because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor.” If the first two seasons reflected the experiences of hustling and clawing one’s way out of life’s fringes, then the final two seasons examine the emotional, mental, and political anxieties that are afforded to those with security, financial or otherwise. Together, the two halves form a diptych about evolving angst regarding status and marginalization in a country that continually finds new ways to maintain old hierarchies.

The show’s third season picks up some years after the end of the second and follows the gang of four as they traverse Europe on Al’s second international tour. Per Atlanta’s modus operandi, the show skips over Al’s rise to global fame and spends almost no time on the musical side of his tour. Instead, it portrays the in-between moments when the characters struggle to maintain control over their lives, despite being less constrained by money and geography. The question of how to spend money righteously informs much of the season, as Al and Earn labor over how to invest their earnings in socially progressive, community-minded ways. In return, they’re confronted with the inherent difficulty of ethical altruism.

The conclusions that Atlanta reaches are appropriately bleak or justly cynical. When Al joins a diversity advisory committee for a London fashion company, he’s stunned by how his fellow members only want to promote their own brands and receive free perks. But when Al successfully pitches a reinvestment campaign aimed at the Black community to support Black-owned businesses, he’s appalled by how the company waters down the message. He accepts that the activists who were trying to mine the company for money in exchange for the good optics from their involvement had the right idea. Similarly, Earn meets a young Black artist who produces terrible work but has convinced a rich white investor to become his patron because the man wants to “support the culture.” Though he worries that this grift will hinder future opportunities for any talented up-and-coming Black artists, Earn changes his tune when he realizes the investor’s family had been slave owners and decides to support the talentless artist in swindling a rich white guy with an awkward fascination for the Black arts.

The idea of whiteness as a curse plays heavily in the third season, especially in the divisive Twilight Zone–style anthology episodes that comprise almost half the season and don’t feature any of the main cast. Instead, these episodes prominently feature white characters whose superficial good politics mask either passive ignorance or outright neglect. These episodes aren’t so much about the effects of racism but rather about how whiteness as an identity isolates its beneficiaries from the world built in its image. It’s not solely relegated to social privilege or financial advantage; instead, it’s a kind of blindness never fully remedied, a concept referenced in the season premiere’s prologue.

The best of the anthology episodes explores this idea through a speculative-fiction lens. Set in a world where Black people have legal precedent to sue for reparations anyone whose ancestors enslaved their forebears, the episode follows white-collar worker Marshall (Justin Bartha), whose life falls apart when he’s sued by Sheniqua Johnson (Melissa Youngblood) on account of his family’s actions. Written by Francesca Sloane, “The Big Payback” purposefully plays with racial stereotypes: Bartha’s character is depicted as a soft-spoken, well-meaning progressive, a “sympathetic” cultural figure, while Youngblood’s is loud and obnoxious, someone who has to actively challenge our likable white protagonist for what she’s owed despite his not being personally responsible.

A lesser show would have had the two characters come to some understanding about their respective differences, or have Marshall learn about the living effects of slavery without having to pay restitution. Instead, Marshall ends the episode as a waiter on an almost all-white waitstaff primarily serving people of color. His paycheck is garnished for restitution taxes. He’s not bitter about his situation; instead, he’s accepting and almost relieved. The episode’s fundamental provocation is that a widespread divestment and redistribution of inherited white wealth would be beneficial to both Black and white communities. “History has a monetary value. Confession is not absolution,” says Earnest (Tobias Segel), a white man in a situation similar to Marshall’s, who encourages him to see it not just as a rectification of living sins, but also as an opportunity for him and his kin to live a life free of their family’s prior sins. That Marshall ultimately comes to embrace Earnest’s perspective not long after he watches him die by suicide captures the uneasy tension between rhetoric and action that lies at the heart of true allyship.

So much of Atlanta embodies the feeling of being confined by self-perception and external projection, trapped by the status quo while consciously trying to reject it. This quality makes it easy to read Glover’s biography into the series. He cut his teeth in the early days of YouTube as a member of the sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy, and in network television, writing for 30 Rock in his early 20s before starring in the sitcom Community as a wide-eyed, lovable goofball. Watching him in Community, and pretty much anything he’s appeared in pre-2016, now feels like watching an entirely different person. Granted, he was much younger, and there’s plenty of precedent for playing characters far from one’s own personality. But there’s also a storied tradition of losing oneself in different roles to prove your virtuosity to others.

If Atlanta was as much about Glover foregrounding a version of his truest self while sharing the spotlight, then the series’ conclusion captures him at a point of peace. The show’s fourth and final season features plenty of the big-swing, outsize spirit previously established in the series. One episode chronicles Van’s exposure to the entertainment empire of Mr. Chocolate (a maniacal Tyler Perry–esque figure played by Glover), examining the thin line between Black art that unapologetically speaks to and supports a community and the kind that validates offensive stereotypes. The funniest episode of the season comments on the aging of Internet virality, involving a serial killer, Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” dance craze, sneaker shopping, a mall shooting, and more. The series’ antepenultimate episode breaks form entirely by turning into a mockumentary about a Black animator who becomes the CEO of Disney and tries to make A Goofy Movie “the Blackest movie of all time,” with explicit nods to Putney Swope and The Spook Who Sat by the Door.

Considering that the third and fourth seasons were filmed simultaneously and released within the same year, the fourth season feels like an attempt to return the show to the semi-traditional structure of the first two seasons. With its change in locale and multiple episodes not featuring the main cast, Atlanta’s third season proved controversial, especially after such a long hiatus. By contrast, the final season is a conscious attempt to reground the series in its own history without sacrificing its experimental nature.

At the same time, however, the final season adopts a more contemplative tone that sets it apart from the spikier energy of the previous seasons. Glover and company capture their characters at their most reflective and thoughtful, even if they’re still making mistakes or letting their anger get the best of them. Sometimes that manifests in narratively predictable territory, like Earn and Van rekindling their relationship, but other times it reveals itself in slightly more existential ways, such as Al moving onto a farm alone, free from the burden of the public but contending with new threats, like hogs and a faulty tractor. (Darius, meanwhile, has always been at peace.) There’s a sense that everyone can finally breathe, having attained some form of stability and undergone some necessary growth, even if the familiar anxieties—whether race or class—remain unresolved. Atlanta doesn’t suggest that ignoring daily indignities and racial strife will lead to tranquility; it still spouts profound anger toward casual, nefarious oppression and the false consciousness that leads people to believe money will buy their way out of race. But it also argues that there’s considerable worth in refusing to let society’s failures drag you into powerlessness.

Atlanta’s final episode is deliberately offhanded and unsentimental. It follows Earn, Van, and Al trying out a Black-owned sushi restaurant but secretly wanting a Popeye’s chicken sandwich instead, while Darius embarks on a journey in a sensory deprivation tank, which ultimately blurs his perception of waking and restful states. Though it broadly resembles a midseason “regular” episode, the finale casually proposes that life is simultaneously a dream and a nightmare, and all one can do to survive it—even if you’re on society’s fringes, even if you’re forced to live in an unrelenting grind—is to carve out a small piece of joy and community before it all ends abruptly or, worse, comes crashing down around you.

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