We don’t yet live in a world in which a TV show filled with nuanced African-American characters mining mundane events for hilarity might be considered to be—to borrow an oft-cited trope from Seinfeld—“about nothing.” Within America’s peculiar racial calculus, the subtleties of personhood are too easily subsumed by what the presence of an African-American means on screen. Is this character somehow exceptional? Is that one the rule? Is the race movin’ on up or slidin’ on down? A sitcom like the hilarious ABC hit Black-ish, for example, has fun skewering said meanings, but its commentary is a reminder of the status quo, even as it deconstructs it.
When that day of awakening finally arrives, however, the FX network’s fall hit Atlanta will no doubt be recognized as some kind of precursor, a sunrise to say: The sky’s the limit. The first season came to a quiet end last night with all eyes on show creator and star Donald Glover, ruminatively walking streets and intersections immortalized by the Georgia-bred hip-hop duo OutKast. (Their pre-mainstream autobiographical track “Elevators (Me & You)” is the episode’s outro.) Glover isn’t actually from these streets, but his show’s comfort with the strivers in them is palpable enough to let us know he grew up just a neighboring congressional district away. Glover’s character Earnest Marks (“Earn” for short, quite pointedly, doesn’t do much of it) is at the center of a world where the laughs aren’t as hard to come by as TV’s prevailing middle-class expectations would have us believe. In a season of sometimes uproariously surreal comedy leavened by an equally steady stream of reality checks, the 10 episodes encourage the kind of rumination only possible when characters come with well-formulated inner lives—to say nothing of actors equipped to illuminate them.
It’s easy to get the sense that Glover is something of a wunderkind. So far the 33-year-old’s career has had a fairy-tale quality, even as the good fortune is clearly attributable to his work ethic. On the strength of the viral YouTube sketches he produced with his college comedy troupe Derrick Comedy, Glover was plucked fresh out of NYU’s Tisch School by Tina Fey to write for 30 Rock in 2006. Of his own volition, he quit that plum first job to enter the more precarious world of stand-up, only to then land a starring role in the NBC hit sitcom Community, where his improv skills flourished for five seasons among a cast anchored by Chevy Chase. In Glover’s 2012 stand-up special, Weirdo, he did a great bit about the bittersweet Twitter storm that followed the suggestion that his now signature nerdiness (he guested as a Republican on Lena Dunham’s Girls) was perfect for the starring role in the next Spider-Man movie. “Half the world [including Marvel’s Stan Lee] was, like, ‘Donald for Spider-Man!’” he tells the audience, in mock chipper tones. “The other half was like, ‘He’s black, kill him!!’” (Glover will be in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, but his role is being kept a mystery.)