The award-winning FX series “Atlanta” has been praised for its ambitious storytelling, clever writing and compelling characters. Whether through video essays analyzing episodes of the show scene by scene, or articles explaining the meanings behind the show’s cryptic messages, it’s evident how well-received this series is. Though these aspects of the show are notable, what’s also impressive is how creator Donald Glover and his talented writers were able to seamlessly blend comedy, drama and social commentary in a way that doesn’t feel contrived.
Television shows or movies might have an emotional or serious scene followed by a joke to ease the tension, which isn’t always bad. However, sometimes this leaves the audience feeling like the joke ruined a genuine moment, which undermines the significance of the scene and causes the emotional weight to crumble. In “Atlanta,” even when somber moments in the show contain comedic bits, it never feels like the moment is ruined. The show manages to strike a balance between humor, drama and social commentary without giving the audience whiplash and this is just one of the many ways “Atlanta” sets itself apart in modern television.
The FX series focuses on Earnest “Earn” Marks, a Princeton University dropout who’s struggling to make ends meet to support himself and his daughter. When he learns his cousin, Alfred, is blowing up as a rapper named “Paper Boi,” Earn reaches out to him so that he can become his manager and they can work together. Throughout the show, we follow Earn as he learns to become a manager in the modern music industry, Alfred as he navigates fame as a rapper, as well as Alfred’s eccentric best friend, Darius, and Earn’s ex-girlfriend, Vanessa, who is also the mother of his child.
On the surface, “Atlanta” is a simple show. There’s an episode about Earn looking for missing keys, Darius buying a piano from a stranger, and Alfred’s attempt to get his hair cut by an unreliable barber. One might think that watching something as mundane as people’s everyday lives is boring, yet, “Atlanta” has perfected the art of making the mundane entertaining.
An example of the show’s brilliant storytelling and meticulously layered narrative is the second episode of Season 1, titled “Streets on Lock.” This episode follows Earn’s misadventures in a holding cell as he waits to be released after an incident with Alfred. Most of the episode takes place in the same setting, oftentimes the same room and still manages to have viewers invested in what’s going on. This seemingly simple plot delicately handles issues such as mental illness in the prison system, transphobia and sexual identity. It would’ve been easy for the show’s writers to make offensive jokes about the issues but rather, it offers a bit of introspection while simultaneously making the viewer laugh.
It’s amazing how effortlessly the show pulls off these scenes. The quality is evident in the banter between Earn and his fellow detainees, the clash of their differing personalities, Earn’s attempt to diffuse a hostile situation, and most of all, the acting performances. This episode is “Atlanta” and its great balancing act at its best. The show manages to position each of these elements without having one overshadow another. Nothing ever feels out of place, especially considering how unusual the show can be, and this is another reason why the show stands out.
“Atlanta” can be odd, like a world that resembles our own but different. There are invisible cars, Justin Bieber is Black, and one of Earn’s relatives owns an alligator in his home, for whatever reason. However, none of this is questioned. It just adds to the shared understanding of how things in their world are. The strange situations characters find themselves in also don’t make it hard for the audience to take the show seriously. Once again, this show manages to strike a balance even when it comes to the bizarre humor.
Despite the show’s surreal, alternate reality, “Atlanta” still realistically depicts gritty street life and poverty. Homelessness is portrayed in a real way that isn’t often captured on television. There’s a sense of urgency to stay economically stable, especially for Earn, who had been living in a storage unit or bunks at his ex-girlfriend’s place at the start of the series, and it doesn’t romanticize this. There are real stakes for Earn and his cousin Alfred. Earn can’t afford to mess up his new career as a manager since his life literally depends on it and the viewer understands how serious this situation is. This speaks to another strength the show possesses when it comes to its approach to storytelling, character development, tone and themes.
The balancing act that Glover and the writers perform every episode is impressive, and at times, it makes each episode feel like a short film. The show shifts tones throughout the episodes and has lots of humor, but it also dedicates entire episodes to genuine character development, as seen when the audience witnesses Alfred’s difficulty adjusting to his life as a rapper. Earn and Vanessa’s dysfunctional relationship is also explored as they work to be there for their daughter, and the audience gets an understanding of who these people are and what they want out of their lives. Besides the character development and realism, the show still has time to address racial issues as well, which is at the forefront of several episodes.
Given that the four main characters are all Black, the show focuses on the Black experience in modern America with great use of satire and comedy. This article can’t do justice to all the topics covered in the series, but what feels refreshing about this is that the messages never come across as preachy and always remain unapologetic. The issues the show addresses feel like ongoing conversations rather than something that is said and done, leaving room for introspection and interpretation for the audience. This makes the show much more engaging since it feels like a conversation is being sparked.
“Atlanta” is a show that sets itself apart in modern television with its writing, narrative, characters and themes. Glover and his team of writers have created a piece of fiction that is far different from our reality yet resonates deeply with its audience. The show’s balance of comedy, drama and social commentary are just as notable as anything else critics and fans praise about the series. These elements never overshadow one another, and nothing feels out of place, which speaks to the mastery Glover and his team of writers have when crafting this compelling story.