When the prodigious Donald Glover’s half-hour comedy series Atlanta first opened, it felt like a tightly wound sitcom. (It actually opens with a bang, but that’s another story.) In it, Glover, who also writes and sometimes directs, plays the ironically named Earn, a Princeton dropout who comes back to Atlanta and tries to make it while supporting a baby girl he clearly loves and a baby mama named Van, played by Zazie Beetz, whom he seems to honestly cherish as a friend. The show sails by swiftly on beautifully paced carpets of little pleasures, visual and humorous. By episode two, Earn has made contact with his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who has just achieved infamy — the big bang mentioned earlier — as a rapper named Paper Boi. Earn wants to manage Boi, who seems to be struggling along with help from the enigmatic Darius (Keith Stanfield), and we can imagine the comedy conflict coming from somewhere between the middle-class world Earn has abandoned — presided over by Van — and the artsy and artistic chaos of Boi and Darius, who deal a little dope, too.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, the show inhabits a helium-world version of Glover’s Atlanta. Rather than some sequential struggle, Glover keeps throwing down wildcards. In episode five, for instance, Van goes out with a fancy friend and smokes an “elephant” joint. She wakes up to her iPhone reminder that she has a urine test to pass if she wants to stay working in the school system. Her misadventures in a pee-cup substitution game are both gross and hilarious. And Earn is rarely in the picture. The following show completely abandons the sitcom to create a half-hour, fictional black news program with a stiff but acute host grilling Paper Boi about his suspect views on gender politics. It includes pointed, fake commercials and a brilliant sub-feature about an African-American man who one day “realizes” he’s a 35-year-old white man and begins a medical conversion treatment.
The aesthetics constantly surprise, too. In episode four, Earn and Boi smoke a blunt in front of a club when they meet irrepressible troll and scenester, Zan (Freddie Kuguru), whom Boi wants to hate but keeps finding sympathy for. But the real point is the joint. For the rest of the episode, the camera seems high — stopping on odd angles, lingering over surreal incidents — and the buzz seems both theme and method of the episode. It’s a small-screen doper mise-en-scène.
Glover — who acts, does stand up, and raps as Childish Gambino — is now a TV auteur, as well, even though the director of many great episodes is Hiro Murai, a longtime Glover collaborator. The show is intricate and sly, though not as profound as you might hope, except when sudden bursts of violence — such as a jailhouse beating of a crazy inmate — make you hold your breath. Glover is now officially the hardest-working man in show business from Atlanta, and he seems to have a lot on his mind at once. Luckily for us, he’s up to the cranial chronicle of his brain-high on his troubled city.