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TV Review: Atlanta (Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2)

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Donald Glover really is the man of the moment after Childish Gambino’s controversial and headline-grabbing music video “This is America” dropped last week.

Now, as the second season draws to a close in the US, the UK is finally able to watch his multi-award winning show Atlanta.

To have remained ignorant about this show would require some pretty intense head-in-the-sand action, so it’s pretty interesting to see how Atlanta has aged since the first season originally aired in 2016. Its political relevance remains sharp and striking - if not more so, given the escalation that has occurred in the last few years regarding racial tension in America.

Glover himself stars as Earn, a softly spoken broke guy just trying to get by. The means to do so come in the form of his cousin Alfred aka rapper Paper Boi (John Tyree Henry), whose career has the potential to take off. Together with stoner friend Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), the three embark on the most simultaneously surreal and mundane shenanigans that you’ll ever see on TV.

Elevated by genius director Hiro Murai’s dreamlike visuals and brilliantly decentralised framing, the flat, naturalistic dialogue means that every line delivered packs a punch, whether comedic or not. Earn is constantly surrounded by personalities bigger than his own — a passive character in the best of ways, allowing the plots to play out around him in a way that makes a powerful statement about American society.

The power of money and influence is explored through Paper Boi’s rise to fame, made more notorious by the shooting which opens the show. The various reactions to it — from friends to passers by to restaurant workers and even prison guards — openly shines a spotlight on how truly messed up the culture surrounding fame is, especially in relation to the messed up things that celebrities can do and get away with, and even be praised for.

The second episode’s jail sequence stands out as just a truly phenomenal piece of filmmaking. As Glover lends Earn a complete sense of passivity, others that have been arrested create the drama around him. It’s a damning critique of the American prison system, juxtaposing laughs with vicious violence, all accepted with the same straight face by Earn. Though the audience is horrified by the police brutality depicted, the characters’ ambivalence to it makes a powerful statement about how desensitised society is to such images.

Henry’s Paper Boi is at once a huge and boisterous presence on screen, and an introspective and sensitive character. Stanfield is an absolute triumph as the wise and wacky Darius, whose entrance sums him up: hiding just behind the doorway when the bell rings, with a bandana over his face, holding a huge kitchen knife in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other. Both these two have gone on to great things, with Henry currently starring in “Lobby Hero” on Broadway alongside Chris Evans and Michael Cera, and Stanfield of course starring in Get Out (2017) and leading Sundance favourite Sorry To Bother You (2018).

The final principle character, who we don’t see too much of in the first couple of episodes, is Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of Earn’s baby daughter. The two co-habit, but only because Earn has nowhere else to go. She’s long-suffering, and still kind of in love with him, even though she’s seeing other people. I look forward to seeing her character given more room to develop over the season. You can catch Beatz as Domino in Deadpool 2, coming out this week.

Glover, of course, you’ll see as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story later this month. His trajectory to superstardom has incorporated so many different mediums, and he excels in everything he puts his hand to — TV included. As writer, creator, and star, his distinctive style is what truly makes this show a must-watch for everyone.

Though some audiences may feel a culture-gap both racially and nationally — it’s firmly rooted in both blackness and American-ness — it’s an important lesson in empathy alongside a masterclass in good TV. Watch it.

Atlanta airs on Sundays at 10pm on BBC Two.

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