By Alexis Elliot ’18
Shots fire out at a local gas station. The culprit? Up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi. Atlanta opens up with a scene that epitomizes the message of the show: minor mistakes cause major damage. Coming off the heels of an Emmy award, Atlanta is a show that paints the hardships of life that so many people face in a profound way.
Writer and producer Donald Glover stars as Earn, a Princeton dropout who can barely make ends meet. Earn has to find a way to support his daughter and now his cousin, Paper Boi. Desperate to make an income, Earn turns to music management after seeing the success of Paper Boi’s new song.
However, before Earn can make an attempt at making a career out of Paper Boi, he first has to await bail for the gas station incident. Earn and Paper Boi sit in jail, and while the scene is depicted simply, Donald Glover inserts several critical messages. First, one of the inmates is clearly mentally ill and repeatedly provokes the guards. They know he is ill, but the guards just laugh at him. The guards wait until this inmate pushes their annoyance to the edge to finally rough him up. Earn is in shock and pleads for the man, asserting that the latter is mentally ill and doesn’t know how to control his actions. In addition to mental illness, other issues such as transphobia and homophobia are explored in Earn’s time in jail, all in a single scene.
After their time in jail, Earn and Paper Boi return to their project of turning Paper Boi into a household name. The rap life proves to be difficult as Paper Boi has to dodge critics, make ends meet, and clean up his name after the gas station incident. Earn and Paper Boi are accompanied by their sidekick Darius, who often holds them back from success. The trio symbolize the misfortune of opportunity without resources.
Paper Boi has the talent to be a street rapper, but he has to learn the reality that the street life widely differs from real life. He needs to learn to make connections with important reporters, promote himself at clubs, and manage his money properly.
As a rapper himself, Donald Glover tries to portray the message that the rap life isn’t easy and not everybody makes it. In Atlanta, Donald Glover shows the constant setbacks that characters face including homelessness, racism, and a lack of resources. Yet what makes the show outstanding is the fact that Glover manages to convey these subjects in a comedic manner.
One example is the scene when Earn decides to impress his girlfriend Vanessa by taking her to a fancy restaurant. Earn only has $90 in his bank account to spend on their night out. Viewers see how Earn tries to avoid paying for parking, orders only one glass of wine, and orders the cheapest meal on the menu. However, Vanessa insists on getting a valet, she orders a bottle of wine, and the pushy waitress makes them try every expensive item that the restaurant serves. In this scene, along with many others, viewers find comic relief from how relatable Earn’s struggle is.
At other times, I found myself laughing until I realized the veracity of the underlying message. In a satirical episode, Paper Boi is starring on a show called Montague, and during one of the breaks, a cartoon commercial for a cereal similar to Froot Loops appears in which the kids steal the cereal from a mummy. As I was laughing at the stupidity of the commercial, a police officer appears and pins the mummy to the ground. I began to realize how Atlanta uses its creative genius to touch on a subject as deep as police brutality in a fake commercial. I literally had to rewatch the scene to better understand the message.
This is what makes Atlanta different. Viewers laugh at the comedy of the struggles that the characters face but are also challenged to pick up on the various messages that it leaves behind. Although the storyline simply follows an up-and-coming rapper and his manager, Atlanta causes the viewer to question all aspects of society. I highly recommend this show, and its short, hilarious episodes make it an easy watch. Season 2 doesn’t come out until 2018, so there is still a long time to catch up on this fantastic masterpiece.