Television Workshop: Donald Glover's Atlanta

By Caleb Michael Sarvis

 

"The Jacket"

 

For the finale, I found myself watching with an intention that had escaped me for all of this season prior. Something about Earn’s search for his jacket, the way he had to literally retrace his steps, put me in a position to reflect on the season as a whole. Just as I would the end of a collection, or the last chapter of the novel, questions put forward but yet to be answered lingered in my mind. Is Earn making the money he thought he would? Why did he drop out of Princeton? Is Paper Boi a talent worth riding? Will he and Van find some semblance of a relationship? What’s going on with his parents? Some of these were answered. Others were not.

On Conceit and Transcending that Conceit

As a short story writer, I’m a fan of the simple premise. It’s why I find myself attracted to independent films and comedies (I still think Knocked Up is an incredible movie). It’s also why finales are hardly ever as good as the episodes leading up to them. Finales provide answers and resolution, but stumbling into question after question is much more fun. Also, the simpler the conceit, the easier it is for the story to transcend that conceit.

In episode ten of Atlanta, we open with Earn waking in a stranger’s house. It’s nobody the audience would recognize, and Earn himself struggles to piece everything together. He’s looking for his jacket, learns it’s not in this house, and we are on our way.

The mystery of the jacket gives Earn a basic motivation. As he closes in on the jacket, we learn that the real need rests in the pockets of one of the jackets. Earn gets in touch with the Uber driver from the night before, schedules a rendezvous, and arrive only to be stopped by the police. The Uber driver is a wanted suspect, and as he flees, the police shoot him dead in his own yard. “Can you check the pockets?” Earn asks. They do, but find nothing.

As it turns out, he is looking for a set of keys and Earn was lucid enough the night before to ask someone to hold on to them for him. Earn leaves Van’s house, despite being told he can stay, and we learn that the keys are for a storage unit, one in which Earn then heads to sleep.

The conceit here is this: Earn loses a jacket while partying with Alfred and Darius. The transcendence comes when Stephen Glover reveals the significance of said jacket. A beautiful writer move to satisfy us at the end of a journey we’ve just taken. There’s real emotional resonance there, and there has to be.

The Surreal for Context

As is the case for most of Atlanta, there are moments in which the setting can feel like a dreamscape, and by the time we get to episode ten, we can appreciate how the surreal elements can be used for establishing a greater context. On the way to the strip club, Earn passes a hoard of people dressed as cows, a reference to Chick-Fil-A’s free chicken sandwich day. When he finally finds his jacket, it’s worn by a man who is shot dead in front of them. It feels like the show is continually characterizing itself by comparing itself to the real world in which we reside. By doing this, the audience tip-toes between fiction and biography.

What’s particularly interesting about the surreal elements in play, is that they are sometimes the most reflective of the culture we know and recognize. The invisible car from episode eight seems like a stretch, but are we not obsessed with the pomp and status of owning the most advanced technology?

Earn’s closing scene in the storage unit resonates in a similar fashion. We live in an era in which people are constructing homes out of shipping containers. Our hunger for something simple and easy, despite the sacrifices that may come with it, is growing. It doesn’t seem right that Earn would be resting in a storage unit, but at the same time, it’s poorly lit back drop might illuminate the piece of Earn we haven’t figured out yet: his desire for peace. College life is a convoluted time, and I can only imagine the demands of an Ivy-League school must add to the struggle. Perhaps, to an extent, this is exactly where Earn wants to be. Minimalized for the sake of a caught breath.

Two Things Working For Me:  Thank you, writers, for answering the necessary questions without dangling the carrot too long. As the trio wait for the Uber driver, Earn receives a phone call from Senator K, a fellow rapper and successful one at that. He invites them to come to Chicago and join him on tour. We’re not sure whether Paper Boi is a legitimate talent, but after this scene, it’s difficult to doubt his progression as a rapper. Earn has intelligently hopped onto the manager train. Alfred handing Earn a significant amount of money was a smart choice as well. Whether or not Earn would be paid and thus be capable of caring for his daughter is no longer a worry, at least for now. Secondly, I’m extremely into the storage unit. While it isn’t a home, there’s an independence inherent in the move. Earn is no longer sleeping on someone else’s couch, and if the end of story is to illustrate some sort of change in the character, then this clearly works.

Two Things I’m Not Sold On: While I like that Paper Boi has been called on to tour, I feel like the rise was too easy. Atlanta has yet to follow a traditional narrative all season, but it has been good about earning our trust, and truthfully, there hasn’t been a moment (a performance, a mixtape review) that legitimizes Paper Boi’s popularity prior to the phone call. This could have been an easy fix, but I just don’t buy Paper Boi as a successful rap artist. I’m also not sure about the choice to abandon the storyline with Earn’s parents. Of course, this episode is about independence, but that’s why we need the call back to his mom and dad. We’ve yet to see them since the beginning of the season, and we were left with the impression that they were severely disappointed with him. So what gives? Where are they if they live in the same town?


Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer in Jacksonville, where he lives with his wife and works as the Fiction Editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine. He'd love to hear from you: @calebmsarvis