Television Workshop: Donald Glover's Atlanta

By Caleb Michael Sarvis

 

"The Streisand Effect"

 

The best stories are about people who don’t have their shit together. In the first three episodes of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, the audience finds that few people in this show seem to have grip on their own lives.

            Donald Glover (executive producer and writer of this episode) plays Earnest Marks, a Princeton dropout who lives with Vanessa, the mother of his daughter. He sleeps in her bed despite her going on dates with other men. He works at the airport, soliciting credit cards (or frequent flier mile programs, maybe both?) for commission. His parents won’t even let him into the house because they “can’t afford it.” Earn hopes to amend these mistakes by managing his up and coming rapper cousin Alfred (aka Paper Boi), whom he hasn’t seen since the funeral for Alfred’s mother.

            What the writing of Atlanta does incredibly well is it doesn’t allow the audience to define it too early. The moment the tension feels its sharpest, we’re distracted by a bout of déjà vu, or a cookie offering, or the genius of using rats for phones. By breaking our situational awareness (usually through the musings of Alfred’s side-kick Darius), Atlanta refuses its own categorization. Is it a drama? Not quite. Is it a comedy? Maybe only out of necessity. At moments, it’s hilarious, but behind the humor is the pain the characters feel. As Earnest Marks holds his daughter in the hallway and says to her, “This is a great environment for you,” we laugh while understanding the resentment behind the statement.

            By the time we get to “The Streisand Effect,” the fourth episode of the series, Earn seems to have progressed in his relationships with Alfred and Darius; however, their goal of elevating Paper Boi doesn’t seem to have transcended the notoriety of his first episode shootout, and we’re given that insight through a faux-fan and internet troll, Zan (who’s ambiguous race is a funnier joke than anything he actually says). Alfred obsesses over the disses Zan continues to post on the internet (claiming that Zan is messing with his livelihood) while Darius takes Earn on a quest for cash (to better his own livelihood).

            There’s an unspecified hunger working underneath the show, a desire that is Mad Men­-esque, and like Don Draper, Earnest Marks is living a life that may or may not be the “real” him. While Alfred’s potential success as a rapper might seem like the central plot line, we’re given a handful of threads to follow from the get-go. In fiction workshops, we’re told this “dangling of the carrot” isn’t an effective story-telling move, that we should give the reader as much information as soon as we can. However, in television, especially serial-television, it keeps the audience watching. We don’t quite know what each character wants specifically, but we do know that their individual desires have brought them together.

            In “The Streisand Effect,” Earn needs money, we know this, and Darius takes him through a black market barter system (by first convincing him to trade for a samurai sword at a pawn shop) with the promise of more money than he would’ve received had taken the cash from trading his smart phone in. At the end, when Earn and Darius deliver a Cane Corso to a breeder, Darius reveals they won’t see the two thousand dollars until September. For the first time, we see Earn exhibit signs of raw panic. “Poor people don’t have time for investments because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor,” he says. “I need to eat today, not in September.” What we still don’t know, is why a Princeton dropout and father of a baby girl is in this position in the first place.

            Meanwhile, we learn the most about Alfred in this episode. As he confronts Zan while he delivers pizzas, Alfred claims he has to rap because scares people at the ATM. “People are forgotten, shit is real.” “You’re exploiting your situation to make rap and I’m exploiting you exploiting that,” Zan says. “Money, brah.” This seems to settle the beef between them, but when they reach the delivery spot, Zan sends his foul mouthed, five-to-seven-year old “business partner” to deliver the pizza. He is promptly robbed (of the pizza and the contents of his pockets) and Zan immediately begins recording the incident rather than going to his rescue. Disgusted, Alfred gets out of the car and walks away. Interesting and ironic enough, the money may not be what Alfred is looking for.

            In a multi-cast story, you have to split your main characters in order to move narrative. What’s interesting about “The Streisand Effect” is the level of dissatisfaction each character is left with at the end of the episode. While Alfred and Earn don’t spend much time together in the episode, they both manage to stumble into disappointment (another Mad Men-esque move). This gives Glover and his co-writing brother the means with which to keep their characters moving. As long as this hunger remains unspecified, their ends will remain unmet. Money seems to the current carrot, but who’s doing the dangling, and where will the chase lead them? What makes the show great so far is that the audience can’t say for sure.

Two Things Working For Me: This is the first time in the series that Earn and Darius are given time alone on the screen, and it does wonders for Darius’ character. They fall into discussions about race, conspiracies, and Steve McQueen. More importantly, Darius is given agency in this episode, rather than using him simply for comedic relief, Glover has given Darius the power to move the narrative (i.e. the samurai sword), which opened up the possibilities of the show. “We’re friends now,” Darius says at the close. Secondly, there’s a moment where Earn wakes from a nap, and is greeted by the barrel of a handgun casually placed on an end table. The realities of this world are forever creeping in thanks to small details like that.

Two Things I’m Not Sold On: Now that we’re in episode four, the aimlessness seems a little endless. I’m a patient viewer (ergo the Mad Men references), but I’d like to see some moves next week, even if they’re small. If the show is only about how nobody goes anywhere despite the work put in, I’m not sure it will hold up over the course of ten episodes. Lastly, there was a small moment where Earn notices an elderly Asian man sitting on the sidewalk, arguing on a cell phone, separated by a group of goats only by a chain-link fence. I liked the image a lot, but I don’t know what it added to the narrative of this episode.

Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10pm on FX.

 


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