FX’s “Atlanta” – magnificently conceived by and starring Donald Glover – doesn’t begin so much as it simply happens, opening with a confrontation in a convenience-store parking lot and immediately shifting to morning light, where Glover, as Earnest “Earn” Marks, wakes from a dream next to Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his baby daughter, Lottie.
As this tenuous family wipes the sleep from their eyes and gets on with their day, it’s up to viewers to orient ourselves to “Atlanta’s” casual pace and glean some details about its characters’ lives: Earn is only an occasional visitor in Van’s house; she implores him to help out more with the rent and his daughter’s care. He has the desire, but lacks the plan. When he steps outside we get a sense of both the splendor and blight of the show’s inner-suburb setting: verdant, kudzu-covered cul-de-sacs of low-income housing and potholed streets with gas stations where the clerks are protected by thick layers of plexiglass.
It’s tempting to jump to conclusions about bad neighborhoods (and what typically occurs there on other TV shows), yet “Atlanta” immediately and effortlessly imbues its environs with a tender sense of home and community, where hardship is a backdrop rather than an agenda item. Creators and producers are fond of talking up a TV show’s setting as becoming a character in and of itself, which is often just talk. In “Atlanta’s” case, the setting is a vital, narrative through-line – and a welcome take on a stereotyped world.
“Atlanta,” which premieres Tuesday with two episodes, was filmed in and around East Point, Georgia, which was once dinged by a real-estate website as “the nation’s most dangerous suburb”; from the show’s first moments, Glover and his collaborators have given this place the kind of respect and unvarnished regard that is somewhat similar to the love and concern with which David Simon and company portrayed Baltimore in “The Wire” – only in this case, gallows humor supplants pathos. (Glover has drawn on his own Atlanta upbringing and his experiences as a rapper – which might be news to viewers who only know him from his roles on “Community” or in “The Martian.”)
It is across this landscape – back and forth by punishingly long bus routes – that Earn meanders from one possibility to the next.
In short order we meet Earn’s parents, Riley and Gloria (Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Myra Lucretia Taylor), who won’t give their son any more money or let him in their house (“I can’t afford it,” Riley says), yet remain reliable babysitters for their granddaughter. Earn, who makes $5.15 an hour at a Hartsfield-Jackson Airport terminal, where he unsuccessfully tries to sign up people for a new credit card, discovers that his cousin, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), is blowing up in the rap scene with a self-produced mixtape, using the name Paper Boi.
Earn offers to become Alfred’s manager, but Alfred is leery of his cousin’s sudden presence: “N—-r, I ain’t heard from you since my mom’s funeral. And the first thing I hear out of your mouth is ‘Let’s get rich.’ Walk, man.”
The first episode would seem to indicate that “Atlanta” might settle comfortably as another rags-to-riches dramedy filled with the usual cautions about showbiz success, in the vein of HBO’s “Ballers” (or “Entourage”), only with far fewer luxury items and a lead character who has trouble affording a Happy Meal.
The second episode suggests something broader and more ambitious – and is also circumspect about where it’s taking us or what kind of show it wants to be. Much of what happens, when not enveloped in a literal marijuana haze, unfolds in a slow, dreamy state. But what is this dream really about?
As Earn rides the bus with his baby, a bow-tied stranger forcefully offers him a sandwich and a menacingly cryptic philosophical monologue – or was the man just another late-night mirage? For better, weirder and certainly blunter thoughts about life and everything else, “Atlanta” leans heavily on the comic relief of Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Alfred’s right-hand man, who is often so stoned he’s on another (sometimes brilliant) plane of logic altogether.
The episodes surf hypnotically along, succeeding less on thematic concerns and more on “Atlanta’s” unerring knack for portraiture. The show introduces us to its world and its inhabitants without declaring its intent in every other scene.
Some of the intent, of course, has already been predetermined for “Atlanta”: It’s a show about black men living far afield of society’s white mainstream, which is burden enough. A passing reference is made to the fact that Earn “took a year off” from attending Princeton, which is now going on three years off, which is perhaps what lends his character an outside-in perspective. Earn’s encounters with white people (a radio-station employee who is far too comfy with using the n-word; a waitress who upsells expensive appetizers and cocktails; a county jail officer who brutally beats a mentally ill inmate) are remarkable only for being such commonplace indignities. In both a topical and cultural sense, “Atlanta” couldn’t have picked a better time to come at us with its mix of comedy and anger.
By Episode 4, the show trades in some of its hallucinatory, laid-back vibe for the forward momentum that is necessary is to all TV dramedies, regardless of who or what they’re about. It will be interesting to see how many viewers come to “Atlanta” willing to view it from a place other than amused privilege. “Atlanta’s” authenticity (or what certainly feels to me like authenticity) might tempt outsiders to view it more as a work of sociology than as a half-hour cable series about a set of people experiencing a set of events and emotions. Many viewers, of all races, are hungry for more shows that can weave outrage and narrative and everyday life together as effortlessly as this one does.
“Atlanta” (30 minutes) two-episode premiere, Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.