Donald Glover already knows what you think about him. And he doesn’t blame you. Whether you be an ATLien who doesn’t quite approve of his Atlanta credentials or an arbiter of race who looks dubiously upon his representation of blackness. Nevertheless the Stone Mountain native, who moved to NYC and made a name for himself penning wit for the likes of Tina Fey on NBC’s “30 Rock” before scoring Grammy success via his rap alter-ego Childish Gambino, is poised to present the most authentic representation of post-trap Atlanta yet. How, might you ask, can I state this with such certainty? Because I’ve seen the future — which in this case means the first four episodes of his new FX series “Atlanta,” debuting 10 p.m. Tues., Sept. 6. While I admittedly harbored doubts of my own going into it (for a bit of both aforementioned reasons) the show is — how shall I put this — good AF, mane.
Glover, the show’s executive producer and writer, also stars as Earnest “Earn” Marks, a hard-up Atlanta native and baby daddy working a bullshit job at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Earn lays his post-adolescent rap aspirations aside to manage his cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), a dope-boy-by-day on the cusp of his own hip-hop come-up. Together with Paper Boi’s spaced-out consigliere Darius (Keith Standfield), they make for a comical trio — to the chagrin of Earn’s baby mama Van (Zazie Beetz). But as Glover’s earliest description of the show suggests, this is Atlanta rap meets “Twin Peaks.” The surrealistic tone comes in dark, off-kilter doses that make the 25-minute episodes more dramedy than straight-up comedy. In the pilot episode, gunplay in a liquor store parking lot leads to Earn’s debut on the 11 o’clock news and more credibility to add to Paper Boi’s rap sheet.
If that sounds a tad too close to home, it’s dead on. In early press for the show, Glover told the Television Critics Association he wanted “to show people what it’s like to be black.” Which, as he admits in our following convo, is an insurmountable task — partly because the black experience is neither monolithic nor easily conveyed. If anything, Glover’s own career is proof of that, as is the city of Atlanta.
MATTHIAS CLAMER/FXFor 40 minutes, we chopped it up — covering his thoughts on the mythology that the city lacks identity (it definitely doesn’t if you’re black), FX’s doubts about him hiring a band of mostly unproven talent as writers for the show (he was just hiring his friends and family like any rapper would), and his concerns over Atlanta losing its soul to gentrification (trust him, it already has).
So what, perchance, do I mean by using such a loaded word as authentic to describe the show? Well, its depiction of ATL’s underbelly seems as prone to piss off (and alternately counter) the city’s black middle class bona fides as it stands to contradict the gentrified narrative being sold by its new-money elite.
While “Atlanta” is every bit as idiosyncratic, smart, funny, and honest as its creator, Glover’s hopes for the show, best summed up by his brother and show writer Stephen, are simpler: “He was like, ‘All we really need to do is make sure Atlanta fucks with it. Or at least talks about it,’” he says. “‘If they hate it, like, we’re gonna have a problem.’”
Problem averted, bruh. Welcome home.
MATTHIAS CLAMER/FXI feel like the show says everything I’ve been trying to explain to transplants and white people about Atlanta for the past decade.
It’s hard, though, that’s the thing. I realized it’s impossible to do that. It really is. When I said at the Television Critics Association talk that I’m trying to make white people know what it feels like to be black, people took it out of context. I know that’s impossible, but the show kind of moves in real time. It’s a TV show so you can show stories developing and how things feel and the mix of things that are happening. It’s cool that you feel that way after the first four episodes because I think it gets better and better and the feelings get more specific.
Since word of the show started to circulate in Atlanta people have expressed skepticism about what Donald Glover’s version of Atlanta might look like. Do you think people are gonna be surprised by how authentic it feels?
Some people, probably (laughs). And that’s good. That’s OK. I’m never mad. We wanted to make a show that was punk. We wanted to make something that felt like it probably shouldn’t be on TV. That’s the stuff that made NWA hot, or even OutKast. It was like, “OK, this doesn’t belong here — which is kind of why I’m looking at it.”
I’m cool with people feeling like I shouldn’t have the mouthpiece to talk about Atlanta. There’s people who speak on Atlanta that I really don’t feel should have that [right]. I’m sure there are some people who feel Drake should talk about Atlanta more than me. I don’t feel that way. It’s a perspective that’s specific and I also plan to explore everyone’s perspective. As a black man, I’m pretty good at giving my perspective, but a black woman’s experience in Atlanta is completely different from mine — extremely different. And a white dude’s experience in, like, Buckhead [or] going to Emory is probably completely different. That’s why it’s important to show how that kind of stuff intertwines. It’s all perspective.
MATTHIAS CLAMER/FXI grew up in Decatur, Lithonia — Eastside, DeKalb County, like you. So did you regularly experience that validation check people from inside the city like to pull on each other — like, “Where you from? What high school did you go to?” — to determine whether or not you’re Atlanta enough?
Yeah, I know, that’s a funny thing. When we first shot the pilot, we were over in the Bankhead area, in the projects to shoot a video there. It’s me and my brother and Hiro [Murai, the director] and five white guys in a white van. And when we stepped out to unload the camera equipment, some woman from a window screams. She’s like, “Crackers here!!” Screams it, right. And me and my brother are dying laughing. Kids come up to us and they’re like, “Where are you guys from?” And we said we’re from Stone Mountain. He went to Redan for a little bit, I went to Stone Mountain Middle and … Stephenson High and people were like, “Oh, cool.”
That was the first time I was like, “Yo, those credentials speak volumes here.” It was the first time for me I could pull that card. See, I remember people talking about Zone 6 like it wasn’t anything. But now, its weird coming back to Atlanta. The area I grew up in — which is like Martin’s Crossing, close to Lithonia — is now super black. All the Jamaican spots are over there. It wasn’t quite like that when I was growing up. You can see how the city’s changed and gentrification’s pushed people over there. I met a black girl on the set and it made me laugh. She was like, “Where’d you grow up? I said, “Stone Mountain.” She was like, “Oh, DeKalb County? That’s dangerous.”
I know, I was like, really? I think she was from Alpharetta or somewhere like that. I had never met a black girl from Alpharetta. But coming back, you do get checked. People look at me different than when I was growing up.
MATTHIAS CLAMER/FXHave you ever felt the love from Atlanta?
That’s a really good question. It’s weird. It’s a hard thing. Black people are always looking for some sense of control. It’s important to have some sorta control over your life and livelihood and who represents you. And I get it. I understand when black people are skeptical of me, but what I tried to show through the show is what’s fucked up is that we have to all figure this out in public in front of everybody. We’ve been fucked up by systems and people for a long time. And, you know, us being pitted against each other is kind of a language we speak now. And I get it. I understand it. But at the end of the day, we don’t get to control the forces that are really doing this to us. We don’t make those decisions.
So, I’ve definitely felt the love from Atlanta when I do stuff, and I think black people in general are the most understanding, forgiving people, maybe in the world. I definitely felt the love but I also understand that people are skeptical and people want me to somehow show my black card. Like, I’m not special.
There’s always been this idea of real Atlanta vs. what isn’t real. But what about this mythology that Atlanta has no identity or an identity crisis?
Yeah, I know exactly what you’re saying. Even growing up, my parents were from New York and they’d go to Little Five Points and be like, “Oh this is trying to be the Village.” Atlanta feels kind of like new money to a lot of Northerners or people who aren’t from there. Like, “Oh they have money but they don’t have taste.” But I also feel like Atlanta is unique. It’s never gonna be any of those other places because of how money flows through there and the types of people who pass through there and why. Half the reason I wanted to do the show there is I don’t know any other place that has one dude for every four women, or the second largest gay population, or like Chick-fil-A, or all this old money that’s tied into religion.
I don’t think it has an identity crisis, especially if you’re hanging out with black people all the time. If you’re hanging with a bunch of black people, there’s a very specific feeling. It’s super specific, to the point where it’s weird to me how Vicecan still talk about the trap in 2015. That’s really interesting to me. That’s an entire mythology that people in Australia understand and know now. It’s kinda cool.
MATTHIAS CLAMER/FXWhat is your take on how Atlanta’s been portrayed, especially on TV, over the last five years?
I don’t have any hate for it. People don’t get upset about “Friends,” and say, “That’s not like New York.” That wasn’t the point of “Friends.” You could say the same thing for like B.A.P.S. or Atlanta “Housewives,” all that stuff. You really have to look at why people are making it and what audience they’re trying to get from that, their take on Atlanta and what they’re exploiting. Everything’s perspective.
Most of the time they [portray] Atlanta depending on what they’re selling. I don’t think we were trying to sell anything with our show — other than a good show, so it might be different.
All the writers are black, nearly all from Atlanta, and none beside yourself had previous writers’ room experience. Did FX look at you like you were crazy when you proposed that?
I’m sure they looked at it like, “Yo, this dude’s just hiring all his buddies.” And yeah, that’s a valid fear. Especially coming from the hip-hop world, that’s usually what you do. You hire your buddies. “This is gonna be my manager, he’ll be like my bodyguard, he’ll be my weed dude” — ’cause then everybody gets paid. And that’s important. I’m not even gonna bullshit. It was important to me to get people paid, but I think one part of the black experience that’s always hard to get people to understand is we want to do stuff that’s qualified.
I think my brother’s honestly a better writer than me. He’s never had a writing job before. Stephanie [Robinson]’s an amazing writer. I was just lucky enough to have people around that found her and she was qualified. She’s from Atlanta but she has a totally different perspective. She grew up in China and Atlanta. She used to babysit for Lil Jon, and babysat for Ludacris once. Swank [Jamal Olori, writer and roommate of Glover’s brother Stephen], his family is African but he was born in Atlanta. Ibra Ake, who is a staff writer, was born in Nigeria and moved here as a kid. In this specific situation, I was like, “OK, you’re from Atlanta, you’re black, you’re qualified to write this stuff.” I really wanted to make sure that people were qualified. And also, you’ve gotta give people a chance. [These] people hadn’t been in writers’ rooms before. I had only been in a couple writers’ rooms. Being in a writers’ room is hard. I took the responsibility of knowing this is gonna be a lot of people’s first encounter so I didn’t want to do it in an office. I did it in my house where I was recording music and also doing the show. We called it the Factory. And we worked out of the Factory.
They did look at me kinda crazy when I was like I want to hire all of my people I know and work out of my house. But I think it gave the show a specific feeling that you couldn’t get from just getting a bunch of writers with previous experience.
GUY D’ALEMA/FXThe tone of the show is funny but it’s also kind of dark. The climax to the jail scene felt like it could’ve been “The Wire” for a second. Was it hard capturing that mix?
I think when you’re black and growing up in Atlanta there’s a specific feeling of knowing shit might pop off and that’s just the way it is. That’s what life is, you accept it as the futility of your situation sometimes. You can laugh at it, you can cry at it, but at the end of the day that’s what it is. So we just tried to keep that feeling every time something would happen.
Despite this being the black cultural capital there’s this one-dimensional stereotype about what a typical black person from Atlanta is. Did you set out to challenge that or broaden it in any way?
I really didn’t. I just tried to sit down and show my friends — me and my friends. At least for this first season. I thought, “How do me and my friends react, how do we hang out?” That’s enough, honestly. With Alfred [Paper Boi] being a drug dealer, people were shocked that he didn’t live in the projects when we first started. I’m like, “Nah, he sells drugs, he has a nice place somewhat.” He lives in an apartment, but probably off of Howell Mill or some shit. You have to give people context on how people actually live. How drugs are like an actual economy, how strip clubs are an actual economy. You have to give layers to everything and I think that’s enough — rather than trying to create different types of people.
We watched “Boondocks” a lot, which I really liked. And “Boondocks” does a good job of giving people layers, but they’re also all playing perspectives — like OK this [character] is a specific part of the black experience. Rather than do that, because they already did that so well, we decided to just show regular people and show how those philosophies mix.
What would you say are some of your fondest memories of growing up here?
Ahh, you know, skipping school and going to Underground. I lived by Stone Mountain so, as weird and racially awkward as the Laser Show can be, I have fond memories of seeing the Laser Show. I used to play basketball at the Stone Mountain Rec Center or the Gresham Park Rec Center [in Decatur]. I grew up in the Gresham Park area when I was younger and went to Gresham Park Elementary. It’s not even around anymore.
GUY D’ALEMA/FXAre you worried about the city losing its soul as gentrification continues?
I mean, it’s already, it’s just gonna happen. You can get sad about it or you can just understand how things work. All the major cities are going through it. In episode 2, when the guy’s talking to Earn and he’s got that really Atlanta dialect, that’s probably not going to be around in 15 years. People probably aren’t going to talk like that anymore, so part of it was like let’s capture this while it’s still around.
Eventually a rapper from Toronto is gonna sound just like a rapper from Atlanta. Yeah, there’s Future, there’s still sounds that sound like Atlanta, but if that sound works people just take it, and I think that’s what we’re seeing. A lot of things are just being culturally mixed. I do think it’s going to change and it’s kind of up to Atlanta, the community there, to figure out how it’s going to change and what you want to keep.
Race, class, inequality — all those themes play a major role in the show. But it’s funny because Atlanta’s always pretended to be beyond a lot of that stuff. There’s always been this rich black middle class yet at the same time this has been the income inequality capital for the last three years running.
Atlanta’s a microcosm for America. In a weird way Atlanta’s almost the canary for other places. You can see what’s about to happen. One of the reasons we shot in Bankhead so much is we’re able to shoot in, like, a building that they started constructing and then stopped. Then across the street you have a gas station and other projects. They’re building the [Mercedes-Benz] Stadium right up the street. Everything is in close proximity in that area and that’s just kind of the culture clash.
GUY D’ALEMA/FXHow supportive has the city been? Do big wigs have any idea what the show could mean for cultural capital?
They’ve just been super supportive, everybody at the Georgia Film Commission. I couldn’t be thankful enough. What’s been really great is like when people see it they’re like, “Yo, that’s feels like Atlanta. People support it.” What was important to me was that people didn’t feel like we were coming in just to exploit Atlanta, which I feel like sometimes comes across in a lot of documentaries or films. I would rather people feel like they were telling a story with us. And if there’s a joke, I want you to laugh with us a little bit.
GUY D’ALEMA/FXDo you think “Atlanta” will change how people perceive Atlanta — both inside and outside the city?
I think it might do that early on, but I hope as we do a good job it’ll just change how people feel about our experiences. That’s a big part of this show. I’m trying to show people our experiences are completely different. And sometimes you just have to take our word for it. There’s a reason that people’s reactions to “Black Lives Matter” was “All Lives Matter.” I don’t think it was an evil thing; they just literally can’t understand the context of it. They really can’t, because we’re kind of living two different worlds completely. And I think the closer we are to accepting that — and accepting why that even is — the closer we are to, like, helping each other, you know?