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How ‘Atlanta’ Got Its Start in New York

Jason Mantzoukas remembers the early brilliance of Donald Glover’s comedy group


FX’s Atlanta is off to a strong start. The show’s pilot episode brought in FX’s largest premiere audience in its genre since 2011, giving it the best ratings for any basic cable scripted prime-time comedy since 2013. Why is the show such a success? And how much of Donald Glover’s sketch comedy background is used in its making? The League’s Jason Mantzoukas joined Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan on The Watch to discuss.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

That Slam Poetry Scene Is an Actor’s Dream

Andy Greenwald: I did want to talk about this week’s episode of Atlanta. There’s a character — the guy who plays Craig, the optometrist — who delivers slam poetry, [and] is very Afrocentric. I Googled that dude, because he looked familiar, like a type.

Chris Ryan: Well, that’s what he said to Donald Glover.

A.G.: Exactly. I thought I knew him from the country club. Turns out I did, the country club of Broadway, where he’s a theater actor.

C.R.: I think it might be Rick Holmes.

A.G.: When he did the poetry scene, I was thinking the beauty of this casting, and of the scene, is that [of] the majority of actors that I knew in acting classes in college, this is what they want to do anyway. There’s a desire, or a willingness, to just lose shame and self-consciousness and own it. This guy has done slam poetry before, and he wasn’t going for laughs. And the key to his performance is he wasn’t going for laughs this time, either. Actors want to do this stuff, and it’s just a question of uncorking them.

Jason Mantzoukas: Absolutely. I loved this week. I’m obsessed with Atlanta. I think it’s an amazing show, and this week’s episode was fantastic, that scene specifically. I love that this is heightening this guy’s game to the point where he’s going to just do slam poetry, and we’re going to cut to everybody’s reactions like, “Yeah! Yeah! I like what this guy’s talking about!”

A Group Called the “Hammerkatz”

J.M.: There was Derrick [Comedy], but there was this group first that was a much bigger group. They were called the Hammerkatz. All the Derrick guys were in there. But also, Adam Pally, Gil Ozeri, [and] a whole bunch of other people, [like] Fran Gillespie. It was 13 of them, or something like an enormous amount of them, and [Donald Glover] came out of that. And so that’s the first time that I met any of those guys. They were just an NYU sketch group that put up like shows every week. They were all super hungry, and fascinating, and doing crazy stuff. They were the first people I remember who started putting things online. They started putting sketches on YouTube. And I remember being like, “What is this, now?” You know? One of the first Derrick videos got like, 2 million views on YouTube. I’ve been doing comedy for 10 years and they’ve just eclipsed the entirety of people that have ever seen me perform.

Sketch Comedy Roots

A.G.: Everyone knew Donald was funny, knew he was a good performer. Everyone knew he was a good writer and a creative guy, [but is] this such a jump up in everything?

J.M.: Yes, I am so blown away. And I’ve always thought him to be wildly talented, but this is a whole step beyond in terms of the specificity and the point of view that he has. [It] is just so fantastic. Episode by episode, I’m just blown away by the show … Also, I’m excited to be like, “Who are we going to go down the road with this week?” This week we’re going to have a “Paper Boi in the club” week? That week that was just Van out to dinner with her friend — it’s amazing … She’s amazing! That’s the thing, the cast is like just all monsters. You can, episode to episode, follow any of them and it’ll be wildly compelling.

A.G.: What do you see in the making of the show? Not necessarily the writing or performing, [but something] that you recognize as improv-ish … I don’t mean literally improv’d, but I mean like there’s a creativity or energy or spirit that imbues it because the thing that we love about it, [and that makes us] talk about it week to week, is it can be anything at any time.

J.M.: OK, so the scene where they go to do the deal with Migos, right? To me, what’s great about the show is the moment and the scene … The tension keeps getting ratcheted up. Boom. Boom. It keeps heightening. Tension. Then they start weaving jokes in between Paper Boi and Darius. They start having a private conversation between them that is very funny, but does not let the air out of the tension. I recognize [that] as, “Oh, you’re going to do this one thing, but you’re also going to thread this other thing through” — and they can both exist. You’re seeing scenes that are very sad or very melancholy, but that have real pops of humor or subtle humor woven in. That’s what I love in the show.