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What the Rest of TV Can Learn From ‘Atlanta’

FX’s freshman hit has plenty to teach the industry

FX/Ringer illustration
FX/Ringer illustration

There’s some poetic justice in the fact that the network that gave rise to the term “Peak TV” is home to the fall show that’s transcended it. Atlanta concludes its spectacular first season on FX under the watchful eye of “Mayor of TV” John Landgraf this week; Donald Glover’s struggle-comedy is an unmitigated success, both in numbers (Atlanta enjoyed the strongest basic-cable comedy premiere since Inside Amy Schumer) and in the less quantifiable but arguably more important “conversation.” Atlanta isn’t just rapturously reviewed; it’s also relevant, rhapsodized by the internet at large, in large part because it’s utterly without precedent — in form, in substance, and in sensibility.

Going forward, competitors, and even FX itself, will try to replicate Atlanta’s breakout success. But what, exactly, should those competitors be imitating? With the conclusion of Atlanta’s freshman run comes our first chance to ask what, exactly, made the show resonate as strongly as it did. Here are some lessons Atlanta offers for the rest of television, starting with Tuesday’s finale:

“Finale” Doesn’t Have to Mean “Climax”

“The Jacket” is the kind of episode that, apart from a fateful money wad, could have come at almost any point in Atlanta’s 10-episode season. Meditative and droll, it sent off Atlanta by embodying the show to the fullest. Instead of injecting an off-character cliff-hanger or going out with an extra burst of zaniness, it brings Earn’s wandering full circle (by returning to the site of that fateful first 4:20 break, he’s literally right back where he started). And it substitutes climax for the most Atlanta-y version of Atlanta possible, giving satisfaction over suspense: Yes, there’s the informal offer for Paper Boi to go on his first real tour, but we’re happier to get a few minutes of Van and Earn just hanging out than to hear that phone call. All that is a minor distraction, anyway, from Earn’s fruitless, Hangover-esque search for his missing jacket. Sometimes, the best way to end things is by reminding us what we’ve enjoyed all along.

Inexperience Isn’t a Bad Thing

What stood out about Atlanta from the very beginning bears repetition: Atlanta isn’t like the rest of television in part because so much of its creative team didn’t come from the rest of television. While Donald Glover himself fits into that nebulous category of people “due” for a television show — alumnus of multiple hit sitcoms, successful stand-up career, UCB affiliation — the show he created is leagues apart from the comedian’s comedy that dominates so much of Peak TV. That’s because it’s a group effort, the product of Glover’s sensibility, but also those of Glover’s brother (and Paper Boi stand-in) Stephen, director and producer Hiro Murai, and writers Fam Udeorji and Jamal Olori, none of whom had worked in scripted television before.

The novelty of Atlanta feels like a direct extension of the newcomer status of its creative team — an all-black writers’ room in an industry that’s short on opportunity for writers of color. The dialogue is pleasantly shaggy, eschewing the rapid-fire set-up-to-punch-line-to-new-set-up rhythm in favor of more naturalistic, offbeat jokes, most of them mumbled under Keith Stanfield’s breath. Only one episode has the A-plot, B-plot, C-plot structure that’s the law of the TV comedy land, with the rest pairing up or isolating characters at will. Atlanta never needed to throw out the playbook because so many of its collaborators never read it in the first place.

Location Matters

Atlanta actually lives up to its name. There’ve been countless loving homages to New York and Los Angeles, and even more casual substitution of soundstages, screensaver-esque establishing shots, and studio lots for actual noncoastal locales. Atlanta is the rare series set outside a media-heavy metropolis — though, thanks to Georgia’s friendly tax code, one of many series to actually be filmed there — to truly embrace its sense of place, from its literal locations (the wing joint!) to its sound. Better yet, the show films with the same loving, [eye roll] cinematic gaze typically reserved for either prestige dramas or the adrift-in–Silver Lake set. Atlanta knows and loves its city, and it shows that with every muted, delicately composed frame.

Going Plotless Is a Freedom, Not a Challenge

Quick question: What, exactly, happened in the first season of Atlanta? Paper Boi got more famous — famous enough to play celebrity basketball games and make club appearances, though the extent of his success still isn’t entirely clear. (Or even his talent, as demonstrated by an actual performance rather than a minute-long fragment of his hit single booming out of various car stereos.) Van lost her job. Earn went from less than $100 in his bank account to $200 in cash. And … that’s pretty much it.

Atlanta isn’t the first serialized comedy to take on the subject of urban aimlessness. But Atlanta feels liberated from the obligations of its larger narrative. Instead, it takes Earn and Paper Boi’s come-up and setbacks, accepts them as a given, and shunts them essentially offscreen. On any other show, earning Paper Boi a spot at that charity game would be the bulk of an episode, with the game itself a final reward for Earn’s hustle. Instead, Atlanta gave us black Bieber and Earn’s bizarre case of mistaken identity — and then pushed the fallout from both of those misadventures into the gap between episodes. How did a local rapper tackling the biggest pop star in the world play out in the media? Did Earn follow up on those contacts he made upstairs? Who knows? Who cares?

It’s a trick that allows Atlanta to get away with major change and the total absence of it alike. On the one hand, it takes the edge off Earn failing to come up with rent money or Paper Boi literally shooting someone in the pilot — a murder charge of Damocles that ended up simply contributing to the overall sense of unease that’s essential to the show — because the show barely lingers on them before moving on. On the other, Atlanta could pick up next season with Paper Boi already having gone double platinum and we wouldn’t bat an eye — just like we didn’t when Paper Boi went from a viral-ish single to talking head on a public-access round table. We’d simply wait for the next 20-minute vignette.

Talk About Money

Compared to the yuppie ennui of Girls, Love, and their ilk, the trap of being perpetually broke is a far more compelling reason for characters being unable to move up in the world — and one that’s far less explored on narrative television. Atlanta incorporates need into its worldview the way almost every other show folds in casual affluence: as a presence that’s undeniable but often unremarked upon. Earn being broke is frequent fuel for the show; in its world, being poor can be a fact of life.

The result is proof that stories about financial hardship don’t have to be dour deep dives into the ravages of systemic oppression. Atlanta isn’t a lamenting of the forces that keep its characters from making personal and professional progress, or a painstaking account of those forces’ consequences. It’s simply a document of what happens in their world they create, and one that benefits from acknowledging, however tacitly, a fact of life so much of entertainment ignores.

Treat Your Costars Like Regular Stars

Despite all our fervent anticipation, we still haven’t gotten a stand-alone Darius episode — but it’s only a matter of time. As “Value” and “B.A.N.” proved, Glover isn’t just willing but eager to share the spotlight with Stanfield, Brian Tyree Henry, and Zazie Beetz, creating a show that doesn’t rest on a single protagonist. Instead, the audience just has to trust that its favorite character will eventually get their due — and Atlanta has given us plenty of reason to do so. By now, we’ve learned these people’s lives go on when we’re not around to watch them. This show lets us listen in anyway if we just wait.

If You Don’t Move Forward, Move Side-to-Side

Out of Atlanta’s first 10 episodes, a full four are basically concept episodes: one dedicated completely to a supporting character (“Value”), one episode of a show-within-a-show, à la Donald Glover training camp 30 Rock’s Queen of Jordan (“B.A.N.”), and two bottle episodes that stuck a group of characters in a single location, then stuck with them — a club (“The Club”) and a high-society party (“Juneteenth”). Even the so-called “normal” installments had an experimental feel, like the way the second episode immediately separated Earn and Paper Boi after Atlanta spent the entire pilot bringing them together.

Typically, concept episodes are reserved for after a show develops enough of a template to deviate from it. But Atlanta’s writers immediately treated its baseline more like a guideline: something to be strayed from, played with, and returned to rather than left untouched or nudged forward. It’s a pliability that’s unique to weekly, episodic TV, where installments stand on their own rather than blurring together — but with a heavy dose of the streaming era’s free-form flexibility.

Ignore the Hype

One of the more remarkable, and unremarked-upon, parts of Atlanta is how much of a surprise it was. Much like Stranger Things, Atlanta occupied a prominent-enough position to guarantee attention when it came out: Glover getting a television show wasn’t a huge surprise, and “two cousins trying to make it in the rap world” sounded like a fairly conventional hustle plot, à la How to Make It in America. This wasn’t ultrahyped The Get Down or Westworld, though, and Atlanta benefited accordingly. Liberated from the burden of carrying an entire network on its back, Atlanta gives off a discernible vibe of not giving a fuck what anyone wants or needs from it.

My dearest wish for the second season is that Atlanta retains that quality, even as it benefits from an avalanche of well-deserved hype. Atlanta feels adjacent to the “real” world yet totally outside it, existing in a raucous yet glacially paced bubble of its own that feels deliberately unconscious of its own exceptionalism. It’s key to the show’s ability to surprise us, something I’m optimistic it’ll retain even now that we’re expecting it to surprise us. I have no idea what’s coming in Atlanta Season 2, and that’s the most exciting thing about it.