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The Perfect Soundtrack of ‘Atlanta’

The one thing that TV shows about music often get wrong is the music. That isn’t a problem in FX’s new hit show.

FX/Ringer illustration
FX/Ringer illustration

There are plenty of things to dote upon in Donald Glover’s new FX show Atlanta, but one particular thing that’s been glossed over in all the fawning is the soundtrack.

That is to say: The music in Atlanta is fantastic. It doesn’t beat you over the head so much as punch you in the sternum, and I feel like no one appreciates that quality enough. There’s no distinctive theme song tailor-made to lodge itself in the back of your mind like a seed in a pavement crack; there is no raspy, rootsy tune like the one on Sons of Anarchy (which I have to admit I liked). The title card is soundtracked by a different track each week, and the selections are consistently perfect. Like, if I had to choose the lead record for the second episode — the one where Donald Glover’s Earn and Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred are being detained (for what, exactly, we don’t know, but the dialogue gestures at drug possession and gun charges) — Yo Gotti’s “Law” is probably what I would’ve chosen. After Earn is denied a kid’s meal at a fast food restaurant in the third episode, but claims a small victory by sneaking soda in a water cup (a broke-as-fuck classic), Kodak Black’s downtrodden but rejoiceful “SKRT” is the celebratory hymn. And the cityscape flyover shot in the premiere set to OJ Da Juiceman’s “No Hook”? [Kisses fingers like a satisfied chef.] Divine.

Atlanta is a quiet show, providing room for the characters to be deadpan with minimal distractions. But when the music is used, it’s woven seamlessly into scenes and helps to build the mood, further bringing the characters’ world to life. In one of those wide overhead shots that director Hiro Murai loves so much (which is good, because they are awesome), Alfred and Keith Stanfield’s Darius tail a car up a winding road to a drug buy in the dark, witnessless woods. Shabazz Palaces’ weird-as-the-title-suggests “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum” force-feeds you the notion that the two of them — and all of us — are officially in uncharted waters.

That feeling is hammered home, not too long after Alfred and Darius reach their remote destination, when Max P’s “Gang” rakes like nails on a chalkboard in the background while Migos’s Quavo gives some poor schlub the Ramsay Bolton special.

[Side note: Quavo said, “The hell you mean, nigga? Trappin’ boring as fuck,” in this episode. This is going right behind, “I am commandeering this airboat,” on my running list of Phrases I Need To Use In Conversation Before I Die.]

FX
FX

In the premiere, when Alfred pulls up to Earn’s dad’s place to suss out whether Earn would make for a reliable manager, Doe B’s “Let Me Find Out” is booming out of his car. In a recent interview, Jen Malone, the show’s music supervisor, said that was the most difficult song to clear because Doe B died in a shooting in Alabama in 2013. “Let Me Find Out” is in the show for only 12-ish seconds, but the scene might’ve felt strangely incomplete without it.

The music selection, and the depiction of life as you slowly climb the ladder of the music industry, has been so note-perfect that it stands out when something feels off-key. Last night’s “The Streisand Effect” was the least-rewarding episode so far; its pressure-cooked pacing felt like it was dragging rather than accentuating finer plot points. Freddie Kuguru’s new Zan character — the internet made corporeal, devoid of any depth and totally incapable of having an experience without capturing it and uploading it for likes — was a little too on-the-nose. A caricature instead of a character. Case in point, his handle is @zanlivesmatter. That’s the equivalent of a movie villain showing up clad in all red, toting a pitchfork and proclaiming that he came to ruin lives.

[A brief pause as this writer stops to consider that maybe that was the point.]

It’s odd, considering that it’s clear Glover and Co. have a nuanced understanding of the boom-bust-classic-trash economy of the nebulous “rap blogosphere.” The show reaches past the Drakes and Kanyes of the world to get to the more obscure internet rappers (for lack of a less dismissive term) still very much on the come-up. In the third episode, Earn is high and surfing through SoundCloud when Van (Zazie Beetz) walks in with their daughter, and you can hear Cousin Stizz’s “Shoutout” leaking through his headphones. (PS: Listen to more Cousin Stizz.)

The show’s feel for music goes beyond rap — at the end of “The Streisand Effect,” Earn sits on the hood of Darius’s car staring directly into the sun, thinking about the wild and possibly pointless journey they just went on trying to scare up rent money, as Michael Kiwanuka’s “Home Again” trickles in. Like with “SKRT” in last week’s episode, “Home Again” heightens a moment, both forlorn and hopeful. You know, this show seems to have a lot of those.