In the fourth episode of the new FX series Atlanta, fledgling rapper Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry, and pesky social media scenester Zan, played by Freddie Kuguru, argue about art, exploitation, and overexposure — all while Zan drives to deliver a pizza. “This ain’t no game,” Paper Boi says from the front passenger seat. “I’m getting tired of niggas online harassing me.”
“Ah,” Zan smiles. “Fan engagement!”
“You messing with my life, man!” replies Paper Boi. “This my job!”
“Helping us get money, though.”
“Nigga,” Paper Boi snaps. “There is no money anywhere near rap!”
Ain’t that the truth. In the 2010s, hip-hop isn’t as massively provocative as it was in the late ’80s and then throughout the ’90s; nor is it as lucrative as it was at the turn of the century through the mid-’00s. Contemporary hip-hop is an exceedingly democratized artform in which anyone with a decent microphone and modern software can record and release a rap mixtape; that’s the good news. The bad news is that the genre, now more saturated and competitive than ever, isn’t broadly profitable for most rappers short of Drake and Kanye West.
Accordingly, the genre’s 21st-century capital, Atlanta, isn’t as meticulously mapped and celebrated as hip-hop’s birthplace, New York City, or even its historic West Coast laboratory, Los Angeles. In 2015, Vice and one its music websites, Noisey, set out to map Atlanta’s neighborhoods and rap history; the former in an 11,000-word city guide produced by local writers and photographers, the latter in a 10-part web documentary series titled Welcome to the Trap, which followed Atlanta rap stars 2 Chainz, Migos, and Young Thug, and several other real-life winners.
But Atlanta — the new FX series created, cowritten, and codirected by its star, Donald Glover — is not a success story. At the onset, its characters are all local losers who struggle not toward national stardom, but rather toward modest subsistence in the only city they know. Glover plays Earnest Marks, a.k.a. Earn, a young, inexperienced hip-hop manager who ends up working for Paper Boi. He’s also a father raising a baby daughter with his girlfriend, Van, played by Zazie Beetz. Every conversation between these characters is, essentially, about money. Who pays for the date. Who posts the bail. In Atlanta, the cost of living is the cost of doing business.
Atlanta is a new frontier in music-genre TV drama. It’s a hip-hop series, and yet there’s little glamour here; these characters labor under no delusions that hip-hop is either a higher calling or a potential windfall. Music, drugs, and pizza delivery are all concurrent low-profit hustles.
Even as the music industry struggles to keep its lights on, hip-hop is having a spectacular, made-for-TV moment. Atlanta is the latest series launch in a recent spree of hip-hop TV franchises. The first season of Lee Daniels’s hip-hop soap opera Empire, which airs on Fox, was the most watched TV series in key demographics. Baz Luhrmann’s hip-hop origin myth The Get Down, which reportedly costs Netflix $10 million per episode to produce, is the most expensive bet that the streaming media giant has ever placed.
Hip-hop’s dominance isn’t limited to television. The 2015 film Straight Outta Compton, the story of N.W.A, is now the highest-grossing music biopic of all time. The hip-hop musical Hamilton, which launched in January 2015, is now one of the highest-grossing (and best-reviewed) debuts in Broadway history. This is the start of hip-hop’s golden oldies moment.
What makes Atlanta fresh and exceptional among its hip-hop TV contemporaries, and in general, is its mundane, unsettled take on an otherwise spectacular culture. The child pioneers of Baz Luhrmann’s Bronx in The Get Down are kung-fu heroes and immaculate showstoppers, whereas Paper Boi is just some local scrub. Empire invites you to admire the Lyon family’s glamour, savvy, and wealth; the broke, beleaguered, cynical novices of Atlanta see that mythology as a mirage. I can easily picture Earn, Paper Boi, and eccentric third-wheel Darius all watching Empire together on Paper Boi’s spartan couch, sucking their teeth, and clowning Hakeem Lyon’s latest, pretty-boy fade.
The characters of Atlanta loiter at the margins of their own output. They’re never onstage, or backstage, or in a studio booth. Instead, they’re at gas stations, in parking lots, and in cars, in between gigs, riding from one troublesome and meager payday to the next. Earn crashes with Paper Boi, who lives in an East Atlanta apartment with bare walls, a shitty couch, and loose bullets spilled across a table, including one that lands in a box of Lucky Charms. (It’s the sort of apartment that Cookie Lyon from Empire would sneer at disgustedly.) The nights when Earn isn’t crashing on his client’s couch, he’s slipping into bed with Van, an entrepreneur in her own right, and a homeowner who demonstrates much greater care than Earn in balancing work and family. For Earn, the question is whether hip-hop is a viable career or an adolescent dead end.
In reality, Glover, 32, is a consummate overachiever. As a writer, actor, and director, and, simultaneously, as rapper Childish Gambino — a persona he crafted while he was writing for 30 Rock in 2008 — Glover has become the millennial avatar of the “black nerd” (or “blerd”) identity, a label stigmatized insomuch as anyone who embraces the identity inevitably distances themselves not just from pop culture generally, but also from black culture specifically. In a 2014 essay titled “Being Angry and Black on the Childish Gambino Tour,” Gambino’s manager, Famuel Rothstein, shares a story about how Canadian pop singer the Weeknd once met him, Gambino, and Gambino’s brother Stephen at Drake’s house, where the Weeknd was relieved to learn that Gambino is authentically black. “Imagine a world where a polite beige kid from Toronto goes up to two black kids from Atlanta and one from South Central L.A., and he’s the one questioning our hood credibility,” Rothstein writes. Earlier, Rothstein states that his piece is “to remind people that Donald is a real black person.”
Fairly or not, Glover has earned a reputation for disavowing his own blackness and adopting a tokenistic posture that has apparently endeared him to white audiences. In New York magazine’s recent profile of the Atlanta star, Glover opens with what sounds, at least to me, like a loudly misguided priority for his show. “I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture,” he says. I wanted to show white people.
Thankfully, Glover and director Hiro Murai have taken great care to craft Atlanta as a comprehensive landscape of a black city with black characters, black music, and the concerns of black life; a testament to the heights achievable when network executives trust black visionaries to work, in concert with an all-black writers’ room, to produce their own stories. Indeed, Atlanta is the blackest moment of Donald Glover’s career. (Yes, I know he made a Gangsta Grillz mixtape.) Glover stars, but he shines brightest in the concept and credits, and in the characters he has created. As Paper Boi, Henry is playing a hardhead whose stubborn wit and Socratic indecision raises fascinating questions about how a rapper should be.
When Paper Boi and Zan launch into their protracted argument about “fan engagement” and the boundaries between rap and real life, it quickly becomes clear that Paper Boi, for all his confidence on record, is a bit shy. He’s a small-time rapper and smaller-time pusher, not a hypebeast, and he worries that he’s not built for the tedious scrutiny that attends even local rap stars in the digital age. Earn assures Paper Boi that Zan is just a misguided idiot “who loves hip-hop.” Paper Boi disagrees. “No, he don’t, man. He out here selling T-shirts. He exploiting it.” What’s unclear to Paper Boi, Earn, and Darius — to the point that it becomes the episode’s prevailing joke — is whether Zan, who resembles Tiger Woods and frequently says “nigga,” is even black. Paper Boi, rolling his eyes, resolves to find out.