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‘Atlanta’ Was Donald Glover’s Masterwork

Six years after it first aired, ‘Atlanta’ goes down as an all-time great that cemented its creator as part of “the culture”

FX Networks/Ringer illustration

The antepenultimate episode of Atlanta, titled “The Goof Who Sat by the Door,” tells the story of Disney’s first Black chief executive, Thomas Washington, and his role in creating A Goofy Movie, billed in the episode as “the Blackest movie of all time.” Of course, Atlanta being Atlanta, the episode is shot as a mockumentary, and the premise is a play on Sam Greenlee’s novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door as well as the real (if somewhat delusional) Blerd nostalgia surrounding A Goofy Movie. The Disney CEO of this episode is a fictional figure; Washington’s a lowly animator whom the board of directors only accidentally—and regretfully—promotes to the position. Washington green-lights A Goofy Movie as a cathartic subversion of the house style at Disney and a celebratory critique of Black culture. “He knew that people thought Goofy was dumb,” the movie’s (again, fictional) director says, “but he wanted to show the systemic factors that Goofy was dealing with.” The movie’s plot—Goofy dragging his teenage son Max on a cross-country fishing trip when Max would rather be swooning over his crush, Roxanne, and attending a pop concert in Los Angeles—draws inspiration from, in Atlanta’s world, the Freedom Rides and The Negro Motorist Green Book. Though Washington’s passion project might suggest some eternal, unshakable Black pride, in fact, growing up, Washington was a bit of a dweeb who suffered pangs of alienation from the whole notion of Blackness. “He would’ve been really proud,” his widow says in the episode’s final minutes, “that he became part of the culture.”

Washington’s story echoes that of Atlanta’s creator, Donald Glover. For years, he was seen as the Black nerd, often stressing his detachment from the “cooler” currents of Black culture. The cult sitcom Community cast Glover as the affable jock-cum-geek Troy Barnes. Comedy Central staged his early stand-up routines about him being the only Black kid in a white school and his handy typology of Black dorks. Camp, his 2011 debut album as Childish Gambino, presented him as a bitter outcast on almost every song, such as on “Backpackers,” when he sarcastically voices the knee-jerk objection to his musical approach: “Rap is for real Blacks.” Glover was, in light of such lyrics, a bit of a punching bag in millennial discourses about supposedly self-loathing Black people. Still, Glover cultivated a niche fan base that respected his disillusionment and appreciated his talent. He’s been decently popular since the early 2010s but he’s only in recent years become eccentric, mysterious, cool. At last, Childish Gambino broke into mainstream fame with his new musical direction on “Redbone” in 2016 and “This Is America” in 2018, the latter being his climactic no. 1 hit that went on to win four Grammy awards.

But Atlanta would be Glover’s masterwork. “Twin Peaks with rappers,” he promised. Glover has spent the past six years earning his hype. He’s put Atlanta on par with The Sopranos. He’s ragged on Dave, starring a fellow rapper, Lil Dicky, and airing on the same network as Atlanta. He’s hyped the last couple seasons, filmed concurrently and released with a mere four-month break in between them, as “some of the best television ever made.” He’s talked as if prestige television were a contact sport. But this made sense. Glover is a rapper—making a TV series about hip-hop, no less—and his boasts about Atlanta were the sort of swagger that typically makes or breaks a rapper’s persona. Sure enough, Atlanta deserved—in fact, required—such arrogance. How else do you talk yourself into producing batshit classics such as “B.A.N.,” a surreal and argumentative parody of Black news and entertainment networks, and “Teddy Perkins,” a deadpan horror spoof with Glover in whiteface as (essentially) Michael Jackson? How else do you take the fight to Walt Disney and Tyler Perry?

Atlanta has come a long way from the Nutella sandwich bus ride in its pilot episode, “The Big Bang.” In the beginning, Alfred Miles, a.k.a. Paper Boi, was a struggling rapper on the chitlin’ circuit, Earnest Marks was his overeducated but underachieving cousin striving to become Alfred’s manager, and Atlanta was the story of a half-assed hip-hop stardom forged in the mystical rap capital of the U.S. Earn’s pragmatic ex-girlfriend, Van, and Al’s whimsical sidekick, Darius, rounded out the friend circle. Each week, the quartet would work through some series of existential troubles, and often they’d embark on transformative tangents having little, if anything, to do with the show’s music industry premise. Atlanta was boundless. Sometimes it was a character drama, sometimes it was sketch comedy, sometimes, as in “The Goof Who Sat by the Door,” it was a race-conscious anthology. It was heavy and hilarious. It was at once a grounded depiction of hip-hop as a largely unglamorous, unreliable profession and a lofty, surreal social commentary seemingly written by benevolent aliens, or ATLiens, rather.

My podcast cohost Micah Peters often describes Atlanta as a show made out of spite, for better or for worse. The show thrived on the strength of its contrarian impulses. If the rest of respectable television was going to become synonymous with movie-length episodes, then Atlanta would pack its prestige into a good, old-fashioned 24 minutes. If other shows would chase middlebrow magazine raves, then Atlanta was going to primarily obsess over its standing with the average Black viewer. If other race-conscious works of the past few years would treat Blackness and whiteness as relentlessly solemn concerns, then Atlanta would tackle race with the utmost irreverence and ambivalence; the viewer would struggle, or perhaps not even care, to discern what exactly the writers’ room was “trying to say” with the chaotic scene of looters laying siege to a Target while Darius tries to return an air fryer in the opening minutes of the fourth-season premiere. Atlanta was a glorious mess of influences and intentions. It was an all-time-great TV drama, yes, but perhaps more importantly Atlanta was the most bracing and rambunctious thing on television, in any format, since Chappelle’s Show.

Season 2, dubbed “Robbin’ Season,” was perhaps the most uniformly praised season of TV of the past decade. So it was strange—and, frankly, irritating—to see Glover launch the third season with moody bitching about the show’s few, scattered critics. “Please @ me this year if u talk shit on me,” he tweeted a couple months ahead of the season premiere. It was unclear how much Glover was reacting to criticism of Atlanta versus how much he was reacting to criticism of him. But the third season of Atlanta was in fact divisive. The plot put Paper Boi on tour in Europe, 4,000 miles away from Magic City. The season dedicated four of its 10 episodes to relatively didactic race parables with a sensible connection to the show’s main themes but not much relevance to the show’s main characters. Fans of Season 3 hailed the relentless innovation. Critics lamented the shattered focus. Supporters echoed the old, cursed copypasta: To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Atlanta. This was annoying—not because of some disagreement about the quality of the show but rather because of the bad faith. Arguing about Black culture is Black culture. Glover once described himself, in an otherwise friendly exchange with a fan on Twitter, as “a hating ass nigga.” Hating is Black culture, too! Atlanta never needed to be policed for correct interpretations, strict consensus, and cultish devotion to Glover. One of the show’s writers, Ibra Ake, complained (in a now-deleted Instagram post), “You nerds gotta stop watching Atlanta like it’s the NYtimes crossword you gotta solve,” and while he seemed to be primarily frustrated by the dissents, he could’ve been describing the critics of Season 3 as accurately as he could’ve been describing the show’s most diehard fans.

Atlanta always gave us something to puzzle over, and that was a great gift. Even the most supposedly digressive episodes struck upon some lingering nuance. “The Big Payback” (in Season 3) could be perceived as a strident parable about reparations, but instead, the episode struck me as a rather ambivalent acceptance of perpetual hopelessness in U.S. race relations. “The Goof Who Sat by the Door” was at once an earnest homage to a Black cult classic and a sharp skewering of a certain progressive sort of over-intellectualization in pop culture. Atlanta cherished its influences and its audience, but Glover spared no one. It turns out his complicated relationship with Black culture made for a pretty good show.

Last week, an unidentified gunman shot and killed the rapper Takeoff, one of the Migos, at a bowling alley in Houston. His death was recorded in gruesome detail on smartphone cameras, and the footage was disseminated widely via social media. Migos hail from Lawrenceville, a suburb of Atlanta, and the group’s rise alongside the likes of Future and Rich Gang in the mid-2010s more or less set the stage for Atlanta. The series always was determined to show the harsher aspects of a street rapper’s existence. Shit is bleak, and then shit is sweet, and then shit is tragic all over again. That’s hip-hop. That’s “the culture.” That’s Atlanta. Those faint traces of country grammar in the old stand-up comedy footage of Glover blossomed into a proud drawl, despite the early signs he might’ve wished to lose his accent altogether. Glover’s alter ego in the form of Thomas Washington is obvious enough. He’s “the culture” now.

Frankly, I don’t care about The Sopranos. It’s easy, prestige-brained flattery to compare Donald Glover to David Chase and David Lynch. Better yet, in the fullness of its six-year exploration of “the culture,” I’d rank Atlanta right up there with Chappelle’s Show, The Boondocks, and yes even, I suppose, A Goofy Movie.