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‘Atlanta’ Was Never Interested in a Hero’s Journey to Rap Stardom

Hip-hop is a passion, but on ‘Atlanta’ and in Atlanta, it’s also a job. Donald Glover’s series makes sure to never forget that.

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Six years ago, Netflix premiered Baz Luhrmann’s television debut, The Get Down, a busy and colorful drama chronicling the birth of hip-hop in the South Bronx; and FX premiered Donald Glover’s masterwork, Atlanta, a dark and surreal comedy about life in the new capital of rap.

The Get Down was an ill-fated series, plagued by production delays and cost overruns, met with middling reviews, and then canceled after a single season. It was also, as I wrote in my own review of the show, a rather beautiful failure. It was a sugar rush of so many volatile elements—disco! Cocaine! Poetry! Kung fu!—culminating in the big bang that unleashed hip-hop on the world. Though playing fast and loose with the early history of rap, The Get Down was true to the spirit. It wasn’t a perfect show, but it was wild to watch Netflix blow $120 million on a hip-hop origin story with Luhrmann and Jaden Smith.

Still, The Get Down was one of many stories, spanning several formats and genres, from Krush Groove through Empire, dramatizing the ascendancy and dominance of hip-hop in its first capital, New York City. There’s also a decent repertoire dramatizing rap history and culture on the West Coast. But then there’s this dramatic black hole that’s lingered over the South. There’s ATL, costarring T.I. and Big Boi, and then there’s crickets. It’s been more than a decade since hip-hop relocated its home base from New York to Georgia. There’s no shortage of drama in the major movements in Houston, Memphis, Louisiana, South Florida, and the genre’s current stronghold, Atlanta. So where were the cameras?

There’s consolation at least in Atlanta, now a bona fide hit series created by hometown hero Glover, a.k.a., Childish Gambino, and oft-directed by music video visionary Hiro Murai. The series premiered just a month after The Get Down hit Netflix. By comparison, Atlanta is a slow and low-key character drama (at least initially), following upstart rapper Paper Boi (real name Alfred), played by Brian Tyree Henry, and his cousin-slash-manager Earn, played by Glover, on the scenic route to rap stardom. They’re accompanied by Al’s chaotic-neutral best friend, Darius, played by Lakeith Stanfield, and Earn’s old flame and co-parent Van, played by Zazie Beetz. Together these characters form a bleak millennial quartet, smoking weed and sulking from one setback to the next. Atlanta isn’t a show about hip-hop. Atlanta is hip-hop, often at its best when embarking on blunted tangents with profound realizations.

This year, Atlanta returns with its third and fourth seasons, the former premiering on Thursday. In its half decade on television, Atlanta, pitched as “two cousins who work through the Atlanta music scene,” turned out to be many things: a midcareer drama, a middlebrow sitcom, a race satire, a horror anthology, and a testament to the peculiar magic of the South. But perhaps most significantly, Atlanta rendered the past decade of hip-hop on screen with a pointed perceptiveness. Finally the highways that pumped so much bass into the American bloodstream earned the prestige TV treatment. And impressively, Glover, celebrating his own profession and his own hometown, pulled no punches.

In interviews before the series premiere, Glover often stressed authenticity. Atlanta would be true to hip-hop. Atlanta would be true to Black culture. Atlanta would be true to Atlanta. This was easy hype but also the truth. Atlanta, like hip-hop itself, reconciled a premium on real talk with a knack for absurd embellishment. Empire was a great show, but Empire was a soap opera selling a dream about the music industry and 2010s hip-hop representing the height of power in New York. Empire was a fantasy. Atlanta gave it to us straight. The series took us on a long drive down I-95 and settled us into a very different scene, at the heart of hip-hop culture but also on the outskirts of commercial power. “The industry,” whether we’re talking about music or movies, often refers to the power brokers in entertainment. Atlanta is a show about “the industry” as experienced by its lowest climbers.

Paper Boi is a one-hit wonder who, weirdly enough, doesn’t even perform his eponymous single. (That’s Glover’s brother, Stephen, not Henry, you’re hearing in the first season.) Earn is the personification of every half-assed email blast that’s ever hit a music critic’s spam filter. It’s tempting but also a bit of a stretch to call Atlanta “realistic,” given its tall tales about Alligator Man and Teddy Perkins. It’s more so notable for its compassion. Paper Boi is a good dude catching tough breaks, and his merits as a rapper are neither here nor there. Atlanta isn’t a hero’s journey to hip-hop superstardom. Paper Boi isn’t some wide-eyed clout chaser but rather a weary 30-something at his wit’s end in the music industry. Is Paper Boi a “struggle rapper?” This was a common epithet in the mid-2010s, but the term fell out of fashion in large part, I think, because Atlanta clarified the struggle and repudiated the condescension. Paper Boi isn’t bombarding anyone with links to his SoundCloud. He’s not desperate to blow up. He’s desperate to make a living. Likewise, Earn is a low-rent manager on the verge of termination. He’ll be lucky to exit the series with a fair credit score. Atlanta rarely encourages you to dream big for Paper Boi and Earn. You watch and laugh and sigh and hope for the best. The show takes their failure for granted, and so the modest milestones, such as Paper Boi and Earn embarking on a European tour in the Season 2 finale, seem so precious and hard-fought.

Atlanta is a scene. Yes, it’s also the birthplace of every other rap star of the past decade. But that’s a byproduct of the scene. Hip-hop wasn’t always easy money. It wasn’t always a fast track to lucrative multimedia contracts in Hollywood. Glover, of all people, knows this: He’s spent the past couple of decades moonlighting in hip-hop and R&B as Childish Gambino while also succeeding in movies and TV under his government name. It’s easy at this point for a modern hip-hop drama, such as The Get Down or Empire, to take for granted the genre’s status as the lifeblood of popular music and culture. But Atlanta isn’t really concerned with any of that. It doesn’t hinge on the promise of a jackpot for Paper Boi or some broader validation of trap music by the end of the series. Atlanta loves rappers but wouldn’t dare to romanticize them.

Hip-hop is a passion but, on Atlanta and in Atlanta, it’s also a job. It’s the dope boy’s career change of last resort. Atlanta isn’t interesting because the city produces superstars. Atlanta is interesting because the city produces rappers. And rappers, however famous or obscure, are some of the most absurd and intriguing people you’ll ever witness. Paper Boi and Earn subsist in a vacuum, dropped from the Hot 100, disinvited from the world stage, too far removed from the power brokers in New York and Los Angeles. So they live or die by the scene.