Atlanta: “The Big Bang/Streets on Lock” Series Premiere Review

Photo Credit:http://www.sfchronicle.com/tv/article/Atlanta-makes-brilliant-start-to-fall-TV-9193098.php

Two of this dull summer’s most universally acclaimed shows were The Get Down and The Night Of. The former is an unapologetically vibrant, stylized celebration of hip-hop and disco that almost doubles as fantasy. The latter aimed and mostly succeeded at being a gritty, hyper-realistic takedown of the American justice system. These series, despite sharing New York City as a setting, couldn’t be more different in tone. In fact, striking a tone somewhere between seems nearly impossible. In comes Atlanta, moving the themes explored in both shows to the South and, somehow, meshing all these ideas into a cohesive whole. The half-hour comedy approaches both urban violence and our flawed justice system with a matter-of-fact wit that leaves the gravity of the issues entirely intact. Yet this is also a show about an up-and-coming artist grappling with the responsibility fame brings in his community. Don’t get me wrong, Atlanta doesn’t do either of these things better than The Get Down or The Night Of, but it does them well enough while also believably marrying them. That’s the true impact this double series premiere leaves. And a lot of the credit is due to one creative mind.

Series creator and star Donald Glover, former writer for 30 Rock, former star of Community, and successful rapper under the guise of Childish Gambino, is just 32 years old. Yet here, there’s a playful wisdom to his work that feels like the culmination of everything this artist has made his wide-spanning career to be thus far. Glover, through his main character Earn, rambles about philosophy and social politics between razor sharp takes on the series of unfortunate events that has become his life, whether they’re his fault or not. Earn is a Princeton drop out living in his ex-girlfriend’s home where they raise their daughter between her dating life and his fuck-ups. “What? No, this is a great environment for you!” he quips while canoodling his infant child. Earn’s endearing aspects come from his self-awareness, which also provides balance for the rest of the cast.

His cousin, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) is scaling Atlanta’s rap scene as Paper Boi, but without a way to get his music out to the masses, as his current manager, Darius (Keith Stanfield), is, well, an idiot. That’s where Earn comes in, sensing that his cousin’s career has genuine potential. The first half of the premiere has Earn doing his damnedest to get Paper Boi on the radio, by any means necessary. He predictably succeeds and the single is suddenly all over Atlanta’s radio waves. But that’s when Atlanta pulls the rug out from under us as a parking lot altercation escalates to shots being fired. Alfred and Earn are detained and forced to navigate all the inhumanity present at county jail.

As heavy as the material sounds, Atlanta manages to be hilarious thanks to its sharp writing and more than capable leads. Brian Tyree Henry and Keith Stanfield are delightfully kooky, subverting stereotypes of inner-city life with pitch-perfect delivery and a few cases of strong physical comedy. Alfred and Darius feel like characters that, given time to grow, could become sitcom sensations (if you dare call Atlanta a sitcom that is). The second half of the premiere does particularly strong work with Alfred as he fumbles around an awkward family encounter when a kid imitates him with a toy gun. The scene is funny, cute, and introspective all at the same time. What kind of role model will Paper Boi be for his community? What kind of role model will the community try to get him to be?

As with all successful pilots, these first two episodes of Atlanta make you want to see the journey that’ll lead to those answers. But beyond that, it introduces us to characters that are already easy to root for. Combine that with a clever mesh of ideas and themes and you’ve got what could become one of the fall’s best series. There is of course some fine-tuning that needs to be done. But as with most great comedies, the show will hopefully get better as the characters come more into themselves and we really get to dig into the show’s progressive themes. Until then, we’re off to a great start. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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