‘Atlanta’ Review: Donald Glover’s FX Drama Brings Hip-Hop Alive

Series from former “Community” star is funny, assured and delightfully aimless

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: Rapper Donald "Childish Gambino" Glover attends Power 105.1's Powerhouse 2014 at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on October 30, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Power 105.1)
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Consistently funny with a proudly idiosyncratic vibe, “Atlanta” launches out of the gate with a firm grasp of its characters, milieu and worldview. Created by and starring Donald Glover (pictured),  this FX series is a comedy-drama hybrid that glides between sadness, humor and surrealism without compromising any of its distinctive tones. After four episodes, “Atlanta” still shows no clear sign of where it might be going, but that hardly matters — with this much promise, you’ll want to follow wherever it roams.

The former “Community” star, who records rap albums under the name Childish Gambino, has given his show the same lively, laid-back Southern atmosphere as the titular city where the action takes place. At this early stage, “Atlanta” isn’t so much “about” anything as it is a glimpse of some unformed individuals struggling to make something of themselves. But this is no glib exercise in hipster navel-gazing: These characters’ unpredictability and the writing’s frank depiction of race and millennial uncertainty give the program a bracing vitality.

The series revolves around the misadventures of Earn (Glover), who’s broke and crashing at his ex-girlfriend Van’s (Zazie Beetz) place alongside their infant daughter. Stuck in a dead-end job, Earn sweet-talks his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), a drug dealer who’s blowing up thanks to some mixtapes he’s recorded under the name Paperboy, into becoming his manager — even though Earn doesn’t have any experience. Joined by Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Alfred’s loopy, mumbling best friend, Earn tries to get his life in order, especially after he’s unexpectedly arrested in the pilot.

Directed by music-video filmmaker Hiro Murai, who previously worked on Childish Gambino videos, “Atlanta” contentedly wanders languidly through Earn’s environment, showing how this decent-but-flawed guy keeps hamstringing himself because of his selfishness and inability to commit to anything. Glover (who wrote the pilot and one of the other episodes made available for review) plays Earn with a sarcastic edge, the character always quietly calculating how to capitalize on every situation while also shouldering a nagging melancholy. He’s a superb deadpan actor, getting some of his biggest laughs from a flick of his lively, exasperated eyes. But the show never coddles Earn’s immaturity. Begging Alfred for money so he can take Van to a nice restaurant or biding his time in jail until someone bails him out, Earn may be likeable, but “Atlanta” recognizes that he’s rapidly reaching an age where his indecision is no longer adorable.

At the same time, the show is remarkably astute at chronicling the state of our so-called post-racial union, as well as documenting some of the ways that people from lower-income backgrounds get ahead. With a knowing twist, Glover and his brother Stephen, another writer on “Atlanta,” have created a universe in which the central characters, all African-American, make money either by selling drugs or pursuing hip-hop dreams — two of the most popular occupations of black protagonists in stereotypical Hollywood dramas. But instead of carting out the usual clichés, “Atlanta” looks seriously at the pressures felt by someone like Alfred, who wants to be a rapper but worries about the societal demands to project a street-thug image in order to seem authentic.

Just like Glover, Henry expertly balances vulnerability with sarcasm, giving us a man who wants to be seen as a bad-ass but who quickly loses his cool once someone starts clowning him on social media. In one particularly nervy episode, Earn’s tense date with Van is juxtaposed with Alfred and Darius’ bizarre encounter with a drug connection, and in it we watch Alfred discover how hard it is to implement an oversized gangster-rap persona in everyday experiences.

The Glover brothers’ writing is sharp and knowing, able to craft complex relationships in a matter of moments. For instance, Van shares a bed with Earn, even though their love affair is over, and Beetz embodies all the contradictions of her character, who’s more emotionally intelligent than everyone else on “Atlanta” — even if she still harbors a faint hope that Earn can turn his life around. Throughout the show, deft jokes about racism, white people who think it’s cool to use the N-word, and the annoyance of having a bubbly waitress are juxtaposed with trenchant anxieties about being a good father and figuring out if the world is holding you back or if it’s just yourself.

Ultimately, this meandering, often brilliant show is held together by Glover, whose charming, sensitive presence is akin to the way “Atlanta” bops along on its own bemused frequency. There’s always a worry that, down the road, “Atlanta” will lose its loose-limbed, just-hanging-out pleasures. In a sense, the series is as beautifully shapeless as its intriguingly oddball characters. The betting is that you’ll be rooting for them, and for the show, to continue finding their way.