Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” Accurately Portrays the Hip-Hop Come-Up, Finally
In the weeks leading up to the show’s premiere, Glover stated that he wanted to encapsulate the black experience in a realistic manner, something that is very rarely accomplished in film and TV. While I have zero authority to speak on the accuracy of that goal, I can speak on the portrayal of hip-hop in the show, which is a breath of fresh air, to say the least.
The first two episodes of the show introduce a multitude of characters, but the main three are Earnest Marks (Glover), his cousin Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), and Paper Boi’s best friend and street prophet Darius (Keith Stanfield). While working at a dead-end job, Earnest learns that the local rapper everyone has been talking about, Paper Boi, is actually his cousin, and sets out to save himself from the enclosing grasp of poverty by becoming Paper Boi's manager.
While the show offers plenty of comedic moments balanced with deeper metaphorical tones, Glover’s depiction of a hip-hop come-up is completely devoid of the sensationalized gangster-isms of the Hustle & Flow type scenarios we constantly witness in the media, instead focusing on a very real person coming to grips with the complete lack of normalcy inherent in becoming a local music fixture. Instead of a simplistic and hurried trap-to-greatness montage, Atlanta depicts Paper Boi precariously treading the line between reaching the success he’s dreamed of, and the real-life consequences that surround and inspire his music.
The harsh realities of blue-collar Atlanta are still very prevalent in Paper Boi’s situation, yet they’re dealt with in a way that focuses on the human aspect of the rapper, which increasingly stands in stark contrast to the way he’s treated in the community once it’s decided he has “the juice.” Paper Boi’s first glimpse of local fame doesn’t come from some predatory, old, white A&R figure capitalizing on the hype of a talented gangster, but from a clever workaround by his cousin Earn with the help of a sympathetic radio station janitor. The buzz surrounding Paper Boi is heightened by a gun-related squabble in front of a liquor store, but instead of treating Henry’s character as a one-dimensional thug reaping the benefits of an over-hyped obsession with violence, we see a normal young man that’s very quickly realizing how easily the line between rhymes and life can be blurred.
Of course, we don't yet know how this situation will fully pan out, as only two episodes of the scheduled nine have been released, but so far the show has given us a sobering, balanced look into the life of a local rapper and the oddities that arise during a seemingly overnight come-up, with just as much attention paid to the conscience and motives of the artist as the street buzz that surrounds him; a depiction largely missing in mainstream media.
By Brent Bradley. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: FX