Donald Glover, Atlanta & Not Trying to Make Other People Happy
"A little praise is a bad thing, and a lot of it is worse. We cannot be too careful. It is better for the artist to work out of a vaccum, going from creation to creation, each a new beginning, until it is all over, until he is dead in the sense that he can no longer create" - Charles Bukowski
Critically acclaimed—two words that look better together than separate. Two words most artists hope to see alongside each other like prom kings and queens after their work is judged, critiqued and assessed. To be critically acclaimed means to be in the favor of all or most critics; to be seen as exceptional, excellent and extraordinary. Just words—kind words—but they have tremendous worth in a world so fascinated by metrics.
It's still early, but if judging by the 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, the massive social media applause, and the fact they scored the biggest basic cable premiere of any prime-time comedy since 2013, it’s appropriate to consider Donald Glover and FX’s Atlanta to be a critically-acclaimed sitcom. Donald made a series that people like—no, he made a series people love. He did so without ever intending on making his audience happy. Atlanta is the product of a group of dreamers who had a chance to a make a show, and they made the one they wanted; the one that they could watch and love.
In early October, Donald appeared on the cover of Adweek as the face of their Content, Producers, and Entertainers Under 40 Shaping The Industry series. Nick Bell, VP of Snapchat, Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook, and Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of Stranger Things, are just a few names who were also included as young and influential. That is mighty impressive company for an actor, writer, and musician who ten years ago was on YouTube doing sketch comedy for Derrick Comedy, writing for 30 Rock, and trying to find his voice as a rapper.
Donald’s story has always been more tortoise than hare—slow, steady, gradually progressive and constantly evolving. The current Donald has a successful series, but even before the acclaim, he didn’t care to be greeted by warm welcomes and salutations. He made this very clear in his short interview with Adweek:
"In the writers room, I kept repeating, 'It's OK if we get canceled in the first year. I just want to have a show that we're proud of, that we can say, this is the show I would watch if I was not on it,'" says Glover, who serves as creator, showrunner, writer, occasional director and star.
Cancellation, a word that should be synonymous with fear for any showrunner, writer or producer on a television series. Based on the above quote, there was no fear in the writer's room for Atlanta. There was only creativity and determination. Or, to put it another way, the determination to be creative. Knowing that the series was fueled by amour de soi and not amour-propre, it’s easy to draw a parallel to the very first episode of Dave Chappelle’s Chappelle's Show. Before airing the “Frontline: Clayton Bigsby” sketch, Dave jokingly predicts that the series won’t likely make it to episode two. On his premiere episode, he had the gall to show on network television a blind, vehemently racist black man who believed he was caucasian. Add the excessive use of America’s least favorite word, and it spelled doom in the stars. Even while he joked, there was no fear of doom, no worry of cancellation, and if it happened, so be it, the sketch would be legendary regardless.
While there has been a noticeable contrast between Atlanta and Chappelle's Show, especially the commercial sketches that aired during the satirical episode “B.A.N.,” the very ethos of not making it to the next episode courses through the blood of Atlanta. Each passing episode has become more adventurous, daring and audacious. It’s such a simple premise; the story of two cousins trying to come up in the rap game, but they have developed a world that’s far more complex, a world reflected in a magic mirror. By throwing away a safe, acceptable, conventional format, Atlanta is winning. It is proof that people don’t just want a series moving to the beat of its own drum, they want a series moving to the beat of an entirely different instrument. Atlanta is jazz, Atlanta is funk, Atlanta is hip-hop, Atlanta is the blues, and most importantly, Atlanta is true to itself and true to its blackness.
While Glover is thrilled about the response to the series (which was already renewed for Season 2), he's also a bit conflicted. "I don't want to ever get caught up in making people happy," he says. "I'd much rather get caught up in making culture, and making something that lives on forever."
With only one episode remaining in season one, there is plenty that people will take from this series. They will take the jokes, the commentary, and the nuances, but it’s most important to take away the very mindset that allowed Donald and his team to make it a series that didn’t disappoint. It started as a series that pleased its audience; a project embedded with what they wanted to see on television. Donald didn’t have a team of the most experienced individuals, nor the most known, and probably not the most qualified by traditional television standards either, but everyone he surrounded himself with had the same vision for a show that wasn’t going to lack creativity or culture. Being happy with your vision within your team also means you aren’t going outside to look for validation. The biggest mistake Atlanta could make moving forward into their second season and beyond is to transition into a series that pleases the audience, after being born out of the passion of its creators.
One of the hardest lessons for a creative is learning not to revel in the applause. The sound of applause is just as addictive as the money. You become a slave to the approval of others, trying to create to please them and not yourself. There have been many days where I've stared at a blank Google doc and struggled with thoughts of acceptance, approval, and acclaim. It’s a dangerous trap to be in. Once my pen is moved by them—for the sake of them—and not myself, I’m doomed. Whenever I get that feeling, I remember an important quote from Frank Ocean, “The season’s praises will change to harsh criticism soon enough, but as long as you’re centered and not dependent on the praise, you can deal with it.”
Be exceptional. Don’t be accepted. No matter what your art form may be, be like Donald Glover. Don’t do it to make them happy, do what will make you proud.
By Yoh, aka Yohlanta, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: FX