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Donald Glover Stopped Rapping So He Could Make a Bizarre TV Show

Childish Gambino the rapper might be dead, but Donald Glover the show creator is just getting started.
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“I sent a long text message to my mom and pop, I got the same speech when I left 30 Rock / My mom like, ”Why you wanna leave a good job,” my dad like, “Do you thing boy, don’t stop.” - Childish Gambino “We Ain’t Them

Wedged between reflecting on Whitney Houston’s untimely death and preaching the importance of speaking from your heart, Childish Gambino disclosed a candid moment with his parents that has stuck with me throughout his career - Donald Glover isn’t easily satisfied. In that moment, even his mother doesn’t understand her son’s restlessness. I understand her perplexed response, her son is a major character on a network television show that has amassed a cult-esque following, why leave the party before the roof is set ablaze?

Donald doesn’t appear to seek the comfort and stability of a good job with good money, if that was the case he would’ve stayed writing for Emmy winning 30 Rock, would have been content continuing to play his popular role as Troy. In both positions, he wasn’t fired but quit in search of his new mountain to climb. Dominate and escape, that's been the re-occurring characteristic in his career. “I'm here for a good, not a long time,” he once rapped, which happens to be a perfect embodiment of his impulsive spirit.

For example, he had YouTube success with Derrick Comedy, two acclaimed Comedy Central standups—both now relics of his past. His social media presence was huge, amassing followings on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram, now all accounts are simply a wasteland of blank emptiness. Even his websites, the ones that were brilliantly coded during the Because Of The Internet promotion, are now blacked out. In February of last year, in an interview with the Today Show, he commented on the Childish Gambino persona and how that period of his life may be coming to a close. Another example of his detached personality, dominate and escape, beginnings and endings, Donald Glover is always moving forward.

Last year, Donald was seen on the big screen more than he was heard on Soundcloud. He appeared in a minor role in The Lazarus Effect, Magic Mike XXL and The Martian. There was relatively no new music besides “Waiting For The Moment” that appeared on the Creed soundtrack and the applause worthy cover of Tamia’s “So Into You.” His silence raised questions, what would he do next?

Atlanta is the answer. Atlanta, the comedy series he’s been developing in secrecy since 2013 is almost ready to be revealed. It was announced in October of 2014 that FX ordered 10 episodes, little by little more information has surfaced. Now slated for a summer premiere, Atlanta will star Donald Glover as Earnest "Earn" Marks, a loner that believes in his art but is returning to his home of Atlanta after failing to fulfill his dreams of turning his art into money. The return home reunites Earnest with his cousin, Alfred Miles, who is taking off in Atlanta’s prominent rap circles and somehow Earnest becomes his manager. It’s an interesting premise, especially when you think about the parallels to Donald’s career. He left Atlanta for school in New York and got his job working for Tina Fey, went to L.A and obtained his role on Community, now he’s returning to Atlanta much like his character. Except he isn’t facing failure but the pressures of capturing a city that raised him but is rarely linked to him. You don’t think of Zone 6 when you hear “Childish Gambino,” you don’t think of Atlanta when someone mentions “Donald Glover,” this is his chance to leave a lasting imprint on the home he left but has never forsaken.

With the success of Empire, there’s a lane for a show centered around the inner workings of the rap industry. While Empire gives you the perspective of the top, Atlanta is about the bottom or reaching the close middle. A story that begins in failure and slowly comes up, very true to many that become stars in the rap industry. Originally, I imagined that Atlanta would be similar to the short film Clapping For The Wrong Reasons that Donald released in 2013 mixed with Chris Robinson’s 2006 ATL—a free-flowing story that captivates due to the charismatic characters centered in a city glowing with culture, even a skating rink can be the center of attention in a place like Atlanta. To my surprise, while sitting on a panel after a screening during the 2016 Television Critics Association Convention, Donald and cast were able to disclose more about the series and hint at a deeper level of depth. Using Aziz Ansari’s hit show Master of None as a contrasting point, Donald confessed that Atlanta would be much more pessimistic and dark.

"I feel like the important thing with this show is to make it personal," he told reporters Saturday after a panel for his show at the Television Critics Association press tour. "I'm not an optimistic guy. I feel like you watch Master of None and it's a very optimistic look at millennialism, [but] I'm pessimistic about it. I feel like we kind of fucked up."

His goal isn’t to make a lighthearted comedy, he wants to capture life and its realness and real life aren't always comedy and good times. It's an artistic ethos that echoes much of his music and shouldn't be unfamiliar to fans, but what has really thrown the internet is a quote that came from Donald during the panel, “I always wanted to make Twin Peaks but with rappers.”

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Twin Peaks? The reference went completely over my head. It was the first time I’ve ever heard anyone mention the series, especially juxtaposed with rap music. What I discovered when I looked wasn’t some underrated Fresh Prince of Bel-Air type comedy, but a series that not only amassed a pre-internet cult-esque following but impacted television and pop culture in a way I was unaware. The serial drama aired for the first time in 1990—a year and some change before I was born, and revolves around a small town shook by the murder of a homecoming queen. This was no Law and Order though, the show often veered into paranormal surrealism and incorporated a dream world where cryptic clues were left to be solved. The bizarreness was common in the works of David Lynch, the director who already made a name for himself in film. 

Is it possible that Donald Glover could take an unorthodox drama based around a bizarre small town and incorporate its most endearing qualities into a show about the rap industry? Sounds like a terrible idea. Yet, realizing Donald’s admiration for Twin Peaks could be linked to parallels that have occurred in some of his previous works.

“The tone is everything. Television shows are like novels now. You’ve just got to invest in them. So... I feel like the tone of this is... going to take time for people to understand what’s going on, which I think is a good thing.." - Childish Gambino

The short film, Clapping For The Wrong Reasons, doesn’t have an actual storyline. There’s a woman that is seen throughout the film that no one seems to know or be able to see except for “The Boy.” It’s never revealed who she is, even after the credits roll you’re left guessing. Originally, Twin Peaks was never supposed to solve the murder. It was pressure from the network to give the audience an answer that forced the writers into a compromise. There’s also the scene that comes after his freestyle with Flying Lotus, where “The Boy” goes into the bathroom for his bleeding nose and after much resistance pulls a gold tooth from his nostril. It’s another unanswered question that’s not acknowledged, the film just continues. It’s this slight touch of fantasy that blurs the line between dream and reality, just like Twin Peaks

The strangeness doesn’t stop with the short film, all the music videos for Because Of The Internet are remarkably abnormal. It’s not subtle touches of unusualness, the surrealistic settings are at the very center of almost each visual. In “3005” there’s the deteriorating teddy bear on the ferris wheel and the shot of what seems to be a giant fire in the city, “Sweatpants” starts with one Gambino and by the end it’s a diner full, suspicious scales can be seen while he surfs in “Worst Guys” and the most extraordinary moment happens at the end of “Telegraph Ave” when it’s revealed that Childish Gambino is an alien. All very mysterious and perplexing, revealing only enough but leaving viewers with more questions than answers.

It’s the video for “Sober” that is the best crossover of realism and magic, it’s surreal, dreamlike and borrows one of David Lynch’s most common forms of imagery, flickering lights. It’s no surprise that Hiro Murai is Gambino’s kindred spirit in all things odd. He not only directed Clapping For The Wrong Reasons but also all of Gambino’s videos and will be directing the Atlanta series. In an interview with Noisey, it was stated that Hiro grew up on Takeshi Kitano mobster flicks and David Lynch, which explains for those that are familiar with his work. They tend to be dipped in a darker, more melancholy world. In his videos kids are brought back to life, monsters roam the streets, giant children terrorize a city, all very odd but captivating. I have yet to see a Hiro video that I would consider mundane or predictable.

It’s possible that Donald and Hiro have been laying cookies crumbs to slowly draw us into their new land strange. If they are able to take the same ethos that made Twin Peaks into a sensation they could really capture a similar, cult-esque following with Atlanta. Donald has already been successful in making a laughable rapper like Childish Gambino into an emcee. This next phase of his life will surely be the accumulation of everything he's been through so far. One project that embodies his many layers and hats, the collision of all the worlds that he dominated and escaped.

Atlanta will be coming this summer, and whether it’s successful or a disaster, I’m certain that Donald Glover will not be satisfied. He'll continue to burn down his past and build up a new future. He’s an artist that's about pushing the boundaries and not being enclosed by them. We may have already witnessed the death of Childish Gambino the rapper, and now we're about to see the birth of Donald Glover, maker of cult TV shows. And as soon as we finally have a handle on him again, he'll change. 

By Yoh, aka Childish GambinYoh, aka @Yoh31



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