“Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.” – Robert McKee, Story
The best stories are a reflection of life. They capture our highs and lows, our brightest and dullest moments. They strike a careful balance between the sublime and the mundane. Four months after its last episode, it’s safe to say that the first season of Atlanta was one of those stories.
The worst thing about being a Donald Glover fan is that he never follows up his projects. Once it’s shared with the world, that’s it. Donald is on to the next one. Luckily, that won't be the case with his greatest creation thus far: Atlanta.
While season two of Atlanta has been pushed back to 2018, the waiting game will give fans the opportunity to reflect on the qualities that made the show so great.
Atlanta is a show about nothing. Its tagline may be "Twin Peaks with rappers," but one watch of the pilot episode will illustrate how misleading that description is.
By being a show about nothing, Atlanta became a show about everything. It spanned a variety of different genres, covered topics as diverse as existentialism and mental illness, and always found a way to keep you on your toes. This is similar to another show that I love: Cowboy Bebop.
When I first saw the animated series, I didn't know what to make of it. Its tone and setting would change so much week to week: one second it was a comedy of errors, the next it was a crime epic that would make John Woo jealous. The constant variation was confusing but exciting.
At first glance, Atlanta and Cowboy Bebop have quite a few things in common, mainly the characters. Earn and Spike are jaded men haunted by their past; Alfred and Jet are guys with hard exteriors hiding a heart of gold; while Darius and Ed are idiotic geniuses who, in hindsight, serve as the glue that holds their respective crew together. Beyond that, however, both shows share a minimalist approach to storytelling.
Ernest Hemingway believed that the strength of a story is in what you omit. The better the omission, the better the story. In the original script for Atlanta’s pilot, the episode begins with Earn’s expulsion from Princeton. The reason behind his expulsion is unclear but his attitude towards it is not:
DEAN (O.S.): "Mr. Marks..?"
Earnest doesn’t move.
DEAN (CONT’D): "I really can’t stress the severity of this situation enough. Full scholarships from Princeton are few and far between and in light of what’s happened, you’re lucky you aren’t in jail...Mr. Marks?"
By leaving this scene on the cutting room floor, Donald Glover gave Earn a deep sense of mystery. From the crumpled bills in his shoes to the shock of finding out his real home, there’s a darkness surrounding Earnest Marks and, like Spike in Cowboy Bebop, it’s something that I hope is gradually revealed as the series progresses.
Classics come in many shapes and sizes. Some you recognize instantly; others unveil their greatness through the prism of time. Both Cowboy Bebop and season one of Atlanta are classics, very much for the same reason. Both shows revel in the beauty of saying more with less and aren’t afraid to use the most ordinary aspects of life to tell extraordinary truths:
“Resistance is a symptom of the way things are. Not the way things necessarily should be. Actual victory belongs to things that simply do not see failure. Let the path push you like a broken branch in a river’s current.” – Ahmad White (Nutella Man), “The Big Bang,” 'Atlanta'
During his interview with New York Magazine last year, Donald Glover said that “the second season of Atlanta will be a classic.”
If it continues to follow the current of the first season, I have no doubt that it will be.
Photo credit: FX