November 2, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Atlanta”


Donald Glover’s ATLANTA would have been unimaginable on a mainstream television outlet just a few years ago–let alone as a show that could achieve success in the ratings.  It’s very much a post-Louie series (both air on FX), with its disregard of typical TV format and structure, but even Louie, for all its brilliant innovation, retains a shred of sitcom DNA thanks to its New York showbiz setting.  Atlanta doesn’t feel like anything on television, or anything in movies, either.  It’s like a collection of short stories, some more connected than others, all rotating around an Atlanta that feels both very specific and a creation of Glover’s mind.

The series has defied expectations on a weekly basis, consistently throwing curveballs at its viewers.  One week it’s a shambling story about Earn (Glover) and his efforts, after a stint at Princeton that was truncated for unexplained reasons, to manage the rap career of his cousin Alfred, who performs as Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and hangs out with deadpan philosopher BFF Darius (Keith Stanfield).  Then it’s a social commentary set in a local jail, or a music business satire featuring a black Justin Bieber, or a take on social media, or a comedy of race set at a semi-surreal Juneteenth party.  In two episodes, Earn barely appeared at all, one devoted to Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of Earn’s daughter, with whom his relationship isn’t so much on-and-off as both and neither.  Even more audaciously, the other was out-and-out sketch comedy, set on an interview show aired on a fictional black network with Paper Boi as a guest, a half-hour that engaged with issues of race and gender identification within a universe so detailed that even the characters that appeared in the made-up commercials were people we’d seen before.

Tonight’s season finale, written by Story Editor Stephen Glover (also the creator’s brother) and directed by Hiro Murai (behind the camera for 7 of the season’s 10 episodes), returned to Earn, Albert and Darius, but again from a different angle.  The framework was Earn’s search, the morning after a wild party he barely remembered, for his lost jacket, which turned out to be precious because of what he (wrongly) thought was in the pocket, namely the key to the storage unit where he’d been sleeping.  As Earn retraced his steps (by following Alfred’s Snapchat posts), so did we, as the show continued its thread of random violence amidst the jokes, in this case a startlingly realistic police shooting (one mostly without political connotations) of the Uber driver and apparent pusher who was wearing Earn’s jacket, shocking Earn and the boys but only briefly.  (Earn soon asked one of the cops to check the pockets of the jacket.)  We also saw Earn and Van together, more comfortably than usual, although still no more of a settled couple, and there was the sense of Earn beginning to find some foundation to his drifting life, with Paper Boi’s career advancing to the point of paying Earn some money.

Atlanta has been beautifully realized in every respect, from the cinematography (by Christian Sprenger) and the tricky pacing to the direction and uniformly stand-out acting.  Its risky mix of specificity and vagueness has so far worked, and it has the luxury of being able to go in any and all directions it wants in its already-ordered second season.  With all the talk of Peak TV and the flood of product constantly beseeching our attention, excellence and originality can still make a special project stand out, even if it lacks the hype of a mega-production like Westworld.  For the past few months, that show has been Atlanta.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."