Atlanta, a dark comedy series created by Donald Glover that just wrapped its first season on FX, garnered almost universal praise as soon as it premiered. There were uniformly glowing press reviews, a credulous acceptance that the show would be, as its star and creator Donald Glover had taken to dubbing it, “Twin Peaks with rappers,” and praise heaped upon the show’s untraditional and inexperienced writing staff—a signal that this show was to be something fresh, original, and a little strange. Lost in the acclaim was that the first season of Atlanta felt less like a revolutionary TV show finding its place, and more like two different, disparate shows kludged together to form an ill-fitting whole.
One half really was—or at least tried to be—the legitimately unconventional, sort of trippy, compelling dramedy it had been sold as. But the other half was a curiously traditional, unadventurous, stakes-free sitcom where nothing really happened and none of it really mattered and none of it was all that interesting anyway. The combination of the two made for an entertaining and promising enough debut season, certainly, but also one that never felt like it knew what it wanted to be.
It does make sense how that early consensus about Atlanta being a very good and very different kind of show came about. Critics were given screeners of the first four episodes before the season debuted on TV, the first three of which were pretty much exactly the show they and Glover had described. It was funny, it was kind of dark, it was smart, it was original, and it was good.
The pilot episode itself—bookended by the prelude to and eventually the culmination of a shooting incident involving the three male leads (Glover’s Earn; Earn’s rapper cousin, Alfred aka Paper Boi, whose career looks just about ready to take off; and Alfred’s best friend, Darius), and fleshed out in the middle with dry humor found in very modern and very particular social settings (like a white DJ friend of Earn’s who thinks of himself as “down” enough to use the word “nigga” with the relatively unthreatening Earn, but not so comfortable to use it later around the more outwardly street Alfred and Darius)—was a perfect distillation of what the show could be at its best: a unique voice communicating a perspective we rarely see anywhere in the mainstream entertainment industry, while also indicating that the stakes here actually mattered in a serious way.
As the show progressed, however, it became clear that the direction Atlanta appeared to be heading in after those first few episodes was not in fact the through line it would follow throughout the season. As early as the third episode but especially by the fifth—the latter being the one with the somewhat bizarre choice to cast a black actor in the role of Justin Bieber (yes, we get it), which masked what was generally a bland and straightforward episode—the series had traded most of the singular vision of the pilot for the rote conventions of your run-of-the-mill sitcom.
The bulk of those middle episodes of the season consisted almost entirely of random scenarios that didn’t feel connected or important. Paper Boi gets mean tweets, and responds poorly! Earn takes Vanessa on a date, but he doesn’t have enough money to pay! Paper Boi makes a club appearance, but gets annoyed that he’s overshadowed by an even more famous person also in attendance! Take away the gloss and mystique that the show banked early on, and these scenarios suddenly feel much more like the kind you’d find in a standard situational comedy.
There was rarely any character growth, even less character consistency, and the few things that you assumed would actually matter (like, say, the little matter of Alfred shooting a guy in the pilot episode and the three leads getting arrested for in the second, which for some reason is only ever referenced in passing afterwards, and even then only to make a joke about it) never come back up. The characters are put somewhere, hijinks ensue, the show ends, and they get into some other incidental and trivial trouble next week. It’s a little disappointing that a show made by many people who’d never made a TV show wound up looking so much like a regular old TV show.
It wasn’t just a problem that the show seemed to waver between being a unique, Twin Peaks-style weird-out and an Everybody Loves Raymond-esque normal sitcom, it was that it didn’t do either version particularly well. The intermittent gestures towards surrealism failed, giving off a vibe of weirdness for weirdness’s sake. The only fully fleshed-out character here was Earn. Alfred’s character never really made sense; the show never seemed to reconcile the lovable, goofy, mild-mannered guy he was for most of the season with the hotheaded guy who’d shoot people or rob someone out of anger whenever plot machinations required. (Nor did they ever decide just how famous they wanted Paper Boi to have gotten, dragging his metaphorical Q rating up and down to fit the demands of any given episode’s storyline.)
Earn’s and Vanessa’s relationship was similarly inscrutable and variable depending on the episode. Even within episodes, it was at times difficult to ascertain anyone’s motivations for acting the way they were or in fact why we were, say, watching Darius off by himself at the shooting range. Again, every individual episode was perfectly enjoyable in its own right—in large part because of the performances of the actors themselves, which were very good throughout—but as a collective whole, so many of the parts didn’t line up with what we’d seen before and what we’d see later.
To a certain extent, Atlanta came back around to its original vision with the final two episodes of the season. It didn’t hurt that both of those were heavily Earn-centered, and involved plots that either took him out of the jumbled mess of a world the earlier episodes had made or focused closely on a single problem for him to solve. They at times suffered from the lack of internal consistency that plagued the rest of the series, and the season ended without even attempting to pay off many of the narrative threads that were dangled early on. (Seriously, Earn and Alfred were involved in a shooting in the first damn episode and there were never any ramifications. That makes no sense.) But the final two were strange and good and unconventional in a way that mirrored those first couple episodes. Atlanta was closest to its peak the further it fled from normalcy, and the half of the show that was odd was good enough to make the more traditional half worth sitting through, even if the whole didn’t feel as satisfying as it could or should have.
Going forward, there definitely are places to go and emotions to explore for Earn and Alfred and Vanessa, and following them on their journey in subsequent seasons will probably be worthwhile. It’s also a safe bet that as those making the show become more assured in themselves and the characters, the rougher parts in the writing will begin to smooth out. However, I can’t shake the feeling that, had it all been, to paraphrase another rapper, half as long, twice as strong, and over by now—meaning, had Earn’s story been told in a concise, distinctive 90-minute movie rather than stretched into an often aimless and bloated 10 episode TV series—the experience would’ve been much better. There is definitely something to say about this place and these characters, but the structure of a TV series may have left too much space to speak into.