REVIEW: For the love of ‘Atlanta’

by | Jun 13, 2018 | All, Reviews

I follow a lot of US TV critics. America produces a LOT of TV. The term the critic’s use is ‘peak TV.’ It’s a reference to the sheer amount of TV there is to cover. Without their guidance, I would miss the best of what the American market has to offer and possibly waste my time on shows I don’t need to.

Thanks to critics like Mo Ryan, Alan Sepinwall, Bryan Grubb and Allison Keene I have discovered the hidden gems like Rectify, Halt & Catch Fire and The Americans. You’ve probably never heard of them and to be honest the majority of Americans probably haven’t either. These are cable shows that don’t garner the ratings they are so deserving of. The Americans, for example, was given a sixth season to give its creators the chance to deliver the ending that had envisioned pretty much from its inception. In a way, I suppose we should thank Peak TV for this and the critics who have heaped praise on the show since the start. The drama, led by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys became one of my favourite shows of all time and if this had been on a traditional US network its subpar ratings would’ve seen it axed way before it became the special thing it was by its end.

The show aired on FX, a cable channel that has gained as many hits as its biggest competitors like HBO and AMC. The Chief Executive Officer John Landgraf was the man who coined the phrase “peak TV” and he has a reputation for leaving his creators to make the shows that inspire them. Which brings me nicely onto Donald Glover’s masterpiece: Atlanta.

It seems the best example of leaving the people who have the vision for the show make the show they want to make. The result is something hard for me to do justice to here so I’m writing this in the hope that it will make you seek it out and discover it for yourself.

Even the description on IMDB fails to capture the essence of the show. “Atlanta is one of the top cities for young rappers looking to make a name for themselves in the business. Among those up-and-comers is Alfred Miles, a hot new artist Paper Boi, who is trying to understand the line between real life and street life. He is managed by his cousin, Earn, who gets caught up in the local rap scene and his cousin’s career after returning home to the ATL. Earn does whatever he can to try to get Alfred’s career to the next level. Darius, the rapper’s right-hand man and visionary, is also in Alfred’s entourage. When Earn isn’t busy managing his cousin’s career, he spends much of his time with best friend Vanessa, who is also the mother of his daughter.

That’s the premise but it doesn’t convey what makes Atlanta so special and unique. It’s a comedy, it’s a drama, it’s a satire, it’s a cartoon, it’s a social commentary and its format-bending. If you want a comedy that will leave you aching from copious laughter then it isn’t the show for you. This is a much darker, more realistic depiction of modern-day America, specifically Atlanta than it is a laugh out loud comedy. Earn and Alfred are wonderfully believable and it didn’t take me long to feel connected to them. Earn is down on his luck, but he is by no means a loser. Donald Glover plays him with a great deal of humanity. He’s on good terms with the mother of his young daughter (the uber talented Zazie Beetz) and he’s just trying to make his way in the world. Brian Tyree Henry portrays rapper Paper Boi effortlessly. He’s not someone out for stardom. He’s already sick of his hit single and appears indifferent when people recognise him in the street. The Atlanta setting is one Glover knows well having grown up there and, although I’ve never even visited you can feel the authenticity pouring off the screen.  As fun as it is spending time with these characters as they traverse the difficulties of living in Atlanta, the show is at its best when it plays with the format.

The first example is the seventh episode of the first season. The episode, entitled B.A.N is written and directed by Glover but puts Paperboi front and centre. A satirical episode, it sees Paper Boi feature as a guest on a talk show called Montague, being part of a discussion on the media’s indictment of Black culture and its intersection with trans people. It comes completely out of the blue and is perhaps the funniest episode of the run. Seeing a disinterested Paperboi forced to sit on the panel of this talk show is funny enough, but when you add in the specially made ads that play during the show. It’s an example of what Glover and his team are capable of and an early example of what makes Atlanta one of the best shows on TV.

When the show returned earlier this year after a two-year absence it was clear it hadn’t lost any of the magic that made the first season so discussion worthy. From the very start of its second season, there was something palpably more tense, more surreal, and a little harsher about Atlanta: Robbin’ Season. The second season feels eire, dangerous and more experimental and it’s all the better for it. Glover and his team take their characters on journeys all of their own shining the spotlight on individual characters while Glover stays behind the camera.

Season 2 is a masterpiece. Every episode is somehow able to match, and in most cases top the one before. Atlanta likes to keep the viewer on edge. Such is the power of the writing that the season has delivered episodes that have played out as little horror films and more touching instalments that took us back to the early nineties when the two cousins were in their first year in High School. All critics, myself included are guilty of bemoaning the sheer amount of TV we have now, and honestly, a lot of it isn’t worth anyone’s time, but in a normal TV landscape shows like Atlanta (not there are any) would not exist. And that brings me back to Mr Landgraf who has given Glover and his team Carte blanche to make the show they want to make the way they want to make it without having to conform to the constraints of format or what the show ‘should’ be. I could go and on about my favourite episodes of this second season (my favourite is an episode called Teddy Perkins if you must know) but I don’t want to spoil it for you as its a show best seen cold.

Now that the first season is airing on BBC Two it’s not perhaps the hidden gem it was before but I urge you to seek it out and let me know what you think. It is truly the most inventive, exciting, funny and heartwarming show I’ve seen in a long time. Do yourself a favour and find it.

Atlanta Season 1 is currently airing Sundays at 10.00pm on BBC Two.

Atlanta Season 2 starts Sunday 17th June at 10.00pm on FOX.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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