REVIEW: This Season of 'Atlanta" Is Wonderfully Weird

Donald Glover is also a star of movies and music (as Childish Gambino), but he's at his best on this innovative series.

click to enlarge L-R: "Atlanta's" Lakeith Stanfield, Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry - PHOTO: Guy D'Alema/FX
PHOTO: Guy D'Alema/FX
L-R: "Atlanta's" Lakeith Stanfield, Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry

This is Donald Glover’s moment — he’s fresh off his Saturday Night Live debut, serving double duty as host and musical guest (under his musical stage name Childish Gambino, who just released a new single, “This Is America”). He’ll appear as a young Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story, in theaters later this month, and is voicing Simba in the upcoming live-action Lion King remake.

But it’s his work on Atlanta (Season Finale, 10 p.m. Thursday, FX) — a show he created, stars in, produces, writes and sometimes directs — that best showcases what a talent Glover is. The series is billed as a comedy, and there are certainly humorous moments throughout the show’s two seasons. But if you’re familiar with Glover from his writing work on 30 Rock or his breakout role as Troy Barnes in Community, this is a whole different brand of funny — so much so that it’s questionable to label the show as a comedy.

Atlanta follows Earn (Glover) as he begins to serve as manager to his rising Rap-star cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry). Despite serious setbacks in Season 1, the group of ATL friends, which includes Earn’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and Alfred’s right-hand man Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), sees some success after Paper Boi’s music begins to take off.

This sophomore season is subtitled Robbin’ Season, which is described as the time before the holidays, specifically in Atlanta, when money is tight and many are put in desperate financial situations that lead some to either steal or be robbed. There is a “robbin’ ” element in each episode — sometimes more literal than others. With some amount of fame yet still living in their hometown, the crew (and particularly Paper Boi) has a target on their back. They might have a little money, but they still have to hustle hard. And that’s what Robbin’ Season is all about: The struggle is real, even for a rapper on the radio.

The first season pretty much focuses on Earn’s story as he begins to manage Paper Boi, scrapes to get by and raises his daughter while trying to make things work with Van. There’s always a left-of-center funny vibe in Atlanta  — whether it be casting a “black Justin Bieber” or having an entire episode play out like a public access talk show. This season cranks up the weirdness with every episode — sometimes to uncomfortable yet irresistible levels. As more attention is given to the other characters, sometimes you won’t even see Earn and an episode will focus on Paper Boi or Van instead.

And sometimes you’ll unknowingly sign up for a legit 40-minute horror film. “Teddy Perkins,” a terrifying episode sure to be nominated across the board, follows Darius — himself an odd bird — as he travels to buy a piano from an eccentric recluse. Suffice it to say, things take a dark turn. Think Get Out meets the sad real-life story of the Jacksons (made all the more eerie since Stanfield appeared in the Jordan Peele horror movie).

Every week, Atlanta uncovers a new facet while exploring class, race and other social experiences. It’s so exciting to tune in not knowing what you’re going to get.

Glover displays excellent work on and off the screen, but he’s also supported by a cast with serious talent. Beetz (coming to the big screen soon as Domino in Deadpool 2), Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) and Henry (a Broadway alum recently nominated for an Emmy for his guest role on This Is Us) master their complex roles, shining whether they’re the star of an episode or just a featured character. Even in the most ridiculous scenarios, the entire cast manages to make each story feel real.

Atlanta offers a surreal, twisted look at life — specifically the contemporary black experience in the South — that is at the same time still so familiar, sometimes depressingly so. To that effect, maybe this “comedy” doesn’t always elicit huge laughs as much as it makes audiences think and perhaps laugh at life’s absurdities. More and more, the best shows blur genre lines. Certainly worthy of that designation, Atlanta may just be the most original, inventive show on TV right now.

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern

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