Atlanta is a television series created by Donald Glover. It’s supposed to be a comedy-drama about two cousins trying to become successful in the Atlanta rap scene, with the occasional social commentary. It starts off like a pretty basic “rags to riches” type story. Something we’ve already seen. Something ordinary.
But it turns out, this show is much more than that. And this might sound odd, but I must point it out: Atlanta is weird fiction. And Atlanta is weird fiction at it’s best.
Now, I’ve always struggled to find something on TV that does the eerie and uncanny extremely well, but with the exception of Twin Peaks: The Return, there wasn’t really anything out there that would satisfy my craving for a show that can establish a seemingly ordinary premise, make it extremely convincing and engaging, and then turning it into something truly… truly weird.
And I’m not talking about weirdness in a comedic sense, I’m talking about the slipstream school of writing (or, the weird and the new weird as defined by a succession of writers since H. P. Lovecraft), where you’ll be confronted with a reality that in some ways matches with your perception of reality, but with a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance and a sense that there’s something deeply wrong with the world, something unnerving. And you can’t really grasp why.
“The true weird tale has something more […]. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature […]”
H. P. Lovecraft on the Weird Tale
“… this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”
Bruce Sterling on the Slipstream
At first, Atlanta establishes a believable situation. There’s an everyman-type protagonist, Earn who doesn’t have enough money to support his family, and there’s his cousin Alfred who is at the beginning of a successful rap career as Paper Boi. Earn is college dropout, while Alfred is “keeping it real”, as it goes. They team up to make a living as manager and rapper.
And the show concentrates on this rather slim premise in the majority of screen time, but that’s only true for the first season. That’s your story, your conventional basis. The part where everything can be perceived as ordinary. But you’ll see hints of the uncanny very early.
Take this scene on a bus when Earn is traveling alone with his daughter and suddenly a sage-like character appears, archetypal and out of place. The scene presents a magical-realist dream logic, it sticks out, but it still can be brushed off as some sort of comedic absurdism. Now this absurdist approach doesn’t stop here, there’s another really odd scene where an invisible car makes an appearance after being casually mentioned by a character. Again, this can be interpreted as a punchline to a previously foreshadowed joke, but it’s now an explicit declaration of the fact that this isn’t your average realist comedy-drama, it opens a small window into the fantastic, and these fantastic images are sparse, effective, lingering. The comedy is surreal, sure, but there’s something more serious behind all this.
A couple of more tense episodes are dealing with racial and socio-economical issues in some really uncomfortable situations, which at first seem to be straightforward social commentaries (or maybe satire), but these scenes are handled in a very unique way, sometimes using the narrative language of a horror movie. A similarity with Get Out pops into mind, with an episode that sees Earn and his girlfriend Vanessa being guests at a white man’s house (the host is strangely obsessed with African-American culture). This is then mirrored in a later episode when Vanessa invites Earn to experience traditions from her German upbringing. These are masterfully crafted scenes of elevated strangeness, and we see Earn in haunting, cringe-inducing situations which have little to do with the main story of the show. It goes way beyond, to explore human nature, a sense of discomfort in the interactions between people.
Now, the second season (titled “Robbin’ Season”) introduces some of the weirdest episodes I’ve seen on TV, ever.
“Teddy Perkins” is a masterclass in the unexpected: none of the two main characters are present, but their (so far somewhat under-utilized) partner Darius is on his way to pick up a piano from a mansion – only to be greeted by a creepy, photosensitive character, Teddy Perkins.
The story unfolds into something unexpectedly bizarre. At first with hints of danger and then a more elaborate, horrific plot involving a dark family history. The comedy is still there: the mansion and its odd inhabitant reminds me of characters from Valkenvania, maybe even Royston Vasey, but the episode isn’t just a simple one-off horror comedy piece. It’s a classic weird tale with pitch-perfect pacing and unnerving build-up to its freakish conclusion (also, if you recognize the actor mid-way in the episode, that’s another gut-punch). “Great things come from great pain,” Teddy Perkins says at one point, musing on the nature of art.
“Champagne Papi” deals with themes of reality and perception. The episode could’ve been your average commentary on social media and the shallowness it brings to our lives, but it goes into themes of simulation (a character mentions Bostrom’s simulation argument), shifting realities, sobriety, clarity as well.
“Woods” is a minor horror piece dealing with the not too complex theme of… “getting lost in the woods”. Of course, it’s everything but simple, it’s all presented as a psychological journey in this slow-paced episode with dark, brooding imagery. It touches again on the subject of social media and fame, but now tackling the hard-hitting reality of “keeping it real”.
And so on. I don’t want to spoil all episodes, but you get the idea.
At this point, Atlanta is so far removed from its initial premise, I can’t even imagine how they’re pulling this off. But it works. Atlanta became an experimental playground of absurdism and the weird, and given its basis in the mundane, its unique setting, its surreal gags and twists, it quickly became the most innovative television series of recent history.
Director Hiro Murai does something incredible here, his direction, pacing and framing is often truly exquisite, and Donald Glover re-establishes himself both as a sympathetic actor and as an uncompromising writer, brilliant in both fields, and I really hope that this is only the beginning of a revolutionary body of work (now trending: This Is America).
Gosh, there’s so much to unpack in this show, I could go deep into each and every episode, but I suppose it would do more harm. Weird fiction tends to be effective when it’s not analysed.
So just take my word on this, do yourself a favor and watch this show if you love weird fiction. You’ll be surprised.