Getting a grasp on “Atlanta” is no easy feat, but that unsettling nature is the show’s intent. The new FX comedy effortlessly drifts from goofy and dreamy to stark and downright frightening, and the man behind it all is Hiro Murai. The director had collaborated with Donald Glover on music videos released under the name Childish Gambino, and now has followed the comedian to television.
“It’s obviously a different format,” Murai told IndieWire in an interview. “Even in the narrative format I’ve done, we’ve never had extensive scripted dialogue scenes and whatnot. But it felt like a natural extension of what Donald and I have done in the past. So in that sense it was a really nice, seamless transition.”
It could be argued that Murai’s music video background and lack of TV knowhow helped create “Atlanta’s” unique approach to storytelling. For example, in the video for Childish Gambino’s song “Sober,” Glover suddenly breaks into a charming mating dance, wooing a girl in a fast-food joint. Watch the video below:
One-off fantasy sequences dot the “Atlanta” landscape with the brevity and impact of music videos, such as a stranger making Glover’s character Earn a sandwich on the bus before disappearing into the woods. Those scenes leave an emotional impression — fear and confusion in the stranger’s wake — without moving the plot forward. That the fantasy narrative can live on its own, not affecting other events, is part of the bigger “Atlanta” plan in which the show makes viewers feel what it’s like to be black.
“We wanted to flex the elasticity of the world and how there can be a fleeting, surreal moment,” said Murai. “I think because a lot of the stuff we touch on in the show is not necessarily black and white, pun not intended, it’s a lot about the grey areas about race and how these characters interact.
“Donald always talked about the show like he wants it to be about the absurdities about being black in America,” Murai continued. “I think ‘absurdity’ is the key word where anything can happen. So I think a lot of those scenes were there to give you a feeling that there’s a bigger world outside of what you’re seeing and that functions in a very — by its own rules. Anything can happen to these characters.”
As in the case of the stranger on the bus, danger or frightening situations are not always telegraphed and will be presented in an understated way that causes the viewer to question one’s own reactions to the scene.
“I think the key thing for us was to talk about anything as long as it tonally makes sense,” said Murai. “If we’re talking about something that’s dark or dangerous, we treat it with the same sort of affect as if you would cover a comedic scenes. So we’re not juicing anything. It’s all presented matter-of-fact ideally.”
Similarly, the director had played with the elements of surprise and menace in what initially seemed like a run-of-the-mill, albeit gorgeous music video for Childish Gambino’s “Telegraph Avenue.” Take a look:
“Atlanta” may not reach the bizarre heights ot “Telegraph Avenue” (yet), but its aim to summarize today’s black experience is made even more challenging by setting it in The ATL, a city full of contrasts beginning with its landscape. In fact, one of the city’s older nicknames is “City in the Forest.”
Murai said, “When you go to the outskirts of the city, nature starts to take it over. So when you’re in a local liquor store stop, it’s sort of surrounded by trees and there are plants growing out of the asphalt. You already had this ethereal nature to do settings. So when we shot, we sort of favored those whenever we picked locations. There’s a lot of places that are in the inner city that have a lot of life to it but also there’s a new construction and kind of weird and soulless looking.”
Atlanta is also a city full of social incongruities. “I’ve only seen it in context of hip-hop and I’ve only seen it in context of ‘VICE’ docs, which I think paint it in a very specific light,” Murai said. “As with everything else, the reality is a lot more nuanced and complicated. There are a lot of different personalities in that town. Dynamics of race is also something that I wasn’t expecting. It is sort of a black mecca but at the same time there’s still a lot of prejudice because it is Georgia. Once you go outside of Atlanta, there are still a lot of Klan rallies and whatnot.There are a lot of conflicting elements that are trying to solve itself in that city.”
Instead of trying to solve or make big statements about Atlanta’s social issues, the show offers up snapshots of everyday life that are laser-focused.
Said Murai,”A big part of what we’re trying to do with Atlanta as the subject matter too is Atlanta hip-hop is not something that’s often depicted in this way. I think it can be packaged. We like the idea of taking the juice out of that a little bit and subverting it and making it more naturalistic, more minutiae-centric.”
This can be seen in the show’s title cards, which change every episode and depict an image or scene from Atlanta “that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.” How does Murai have the ability to spot what normally goes unobserved? He’s a Japanese immigrant who’s been influenced not only by minimalist Japanese cinema, but also his experiences coming to America.
“I’m an immigrant and I think being an outsider in your home is something that I really relate to,” said Murai. “I was like, 10 [when I immigrated]. So when Donald was saying how strange it is to be black in America, and how you’re kind of outside of the main conversation in a way, I really related to that in a lot of ways.”
In order to give viewers that experience of being in Atlanta, being black, being an outsider, more emphasis is given to the day-to-day activities and building characters and less on moving the story forward. In the first few episodes of the season, neither wannabe music manager Earn (Glover) or his rapper cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) advance much in their career goals. Also, the initial gunshot scene, which gave the pilot its title “The Big Bang,” appears shunted to the backburner in favor of a more meandering story.
“It will be referenced and it will come back but probably not in a dramatically plot-driven way that you might be expecting,” Murai said about the gunshot scene. “The pilot is more setting the tables and then the rest of the season is finding little pockets and finding stories inside those pockets. It becomes less plot-driven and more about just setting and how these characters bump around in that setting.”
“Atlanta” airs Tuesdays at 10pm on FX. Watch a teaser for Episode 3 below: