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‘Atlanta’ Review: Donald Glover’s First Series Is Already Essential Viewing

Donald Glover's creative debut offers an unblinking, purposefully African-American perspective on dreams' allures and reality's repulsions.

ATLANTA -- “The Big Bang” -- Episode 101 (Airs Tuesday, September 6, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: Donald Glover as Earnest Marks

Guy D'Alema/FX

Atlanta,” it’s safe to say, is unlike anything you’ve seen on television. Imagine “The Wire” without the high-stakes cat-and-mouse game, “Girls” without the satire or even “Louie” without the extended vignettes.

Perhaps, then, you’ll have a general grasp on the unique pacing, characteristics and self-examination on-hand throughout the first four episodes of Donald Glover’s first foray into creating his own show. Of the two distinct issues nagging this honest attempt to recreate what it’s like to be black in modern America, it’s the slow clip at which Earn (Glover), Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and Darius (Keith Stanfield) go about life that could alienate viewers. But it’s the lack of well-rounded female characters that needs to be rectified, even if it feels like the issue isn’t exactly being ignored.

Glover’s series — for which he serves as creator, executive producer, writer, director, executive music producer and star — picks up as an aimless Earn Marks decides to follow his dreams. Abandoning a steady, go-nowhere job at the airport, Earn pitches himself as a manager to his cousin, Alfred (a.k.a. Paper Boi), who’s recently broken out in the local rap scene. Alfred already has a bit of help from his friend Darius, and the way in which the new trio forms is slow, provisional and yet strangely substantial.

READ MORE: ‘Atlanta’: Donald Glover Wants You To Feel What It’s Like to Be Black

The same could be said for “Atlanta” as a whole. “Slow-moving” doesn’t quite cover the glacial pace established post-pilot, as the episodes that follow Earn’s commitment to making Paper Boi a star barely feature any progress at all toward that goal.

ATLANTA “Streets On Lock” Episode 102 (Airs Tuesday, September 6, 10:30 pm e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Keith Stanfield as Darius, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles.

One could argue that’s part of Glover’s point, as “Atlanta” balances its lead’s “dare to dream” convictions with the daily challenges he faces in reality. Earn’s immediate needs take precedence — mainly, scraping together enough money to pay rent, preserve his relationship with Van (Zazie Beetz) and save what he can for his kid — and his partners seem content to do the same.

While not a problem from a strictly creative standpoint, this kind of storytelling has proven too trying for a generation of viewers accustomed to constant entertainment. We could be waiting for the climactic event in the pilot to resurface at season’s end, or we could simply be living in a world where the day-to-day minutiae is what matters. Comedy fans looking for the next “Community” or “30 Rock” (a show which Glover wrote for over two seasons) will not find it here. “Atlanta” is barely a comedy. To reference our comparisons above, its sense of humor is more in line with “The Wire” than “Louie” or “Girls.” (Of course, “The Wire” can be delightfully funny, just not all the time.)

Still, the pacing helps establish a specific world for a show keen to shine a light on an under-covered way of life. These early episodes play around with structure, as the second episode, “Streets on Lock,” is rich with reality. Without giving anything away, let’s just say Glover conveys a familiar TV space in an authentic, familiar way that lulls you into a casual acceptance before smacking you in the face with why such a relaxed attitude is exactly the problem.

ATLANTA "The Big Bang” Episode 101 (Airs Tuesday, September 6, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

“Atlanta” isn’t trying to preach, though. It’s much more concerned with evoking a feeling — a fresh understanding — than offering up a thesis on political or social movements. Topical opinions will certainly spring forth (especially from viewers reacting to what’s objectively depicted on screen), but Glover seems more interested in conveying how celebrity — specifically rappers’ status — can substantially change someone’s world, in ways big and small. The man known on stage as Childish Gambino certainly has experience in the area, and the distinct developments related to Paper Boi’s newfound fame — again, played by Henry, not Glover — seem too particular to be made up out of nowhere. “Atlanta” feels grounded, and credit Glover for expertly dividing and masking his personal experiences among multiple, well-rounded characters.

The half-hour entry is also still figuring out exactly what it’s going to be, or, at least, it has yet to fully reveal itself. Glover’s confidence is easily adopted; the grace and intelligence in which he handles every level of this personal production makes me believe what’s coming will respond to any perceived flaws within the first four episodes. One of which — Earn’s coldly depicted girlfriend, Van, who’s in desperate need of development — has already been addressed, as Glover promised an episode is coming told entirely from her perspective. This kind of time is needed for a new show forging new ground, and only time will tell if audiences are willing to stick with “Atlanta” as it slowly and deliberately strides forward. For now, Glover’s series feels like it’s on the cusp of something great. We’ll be watching.

Grade: A-

READ MORE: ‘You’re the Worst’ Review: TV’s Most Romantic Series Only Gets Better in Season 3

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