When Donald Glover was assembling the team for his FX comedy “Atlanta,” he turned to his own family to write for the series. But this wasn’t a typical case of Hollywood nepotism; his brother Stephen has all of the bonafides necessary to bring the show’s uniquely dangerous and dreamy tone to the screen.
For one, Stephen Glover has the same taste his brother does, having grown up watching the same films and TV shows. And they both noticed a distinct lack of variety when it came to serious, artistic shows for black audiences.
“I feel like people’s sensibilities have gotten a little bit crazier in the last couple of years in America, but I also think that black people in general, we don’t get the chance to kind of see that side in TV,” Stephen Glover told IndieWire. “We don’t always get the most interesting shows. You’re going to get a show about slavery or a show about the Central Park Five. You’re not going to get ‘Seinfeld.'”
Thus was born “Atlanta,” a comedy-drama that set out to encapsulate what it’s like to live in the southern city. Grounded in the reality of day-to-day life, the series veers off into surreal and unnerving moments that are stimulating, horrifying and hilarious all at once. It’s a show that was aimed at rappers, even though it’s not really about rappers at all.
Glover, who is rapper himself using the alias Steve G. Lover III, said, “We knew these were the types of things we liked, and me and Donald have very strange sensibilities but I think people just wanted the opportunity to be like, ‘Do I like something like that?’ I think the response was crazy that so many people were, ‘Yeah, I did want something like that. I want the opportunity to see a weird show that maybe I don’t understand all the time, maybe I don’t even like all the time.’ They were at least open to seeing something new, which is great and really encouraging to me.”
Glover is the series’ story editor and a writer on three episodes, including the bizarre “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” in which Justin Bieber is actually a black person on the show. But it was Glover’s first outing as a screenwriter on the show’s second episode, “Streets on Lock,” that earned him an Emmy nomination. In the episode, Donald Glover’s character Earnest Marks has just been arrested for the first time on a minor offense and is adjusting to the bizarre microcosm that is the large common room in jail. At one point, Earn is given a rather unappetizing sandwich to eat, and his first act is very telling about how other people, the regulars, view jail as a way of life.
Glover said, “One of the funniest parts of that to me is when Earn gets his food and there’s a guy saying, ‘Hey, are you going to eat that?’ He’s like, ‘Nah, you can have it.’ Then the guy laughs and he’s like, ‘You’re not going to make it in here.’”
Small moments like that are peppered throughout the scene, shaping the picture of a community. “You see three vignettes, three little things but they all tell the same story that jail is a weird place, a fucked-up place, but the people there specifically are interesting too,” said Glover. “There’s no sense of time in there. You don’t know the relationships that have changed. People are coming in and out of there quickly. It’s just a mixing of all these weird people who are only connected by the idea that they’ve been in jail.
“As a black kid, the biggest thing [mom would say is], ‘Don’t go to jail. Jail’s terrible,’” he said. “You tell people that all the time. ‘Jail’s the worst place ever and you don’t want to go there,’ which is true but at the same time you see it’s filled with a bunch of people like guy is drinking on a porch somewhere and he gets arrested for public intoxication. He’s going to miss work. He’s not a bad guy per se. He’s just somebody who got caught up in the system just like you. Yeah there’s bad people in there but there’s also a bunch of people who just happen to be arrested. It’s not who we think is in jail. Of course there’s just the bad guy who robbed somebody and then there’s people with a crazy story. There’s so many different types of humanity in there.”
Glover’s experience as a rapper in Atlanta also directly influenced how he wrote about another character on the show, Earnest’s cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry). Alfred is an up-and-coming rapper who has scored a minor local hit called, “Paper Boi,” an infectious earworm that Glover himself wrote. In the same episode, Alfred has a run-in with a neighbor who is antagonistic until she realizes that he’s the notorious Paper Boi, who supposedly shot someone, and then asks to take a selfie with him. He also gets special lemon pepper wings and bleu cheese sauce at a local joint, just because he’s one of the “last real gangsters.”
“There’s a joke in the first season, where they kind of just talk about his notoriety for killing somebody,” said Glover. “That’s how people see it. It’s almost like it’s making him more popular. You have this bad boy image and it’s funny but you still have to try and navigate through the rest of life with that. Sometimes it’s not your fault either. You’re get caught up within that sort of world where it’s like if you tell somebody, ‘Oh, I’m a rapper.’ They’re like, ‘Oh my god, I already know what to think of you. Even though you was cool a second ago, now I’ve changed my thoughts on what I think you are a little bit.’”
Because of his background, Glover sees many of the same creative and storytelling skills used in both rap and writing for television. “They’re both kind of the same in a way, where you’re trying to say something but at the same time you have to do it in a way that’s brief,” he said. “People’s attention spans, first of all, aren’t always long enough. You also want to not be preachy. You want to be able to try and get the good stuff, like me and Donald say, the vegetables with the chocolate.
“There were a lot of things I wanted to say in ‘Atlanta,’ and I learned from the first season like, OK, you got to try and consolidate those and make it interesting and fun for people at the same time while you’re doing that. You can’t just shove that down to people. Rap is the same way. You want to tell something, sometimes you can only sprinkle it through.”
One of the most Atlantan touches to the show wasn’t even on the show itself, but in the descriptions for each episode. Here’s a taste of a few of them:
Episode 1, “The Big Bang”
Paper Boi? Who the hell is that? I swear everybody want to be a rapper now-a-days smh. Song is bumpin tho.
Episode 2, “Streets on Lock”
See every rapper think he a thug, well you do the crime, you do the time. Don’t drop the soap haha. Free my uncle Jay!
Episode 8, “In the Club”
Baller Alert! NFL players, not to mention Jeff Miles and the bottle boys at Primal tonight. Paper Boi gonna be in this thang too. Liiiiiiiittttttttt. I got pre sale bands.
Episode 9, “Juneteenth”
Why my Auntie trying to make me go to one of these bougie Junteenth parties again? I don’t like them sadity people and I’m gonna miss my shows. Le sigh.
Glover said, “That was me and Swank, Jamal Olori, he wrote Episode 8 ‘The Club.’ But yeah me and him did the little blurbs for TV, the description. They’re kind of funny. I think we were just trying to channel some people. It’s just a very type of specific Atlanta vibe of people talking. But yeah they just make us laugh.”