On ‘Atlanta,’ Music Always Showed Us Where We Were

Music supervisors Jen Malone and Fam Udeorji approached the music of "Atlanta" as a window into the souls of the characters and the city.
“ATLANTA” --  "The Most Atlanta" -- Season 4, Episode 1 (Airs Sept 15) Pictured: Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles.  CR: Guy D'Alema/FX
Courtesy of FX

If music is a tool that helps viewers gain a better emotional understanding of what they’re watching, then “Atlanta” wielded the songs on its soundtrack like a tricked-out Leatherman with 19 distinct uses (including three different types of can opener). Music playing such a significant role shouldn’t be surprising for a series whose protagonist, Earn Marks (Donald Glover), is managing the burgeoning rap career of his cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry). But that music had a versatility tailored to match “Atlanta,” a show where a harrowing trip to a showbiz house of horrors and a genuinely touching tribute to an animated classic were equally at home.

The needle drops on “Atlanta” often do more than one thing at a time: Informing the show’s specific sense of place, revealing what characters are feeling in ways that add to the actors’ expressions, giving the audience a poetic sense of what a moment means, and/or driving the action forward. For music supervisors Jen Malone and Fam Udeorji’s, the process never changed across four seasons, and it always began with the tastes of creator/star Glover and his brother, writer/producer Stephen. “They’ll listen to everything,” Udeorji told IndieWire.

From the start, there was also a desire to acknowledge the show’s setting, all the while making sure not to limit or overly define Atlanta’s musical sensibility. “You open the show with a very specific OJ da Juiceman song, ‘No Hook,’ and you also want to be able to kind of acknowledge the fact that you have these characters that exist in this world that’s pretty much built around music, but never being restricted to it,” Udeorji said.

Malone added that the music supervision team was encouraged to bring up a variety of options that could highlight a moment in different ways and could present different facets of “Atlanta.” “[The music] really reflects the humanness and just the general music taste of different characters and of different people,” Malone told IndieWire. “Our editors are absolutely brilliant and really encourage [us to find] something in this world. And it’s very vague and sometimes that can be a challenge, but sometimes that can be really fun for Fam and myself, to kind of dig in and come up with ideas that are really left of center.”

“There’s times that [director Hiro Murai] will hit me up and be like, ‘Do you think Paper Boi would be listening to this if he was in his safe house?'” added Udeorji, who started on “Atlanta” as a music consultant and a voice bringing helpful context from the writers’ room. “I just look at those characters through the lens of who I think is speaking through [them], like Swank or Jamal Olori, who’s in the room sometimes. He has very specific taste in Atlanta music, but also there’s a lot of soul stuff, and then you have Stephen and [Stefani Robinson] and people who would listen to Stereolab, you know?”

That approach helped the show find the right tracks to evoke a specific place, mood, and character emotion, but also the ways in which music reflects community — how it’s something shared, among friends and across generations. Udeorji pointed to an early Season 1 moment, in which Al and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) sing along to Cheryl Lynn’s 1983 single “Encore” while waiting to make a drug deal. “It’s not the record that you might think that they’d be singing along to at that specific moment, and it’s kind of scripted in because it’s a nod to maybe a family member, like an auntie that they might have been around that played that song a ton.”

Thinking through music alongside the writers (and with them in mind) also helped “Atlanta” take a varied and formally aware approach to its needle drops. “In Season 2, one of one of my favorite moments wasn’t even about us picking music,” Udeorji said. “It was Thundercat and Flying Lotus. They scored the barbershop episode. And I think it’s just sort of like, you kind of have to take a bespoke approach to each moment or each episode based on what the story is because you see how nonlinear the show can be sometimes, which I think is the best part about it.”

“If somebody was straight up to ask me to describe the sound of ‘Atlanta,’ I don’t know what I would say,” Malone said. “I think we’ve always just kind of taken it that way, not trying to follow any trends. It’s just very specific to what the story that Hiro and Donald want to tell, and what music supports that.”

Getting the right song that helps tell the story is always the challenge for music supervisors, of course, and TV shows by simple numbers have to find lots of variations on the same overall premise. But in music and story terms, “Atlanta’s” success is in its willingness to listen widely and embrace different genres, to use left-of-center means to add nuance to the characters and the show’s setting. In the fourth and final season, Malone and Udeorji had to do everything from helping to structure a deeply meta-referential scavenger hunt to bringing material out of the Disney vault for a (sadly) faux-documentary look at the making of “A Goofy Movie.”

“It’s just such a different, unique, special episode of television and something in a way only ‘Atlanta’ could do,” Malone said of Season 4’s “The Goof Who Sat by the Door,” but the sentiment could apply to most of Malone and Udeorji’s work across the show’s run. The music is a reflection of a team thinking through the characters and constantly reinventing and experimenting with what the show wanted to say through them.

The track Udeorji is proudest of this season, though, isn’t heard until the finale — and it’s one that’s firmly tied to the show’s setting. “It’s a deep cut from Atlanta. It’s obscure. But if you’re from Atlanta, then you know it — and if you grew up in that era, you’ll know it.”

FX’s “Atlanta” Seasons 1-4 are available on Hulu.

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