FX’s Atlanta – magnificently conceived by and starring Donald Glover – doesn’t begin so much as it simply happens, opening with a confrontation in a convenience store parking lot and immediately shifting to morning light, where Glover, as Earnest “Earn” Marks, wakes from a dream next to Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his baby daughter, Lottie.
As this tenuous family wipes the sleep from their eyes and gets on with their day, it’s up to viewers to orient ourselves to Atlanta’s casual pace and glean some details about its characters’ lives: Earn is only an occasional visitor in Van’s house; she implores him to help out more with the rent and his daughter’s care. He has the desire, but lacks the plan. When he steps outside we get a sense of both the splendour and blight of the show’s inner-suburb setting: verdant, kudzu-covered cul-de-sacs of low-income housing and potholed streets with gas stations where the clerks are protected by thick layers of plexiglass.
It’s tempting to jump to conclusions about bad neighbourhoods (and what typically occurs there on other TV shows), yet Atlanta immediately and effortlessly imbues its environs with a tender sense of home and community, where hardship is a backdrop rather than an agenda item. Creators and producers are fond of talking up a TV show’s setting as becoming a character in and of itself, which is often just talk. In Atlanta’s case, the setting is a vital, narrative through-line — and a welcome take on a stereotyped world.
Atlanta was filmed in and around East Point, Georgia, which was once dinged by a real-estate website as “the nation’s most dangerous suburb.” From the show’s first moments, Glover and his collaborators have given this place the kind of respect and unvarnished regard that is somewhat similar to the love and concern with which David Simon and company portrayed Baltimore in The Wire – only in this case, gallows humour supplants pathos. (Glover has drawn on his own Atlanta upbringing and his experiences as a rapper – which might be news to viewers who only know him from his roles on Community or in The Martian.)