‘At­lanta’ could fill void left by ‘The Wire’

The Daily Herald - - SHORT TAKES - By Hank Stuever

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 splen­dor 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 neigh­bor­hoods, 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,” which pre­mieres Tues­day with two episodes, 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 hu­mor sup­plants pathos.

It is across this land­scape — back and forth by pun­ish­ingly long bus routes — that Earn me­an­ders from one pos­si­bil­ity to the next.

In short or­der we meet Earn’s par­ents, Ri­ley and Glo­ria (Isiah Whit­lock Jr. and Myra Lu­cre­tia Tay­lor), who won’t give their son any more money or let him in their house, yet re­main re­li­able babysit­ters for their grand­daugh­ter. Earn, who makes $5.15 an hour at a Harts­field-Jack­son Air­port ter­mi­nal, where he un­suc­cess­fully tries to sign up peo­ple for a new credit card, dis­cov­ers that his cousin, Al­fred (Brian Tyree Henry), is blow­ing up in the rap scene with a self­pro­duced mix­tape, us­ing the name Pa­per Boi.

Earn of­fers to be­come Al­fred’s man­ager, but Al­fred is leery of his cousin’s sud­den pres­ence: “N——r, I ain’t heard from you since my mom’s fu­neral. And the first thing I hear out of your mouth is ‘Let’s get rich.’ Walk, man.”

The first episode would seem to in­di­cate that “At­lanta” might set­tle com­fort­ably as an­other rags-to-riches dram­edy filled with the usual cau­tions about show­biz suc­cess, only with far fewer lux­ury items and a lead char­ac­ter who has trou­ble af­ford­ing a Happy Meal.

The sec­ond episode sug­gests some­thing broader and more am­bi­tious — and is also cir­cum­spect about where it’s tak­ing us or what kind of show it wants to be. Much of what hap­pens, when not en­veloped in a lit­eral mar­i­juana haze, un­folds in a slow, dreamy state. But what is this dream re­ally about?

As Earn rides the bus with his baby, a bow-tied stranger force­fully of­fers him a sand­wich and a men­ac­ingly cryptic philo­soph­i­cal mono­logue — or was the man just an­other late-night mi­rage? For bet­ter, weirder and cer­tainly blunter thoughts about life and every­thing else, “At­lanta” leans heav­ily on the comic re­lief of Dar­ius (Lakeith Stan­field), Al­fred’s right-hand man, who is of­ten so stoned he’s on an­other plane of logic al­to­gether.

The episodes surf hyp­not­i­cally along, suc­ceed­ing less on the­matic con­cerns and more on “At­lanta’s” unerring knack for por­trai­ture. The show in­tro­duces us to its world and its in­hab­i­tants without declar­ing its in­tent in ev­ery other scene.

Some of the in­tent, of course, has al­ready been pre­de­ter­mined for “At­lanta”: It’s a show about black men liv­ing far afield of so­ci­ety’s white main­stream, which is bur­den enough. A pass­ing ref­er­ence is made to the fact that Earn “took a year off” from at­tend­ing Prince­ton, which is now go­ing on three years off, which is per­haps what lends his char­ac­ter an out­side-in per­spec­tive. Earn’s en­coun­ters with white peo­ple (a ra­dio­sta­tion em­ployee who is far too comfy with us­ing the n-word; a wait­ress who up­sells ex­pen­sive ap­pe­tiz­ers and cock­tails; a county jail of­fi­cer who bru­tally beats a men­tally ill in­mate) are re­mark­able only for be­ing such com­mon­place in­dig­ni­ties. In both a top­i­cal and cul­tural sense, “At­lanta” couldn’t have picked a bet­ter time to come at us with its mix of com­edy and anger.

In both a top­i­cal and cul­tural sense, “At­lanta” couldn’t have picked a bet­ter time to come at us with its mix of com­edy and anger.

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