Tuesday, September 6, 2016

REVIEW: 'Atlanta' - Earn Works Hard to Become Paper Boi's Manager in 'The Big Bang' & 'Streets on Lock'

FX's Atlanta - Episode 1.01 "The Big Bang" & 1.02 "Streets on Lock"

Paper Boi? Who the hell is that? I swear everybody want to be a rapper now-a-days smh. Song is bumpin tho. See every rapper think he a thug, well you do the crime, you do the time. Dont drop the soap haha. Free my uncle Jay!

Donald Glover just has an inherent likability to him. It's a kind of charisma that pops onscreen no matter what kind of role he is playing. FX's Atlanta is very different tonally than NBC's Community. And yet, this show proves that Glover is a really capable actor and writer. This is his show. It delves into the issues and subject matter he wants to talk about. He is putting his story and his city on the screen in a way that has never been depicted before. It's wonderfully refreshing and brutally honest. It doesn't showcase a city that is broken or failing. That's the easy way to classify rap music and the message it sends. The real world is so much more complex than that. Glover gets that. He knows that being black in America means you're just one wrong decision away from a completely different and miserable life.

The series opens with an in media res sequence featuring Earn, Paper Boi and Darius in a heated confrontation with a dude over a broken car mirror. It's a scene that immediately drops the audience into the unique tone of the show. It's alienating and a mystery to the viewer. We have no grand understanding of who these characters are or why they are in this situation. All we know is that there is something off about this world. Something that is fantastical but also painfully realistic. This is a key moment in these characters' lives. They want to escape by saying it's just a bad drug trip. But it's more real than that. This is a confrontation that ends with a gun being pulled out and shooting someone. Things got so heated that Paper Boi pulled the trigger. This is the moment that changes these characters lives forever. In media res openings very rarely work. It's just a manipulation on the show's part to engage and mystify the audience before the actual story gets going. And yet, it really does work here because of the atmosphere and tone of the situation. The show lets this conflict play out for awhile. It lets the audience learn how to understand this world. And then, it pulls the trigger and goes back to show how this trio came together in the first place.

Glover's likability makes him a captivating screen presence throughout the entire premiere. However, the other characters aren't so entranced by Earn. That's a tricky balance to pull off. And yet, Atlanta does so seamlessly. Van has no problem asking Earn to say "I love you" right before telling him he needs to watch their daughter because she has a date later that night. Earn's parents won't let him in the house because they know he likes to take dumps there and not flush the toilet. Also, he's always coming around asking for money from them. And lastly, Paper Boi doesn't have any time for him because he thinks Earn is just looking for a handout. Why else would he show up at his place despite not talking to him for a long time? This is the life Earn has. He's just barely keeping things together. He feels like a loser who is meant to exist to prop up the winners of the world. That's a sad and depressing place to find the main character in at the start of the series. But that means there's room for him to grow and improve. These relationships are complicated right now because of past actions. Only Earn can make up for those mistakes. He's seemingly off to a good start too - until that shooting happens.

Earn is the reason why Paper Boi's song gets on the radio. He knows a guy at the radio station who he is able to pay off and get the song into the rotation. It's an action to prove to Paper Boi and Darius that Earn is capable of being a manager. They didn't take him seriously at first. Even though he's family, they don't trust him. They figure he just wants some money and then he'll run away back to whatever thing he's interested in. He's a good father but he hardly does anything to make his friendships worthwhile. But he does go above and beyond to help Paper Boi with his song. It's because of Earn that Paper Boi's career can reach the next level. Of course, all of that celebration quickly goes away because of the conflict at the top of the premiere. The trio were just casually celebrating listening to Paper Boi's song on the radio for the first time. Out of nowhere some dude comes up and kicks the side mirror off the car. That's messed up. But it's also incredibly realistic. Things take a turn for the tragic once a gun is pulled though.

That leads to Earn and Paper Boi getting arrested and spending some time at the police station. It's a much easier experience for Paper Boi than it is for Earn. He isn't given preferential treatment because he's a celebrity. The community of Atlanta hardly recognizes him or knows his music. He's still able to walk down the streets with no problem. He's still living in a crappy apartment. He's not recognized at the station until after he's released. His photo and story have been circulating the news cycle. This story is bringing him more fame and attention than his song being on the radio did. He's able to enjoy that recognition as well. He's not trapped in a police precinct unable to connect to the rest of the world. He's forced to be out in Atlanta simply because he was processed first. He's now being recognized everywhere he goes. It's an appreciation that he wasn't expecting from this career. Now, he's getting special treatment at his favorite restaurant. He's having an influence on the young kids in the neighborhood. Of course, it isn't a good influence. They now think shooting people is cool because he did it. The mother isn't even able to tell them that's wrong because she gets distracted by a rising celebrity being right in front of her. All of this is simply something that he has to life with now.

Meanwhile, Earn is stuck at the precinct. It's taking forever for him to get out of there. The investigation into the shooting isn't causing the delays. It's simply the ineffectiveness of the system. This is a reality that so many in the black community have felt before. They've experienced harsh punishment and corruption in the criminal justice system. When Earn is making his phone call asking for Van to post his bond, a police officer is laughing at him and the message he is leaving. It's a humorous moment to him but it's potentially life-changing to Earn. Van sees the news report that shows his face in connection to a shooting. She believes he's an idiot for getting involved with such a thing and making such a costly mistake. And now, this is the thing he is going to be known for. He's gone from a simple, non-distinct guy to being a criminal. That's huge. But again, the process is actually quite simple once things start moving for him. He's able to walk out of the precinct just as easily as Paper Boi did. He is welcomed by Van and his daughter. Despite being upset with him, she is still there for him to bounce back from this experience.

And yet, the bulk of this story comes from what Earn sees while he is in holding at the precinct. There are a lot of colorful characters there. They are each reacting to the world wildly different than how he is. One guy wants to share the story of why he has been arresting. It's a funny tale that led to public intoxication. And now, he's in holding with the former friend who got him into the situation in the first place. And then, there's a guy who just wants to eat a sandwich. Earn is served such luxuries but has no problem giving them to someone who actually wants them. But then, things take a turn to the insightful as the show breaks down the failings of the criminal justice system. It's a joke to everyone in the room that the same guy is always at the precinct acting out of his mind in a hospital gown. Earn wonders if he needs psychiatric help but no one wants to listen to those very legitimate concerns. Instead, the police enjoy beating this guy up as soon as he simply spits water at one of them. It's brutal and way over-the-top. But it also shows just how troubling the system can be in dealing with mental health problems. An insightful conversation that Atlanta wonderfully portrays in its second episode. Hopefully, there are more moments like that as the season progresses.

"The Big Bang": B+
"Streets on Lock": A-

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Big Bang" was written by Donald Glover and directed by Hiro Murai.
  • "Streets on Lock" was written by Stephen Glover and directed by Hiro Murai.
  • Hiro Murai really does a phenomenal job creating the visual template for this show. The tone and narrative structure are unique and unlike anything on television. Murai compliments all of that with simplicity that is also special to look at.
  • Paper Boi's songs really aren't about sex at all. However, there is one exception where he refers to something called "mucking" which he explains properly in the hook.
  • The moment where a guy offers a sandwich to Earn on the bus is very mysterious and weird. It highlights that fantasy elements are at play on this series as well. But its sole purpose is to always make the audience feel uncomfortable and unsure of their surroundings.
  • Earn's friend at the radio station really dislikes Flo Rida. He can't stand that some DJ would play two of his songs back-to-back. And yet, Darius and Paper Boi have no problem with his music. So Earn asking for that story again is incredibly pointless.
  • Earn's time in holding also includes him being caught in an awkward situation with a guy and his girlfriend. The rest of the guys are berating this guy for not knowing his woman is actually a guy and how that makes him gay. It shows the kind of cruelty that still exists within the black community on LGBT issues.