As many a critic and insider have remarked before, we live in an era of “peak TV.” There are so many different shows coming out on so many different networks, you could blindly throw a dart at a TV guide and come away with something of at least good quality. Recently entering into this fold is “Atlanta,” the brainchild of Donald Glover, who’s most famous for his role as Troy on “Community” and his rap career as Childish Gambino. Set in the titular city (which, full disclosure, I am a native of, so I felt obligated to check it out), the show follows Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover), a Princeton dropout who attempts to manage his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), an up-and-coming rapper by the name of Paper Boi. Rounding out the trio is Keith Stanfield’s Darius, Alfred’s close associate — and so far, the breakout character, projecting a stoned calm that gives way to philosophizing and sometimes confused observations on the world.
Glover is no stranger to being behind the camera, having cut his teeth writing for “30 Rock” and this shows in a remarkable sense of confidence in the second episode, which takes place in the waiting room of a jail. The episode also tackles issues such as discrimination against transgender people, police brutality and mental illness. While this makes it sound like the show purports to be a comedy while really leaning towards drama, “Atlanta” has gags to spare, from the conversations between the mains to the surreal feeling that hangs over much of it, staying one step behind straight-up absurdity. Earn himself is a charming presence, never a sad sack but also not always perfect, often left to respond to the weirdness around him. Even if “Atlanta” isn’t quite as funny as it could’ve been, the season perfectly captures this world, bathing everything in a hazy glow.
It helps, too, that the show is filmed in the city itself, giving glimpses of recognizable landmarks around town (such as famous chicken wing restaurant J.R. Crickets) and leading the viewer into a subset of life that’s seldom shown on television. With its wonderfully written scenes (scribed by an all-black writer’s room that includes Glover’s brother Steve), frequently hilarious scenarios and quiet performances, “Atlanta” exudes a confidence not quite seen elsewhere on TV this season and is set to be one of the best shows of the year.