Donald Glover’s long history of being on the money.
Donald Glover’s Atlanta — season two premieres March 1st — manages to be both very accessible and a nefariously complicated piece of entertainment. It deals in site-specific observational comedy, a subgenre of half-hour television that has been filling newfound niches on the higher end of cable subscriptions for some time, from the streets of Portlandia to whatever NYC satire HBO is slinging these days. Its first season was ample with surreal moments: strangers giving bizarre directives on buses, an entire episode taking place on a fictional talk show. In one narrative, its niche-ness and artsy cinematography connects Atlanta even further to its predecessors, like Louie C.K.’s Louie and Lena Dunham’s Girls, TV shows where weird things happen to unlikeable white people. The theory is problematic because a) Donald Glover is the most likable person on the planet and this is obvious the moment you see him, and b) Glover’s writing is never willfully obtuse, but rather cuttingly direct. In “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” when a music publicist (Jane Adams) confuses Earn (Glover) for someone named Alonzo and then threatens to ensure that he dies impoverished, the viciousness feels very real, but the case of mistaken identity feels like a Shakespearean gag rather than racism rendered as a looming presence, ready to strike at random.
A curious key to looking at Glover’s work can be found in a half-hour-ish film he made in 2013 with Hiro Murai, who later directed most of Atlanta’s first season. It was called Clapping for the Wrong Reasons and in a recent Esquire profile, Murai referred to it as the source of much of their later show’s DNA. In the film, Glover’s unnamed character wanders aimlessly around a large LA mansion in the search of a mysterious woman who knocked on his window that morning, played by Abella Anderson. The style, compared to the high concepts of some of Murai’s music videos, feels downbeat and almost like an LA version of mumblecore, micro-budget movies about creatives aimlessly searching for themselves.
Compared to the studied portrayal of the poverty line in Atlanta, Glover’s choice of setting feels curious: Clapping for the Wrong Reasons takes place in a space that’s outside of monetary confines and geographically undefined. Atlanta does this too but only from afar: money is smoking pot carelessly (“Value”) or a space where romantic bliss can take place unironically (“Go for Broke”). Like Earn, Glover in Clapping for the Wrong Reasons doesn’t particularly belong. He’s broke but ignoring it: phone calls from a collection company bracket the episode. He fits in because he looks like does. The premise, after all, of the mistaken identity plot in “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” identity reduced to capacity to contribute in a system and mistaken identity at that, so a flawed system. Who really belongs?
TV writers like to use money as a plot vehicle because it feels relatable — who doesn’t want more of it? — and because it gives characters something concrete to fret about. Think back to the $200 that Abbi and Ilana have to earn in Broad City’s cable debut, “What a Wonderful World” or, more existentially, the $5 Bart Simpson sells his soul for. But, for Glover, it represents being given permission to belong or even exist. In the 30 Rock episode “Episode 210,” Glover’s first writing credit for the show, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) solicits her boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), for financial advice and he recommends, instead, that she buy property. This then turns into an escapade of trading money for status that is ultimately denied. The episode’s B-plots are rich with the kind of absurdity that Glover would make his hallmark — Tracy Morgan’s character gifts the office with a cappuccino machine because of something he saw in a dream — but money, as an abstraction, brackets all of these concerns. The characters feel, at times, not unlike the mansion denizens of Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, navigating the ethereal state of accumulated wealth.
In Atlanta, money doesn’t flow and its absence reverberates with caustic stillness. In one of the season’s most satisfying B-plots, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) walks Earn through bartering his phone for a dog whose value he comically will only be able to appreciate long after he needs the money. The metaphor is sleek and recalls the Jay-Z song “The Story of O.J.,” in which the rapper implores the listener to invest in “credit” in order to accumulate wealth. This conspicuous consumption or creation of wealth, an essential part of Jay-Z’s version of his story or recent music scene TV shows like HBO’s Vinyl or Netflix’s The Get Down, doesn’t interest Glover as much as the small hustles in between.
In some ways, Clapping for all the Wrong Reasons is more surreal than Atlanta ever becomes: at one point, Glover’s character coughs up a golden tooth. But Atlanta can equally be read as a minefield of symbols that reflect life on the knife edge between financial success in a ruthless industry and the equally ruthless poverty that accompanies unrewarded talent. Struggling to stay inside a mansion in LA becomes as fitting a metaphor as the Atlanta rap scene: once you’re out, you can never get back in.