Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

Atlanta flourishes in its cinematography

By ALLISON JIANG | September 22, 2016

Actor Donald Glover attends the world premiere for "The Martian” on day two of the Toronto International Film Festival at the Roy Thomson Hall, Friday, Sept. 11, 2015 in Toronto. NASA scientists and engineers served as technical consultants on the film. The movie portrays a realistic view of the climate and topography of Mars, based on NASA data, and some of the challenges NASA faces as we prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet in the 2030s. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Donald Glover, better known as rapper Childish Gambino, has a line in his song “Bonfire”: “Why does every black actor gotta rap some? / I don’t know, all I know is I’m the best one.” His new comedy, Atlanta on FX, which premiered on Sept. 6, just might be actual proof of this claim. The show’s amazing writing and production combined with its unique vision puts Glover back on the map as one of today’s most valuable creative minds. Atlanta could change the face of television.

The first thing I noticed about Atlanta was just how pretty it was. The shots are clean, minimalistic and dream-like. They gave me a strange nostalgic feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I remembered the unique, hazy cinematography that made the music videos for his songs, “Sweatpants” and “Sober.” Both music videos have the same absurd, cinematically mundane tone that characterizes Atlanta. This style is thanks to Japanese filmmaker Hiro Murai, who has frequently collaborated with Glover on his music videos, various short films and now with his TV directorial debut in Atlanta. Murai and Glover’s artistic chemistry is tangible in the show, which conveys a sense of effortless familiarity between the characters and the viewers.

Atlanta’s vision is revolutionary in that it seeks to show audiences what it means to be black while putting comedy in the forefront. It is easy to assume the show is just another participant in the recent trend of making socially conscious content for the sake of it.

However, in an interview with Vulture, Glover says, “The No. 1 thing we kept coming back to is that it needs to be funny first and foremost... I never wanted this show to be about diversity; All that sh*t is wack to me.”

This nonchalant yet conscious attitude toward race on television is refreshing, especially in today’s hyper-aware political atmosphere.

Right now, social media and an increase in advocacy are desensitizing much of the general public to topics like race in the media. While shows like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and ABC’s Fresh off the Boat are doing a lot to show viewers how minorities actually live, their appeal is not universal. Shows that put these topics first can be a turn-off to the millions of people scrolling through their televisions looking to be entertained, no strings attached.

Atlanta, to put it simply, is way more chill. There are no gimmicky ads or cringe-worthy jokes to be found. Instead, the show has created a brand all of its own. The entire first episode was available for free on Facebook, and the FX website offers an hour-long window of free viewing (perfect to fit in two 25-minute episodes). The official FX description for episode three, “Go For Broke” reads, “Umm mhmm these Atlanta dudes trifling. But Ok, Paper Boi might really be about that life tho.” The official Facebook page advertises by posting short clips from the show accompanied by captions like, “When you’re broke on pay day.” On top of its being genuinely enjoyable to watch, the show’s entire aesthetic is smart, smooth and self-aware.

The show’s laid-back yet profound tone is encapsulated in an especially funny scene in the pilot. Earn (played by Glover) encounters a white acquaintance who unabashedly tells a story using the n-word. Earn says nothing, a clear look of disdain and exasperation on his face.

Later on, Earn is sitting in a car with his cousin Paper Boi and friend Darius when he sees the same friend again. Earn eagerly asks him to tell the same story, knowing how the story will change direction. Predictably, in front of a group of more than one black person, he leaves the n-word out and looks foolish. Scenes like this show the mundanities and microaggressions that make up modern racism, all the while displaying quality FX humor.

The show is not just about the little things though: Atlanta also manages to address both police brutality and homophobia/transphobia in one episode. Scenes like these, in which Earn witnesses the beating of a mentally ill black man and the harassment of a transwoman in the same police station, feel heavy but not heavy-handed. As the camera cuts away on Earn’s scared but resigned face, we understand what Atlanta is trying to tell us, that what we are seeing is not staged television, but an actual snapshot of life in this very extant city.

The manner in which the show uses the city as a backdrop can be seen in the contrasts between areas within the city. The characters within the show, named or unnamed are also vibrant and give life to the city.

One scene of interest comes in the pilot, when Earn, on the bus with his child is confronted by a man in a suit. After the suited man gives Earn philosophical advice, the man demands for Earn to take a bite of a sandwich, and when he declines, the suited man becomes confrontational. Earn looks away for a moment and when his gaze returns to the man, he’s missing. Moments like this add character as well as a sort of Twin Peaks vibe to the show.

From the all-black writing staff (most of which, like Glover, hail from Atlanta) to the razor-sharp dialogue to the excellent cast, Atlanta is something to behold. Donald Glover once again lets us look into the inner workings of his brain, and it’s truly magnificent. Is there anything he can’t do?

FX announced on Tuesday that Atlanta has been renewed for a second 10-episode season.

Donald Glover is also prepping the release for his newest, currently untitled album. In the past month he held a private listening event for fans who bought tickets through his smartphone app, PHAROS Earth. The listening event took place in Joshua Tree, Calif., earlier this month.

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