Low-key, funny and overflowing with feeling, FX's "Atlanta," the comedy series created by and starring Donald Glover ("Community"), spends little energy explaining itself. Weird things just happen: There's an invisible car, a pop star named Justin Bieber who is black, and a random cameo by "Family Matters'" Jaleel White.
But if unpredictability is part of what gives "Atlanta" its special glow, so does its core of emotionally complicated characters: Earn (Glover); Van (Zazie Beetz), his sometimes girlfriend and mother of his daughter; his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), a rapper who performs as Paper Boi and hires Earn as his manager; and sidekick Darius (Keith Stanfield), a good-natured eccentric. When it first aired in September it marked the biggest comedy debut for any FX or FXX half-hour since 2011's "Wilfred." Says Glover, who grew up in Atlanta, "For a long time, a lot of shows were exactly the same. But what people want now is a show with a super-specific point of view and lots of minutiae. Right now, perspective is king."
"Atlanta" is sometimes surreal and sometimes deeply dramatic television. How did you pitch it to FX?
I tried to make it as short as possible. I told them I wanted to make a show about two cousins trying to work in the Atlanta rap scene. That and " 'Twin Peaks' for rappers" was pretty much it.
FX has already ordered a second season. What did Season 1 get right?
Actual life is very messy. I think right now we're going through a time where everything is "like" or "dislike," everything is chopped up, we're a swipe left, swipe right culture. Real life isn't like that. Life is a jumble and that's where real life begins – with the things that aren't easy to articulate.
Your writing staff is composed of mostly first-timers who work from your living room or in your courtyard, not an office. Was that intentional?
[Writing] can be frustrating, tedious, if you're in an office. Whenever you have to clock in somewhere? You tend to resent that place. I think work should be enjoyable. Our writers' room is a salon of sorts. [We] don't sit and think, "What's going to happen to Darius?" We usually just start talking about what happened to us that day or that morning and why it affected us.
The character of Alfred was an instant fan favorite. Why do you think that is?
I think it was a side effect of people assuming the most about him. Like, "I already know what this guy is like." Brian did such a good job of making him three-dimensional. People might not see eye to eye with [Alfred] on the issues, but he's who people can relate to on a human level.
Settle the debate: Is the tone of "Atlanta" more like an indie film or a theater piece?
I understand people's feeling of wanting to go, "Oh, this is like a Pinter play." Or "The slow pacing makes it feel like an indie film." But to me it feels more like a dream, the kind where it's like, "Me and my Dad talked for most of it. And it felt really weird. But nothing happened. Then a bat came out of the water and that scared me. But I also knew everything was going to be OK." The mixing of emotions is human. I think people are reacting to that, that you can't split everything into ones and zeros. You can't split a dream into, "Did I like this?" Like, some dreams are really scary, but also really funny.
You're playing a young Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo stand-alone film. Have you reached out to Billy Dee Williams for advice?
I haven't. [Long pause] I wonder if I'll get to meet him beforehand. I'd really love to.
You do know that the fame game allows for such bridge-building in Hollywood?
I'm still not in that world yet. I'm not fully acclimated to the idea of, "Oh, yeah. I have people and they should call his people, and I can meet him." Today, I got stopped and was literally asked about being Lando and I was like, "Oh, yeah. My life's different now."