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Awards

In creating ‘Atlanta,’ Donald Glover aims to show that ‘actual life is very messy’

Donald Glover
Donald Glover created and stars in the FX series “Atlanta.”
(Guy D’Alema/FX)

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.

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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.

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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?

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 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.”

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