TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Donald Glover, created, co-writes and stars in the FX series "Atlanta," which is a hybrid of comedy and drama set on the fringes of Atlanta's hip-hop scene. The first season's finale is tonight. Glover plays Earn, short for Earnest, a Princeton dropout who's broke. When we first meet him, he has an alienating job working at an airport kiosk, trying to sign people up for a credit card. He comes up with an idea that he hopes will be a way out, managing the music career of his cousin, Alfred, an underground rapper who performs under the name Paper Boi but makes his living selling drugs.
Earn is the perpetual outsider, whether it's in the hip-hop world or his own family. He's on the outs with his parents because he's asked them for money too many times. And his on-and-off-again girlfriend, who's the mother of his young daughter, is often fed up with him, although she usually lets him live at her place since he doesn't have one of his own.
Although Donald Glover's character doesn't rap, Glover does. He records under the name Childish Gambino. He's received two Grammy nominations. He's also a standup comic, wrote for "30 Rock" and played Troy on the comedy series "Community." Let's start with a scene from the first episode of "Atlanta," when Earn first tries to convince his cousin to let him be his manager. Earn is at his cousin's house. His cousin's friend and roommate, Darius, is there too. The cousin, Paper Boi, is played by Brian Tyree Henry. Darius is played by LaKeith Stanfield.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")
DONALD GLOVER: (As Earn) So, Zoo Tycoon...
BRIAN TYREE HENRY: (As Alfred) You want in on Paper Boi.
D GLOVER: (As Earn, laughter) What? No.
HENRY: (As Alfred) Please, man. People ain't just nice, Earn. When was the last time you were nice to a girl you weren't trying to smash?
D GLOVER: (As Earn) This morning.
HENRY: (As Alfred) You're talking about your daughter, man. That's gross.
D GLOVER: (As Earn) No, it would be gross if I was trying to smash. I don't want a handout. I want to manage you.
HENRY: (As Alfred, laughter) Manage? You know where the word manage come from?
D GLOVER: (As Earn) Manus, Latin for hand.
HENRY: (As Alfred) Probably, but I'm going to say no for the purpose of my argument. Manage come from the word man, and that ain't really your lane.
D GLOVER: (As Earn) My lane?
HENRY: (As Alfred) Yeah, man, I need Malcolm. You too Martin. You know what they did to him? They killed him.
D GLOVER: (As Earn) Didn't they kill Malcolm too?
LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Darius) Well, no. They say that. But ain't nobody seen the body since the funeral.
D GLOVER: (As Earn) That's how funerals work. Alfred, you already Malcolm, OK? You have that already. What you really need is a silent wild card, somebody who's about the money, the opportunity, who can play both sides if needed.
STANFIELD: (As Darius) Oh, like Don Lemon.
D GLOVER: (As Earn) Fair point. Let me rephrase what I'm trying to say.
STANFIELD: (As Darius) Oh, wait, wait, wait. It's 4:30.
HENRY: (As Alfred) Oh, damn, man, we late.
GROSS: (Laughter) Donald Glover, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think it's interesting that you decided not to cast yourself as the rapper in this and to not - to make it not about the kind of rap that you do, which is a more personal, reflective kind of rap, expressing insecurities, with lots of pop culture references. So tell us why you decided not to make this about you as a rapper, but as about someone who's a rapper who's very different from you.
D GLOVER: I probably chose that because I just thought that would - I wouldn't want to watch that. I thought that'd be a bad show.
GROSS: The show about you as a rapper (laughter)?
D GLOVER: Yeah, I wouldn't want to watch that. And also, I don't want to, like - I don't want to blur that line. Like, I enjoy blurring a lot of things. But I, like - I feel like that line is just not enjoyable to blur.
GROSS: How would you describe Paper Boi as a rapper?
D GLOVER: Paper Boi's, you know, he's, like, a real dope-boy rapper. He's like a real Atlanta, like, dope-boy rapper, like, kind of archetypical dope-boy rapper that we - I don't know, like me and my brother kind of grew up on, like that kind of feel where it's like, yeah, like, you know, almost like hood famous. Like, they're in your neighborhood, but you also hear them on the radio because they're famous for, you know, selling, but also just, like, you know, coming up with something catchy.
GROSS: Although Paper Boi carries a gun and sells drugs to make money, he doesn't fit the stereotype that he seems to be portraying. (Laughter) You know, like, he doesn't want to see kids carrying guns. He really resents that he's famous for being implicated in a shooting. So instead of trying to exploit it, he just, like, resents the attention that he's getting for that. It's an interesting contradiction, you know, an interestingly complex character.
D GLOVER: I think a lot of people - you look at, like, I think people that we kind of based him off of, whether it's like Jeezy or Gucci Mane or, like, you know, those kind of dudes, they're not in it really trying to glorify. You know, like, they're just talking about what's actually happening. Like, it's hard. Like, you can't sell drugs once you get famous as much. And you can't do it as easily as it was.
Like, they kind of - and I think Paper Boi's kind of figuring that out too. It's like, you know, like, making music is fun. And, like, selling drugs makes money, you know? And then, like, I think people forgot that people actually make music for fun. Like, the funds you make from, like, drugs allow you to do something that no one pays you to do really anymore.
Music isn't - he says it in, like, episode 3, where he's like, there's no money anywhere near rap. And, like, that's true. It's, like, there's - it's not a way of making money. So I think it's a - it's kind of a hard balance that, like, actual people go through. I think, like, the stereotype of rappers, like, loving that life and, like, glorifying it as far as, like, wanting everybody to live that way, I think that's kind of - I think that's just, like, a false stereotype.
GROSS: The series starts with the main characters in a car outside a club. Two people walk by, smash the side-view mirror. And Paper Boi gets out of the car with his gun. Your character follows him. A shot goes off. It fades to black. We don't know who fired the shot or who got hurt. Why did you want to start it that way?
D GLOVER: It didn't seem boring.
D GLOVER: I didn't - I felt like it was, like, an honest altercation. And it was the beginning of that universe. I think that just, like, that set of, like, those three kind of, like, are tied together.
GROSS: After the shooting, Earn, your character, and Paper Boi are in the police station waiting to be booked. And everyone there is acting kind of like it's a bad day at the DMV. And they have to deal with this awful bureaucracy. And they've been here before. And they know the way the game is played. And they don't want to be there, but it's something you have to endure. And the people who work there seem to have the same attitude. And it just - it's portrayed as just being like a routine part of life, not so much for your character, who seems newer to it.
D GLOVER: Yeah, he's never done it.
GROSS: Yeah. So, like, where does that scene come from, that kind of attitude of, like, yeah, that's what happens (laughter)?
D GLOVER: I think it is kind of humdrum when you're poor. Jail is just timeout for adults. You know, that's really what it is. And it's - in - I think the people in it - like, it's not, like, harrowing. Like, when you see - like, we tried really hard to make the jail look as boring as it actually - like, even usually when you see a jail it's, like, people behind bars and, like, their, like, hands are sticking out. And they're, like, yelling. And people are like, quiet down in there. And, like, it's, like, active, but it's not.
It is humdrum. It is like the DMV, like, which is, like, the same set up. But we tried to make it feel as boring as it is. Like, you have all these characters in there that are interesting, but the actual thing of, like, jail is just people being like, OK, like, let's put you in this system so it's easier to bring you back in this system. And, you know, it sucks that we have to be here. We all would like to be, you know, at the beach right now or somewhere else. And I think, like, probably the people working there are kind of like, yeah, I don't like this place either, like - but, you know, how else are we going to eat?
GROSS: And do you know this from, like, going there for research or having been there waiting to be booked for something or having friends tell you about it?
D GLOVER: Two of the writers spent the night in jail. And they - that was, like, the feeling, they said. It was like, you know, it's weird because they make you, you know, the way they're describing it is for - which is the reality for most people - is, like, you know, you get sent in there sometimes on something that's super bogus.
And then they have you sit down. And then they tell you you can't sleep, even though - it's like every - like, even my character said that. He's like, but everybody always has slept. Like, how can you make us not sleep in here, (laughter) especially when it's taking hours upon hours for you to do what we need you to do to just move on, you know? It's a very, like, weird power dynamic. And people are just, like, looking for fun. It's like going to ISS when you're a kid. But yeah, it came from, like, a personal experience of two of the writers - Steven, my brother.
GROSS: Oh, yeah, your brother - your brother actually does the - should I call it the title rap for this series?
D GLOVER: Oh yeah, the...
GROSS: The track called "Paper Boi" - that's your brother doing it, right?
D GLOVER: Yeah, that's my brother rapping. Yeah, it's a pretty catchy song. He did a good job.
GROSS: Did you write it or did he write it?
D GLOVER: I just wrote, like, the hook. I think I, like, wrote the hook and, like, had some, like, lines. But, like, one thing that we were trying to do is, like, you know, we wanted it to be something that felt real, you know? So we tried to make this super simple, like, what would be something that would be just fun and not try and make it, like, the best song ever. So, like, oh - just, like, kind of a hood anthem.
So we were like, you know, something that feels like it wrote itself, which is, you know, Paper Boi, Paper Boi, all about that paper, boy. Like, you know, play with the - the pun - the pun of it, or, you know, getting paper and Paper Boi just felt very like easy and you weren't overthinking it. And I - you know, he - when we were in studio, he was like, yeah the rest kind of wrote itself. It was easy.
GROSS: Would you object if we played it?
D GLOVER: No, no, I would not. I would not object.
GROSS: OK, so let's hear the track "Paper Boi," which ends one of the episodes of "Atlanta." And this is performed by Steven Glover, who raps under the name Steven G. Lover. Did I get that right?
D GLOVER: Steve G. Lover.
GROSS: Steve G. Lover, right. OK, great.
D GLOVER: I'm sorry.
GROSS: What? What?
D GLOVER: It's just really surreal to hear Terry Gross saying, Steve G. Lover. Like, my brother's rap name. Like, is that right?
GROSS: Do I have that right? Is that correct, sir? (Laughter). So here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER BOI")
STEVEN GLOVER: (Rapping) Paper Boi, Paper Boi, always 'bout that paper, boy. If you ain't on your grind, then you flexin', you's a hater, boy. Paper Boi, Paper Boi, always gettin' paper, boy. If you ain't makin' money, then you ain't a money maker, boy. Paperclip, paperclip - yeah I need a paperclip. I'm stackin' up this paper, man, and I could make that paper flip. That paper flip, paper flip...
GROSS: So that's "Paper Boi," which is the song that is the kind of theme song for the character Paper Boi on the series "Atlanta," which was created and stars my guest, Donald Glover. So we need to take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Donald Glover. And he's the creator, co-writer, sometimes director and star of the FX series, "Atlanta." The season finale is this evening, and the series is about a rapper whose cousin - and the cousin is played by Donald Glover - is kind of drifting and has a really terrible job and decides what he should really do is try to represent his cousin as his cousin's manager in the music world.
So among the things you satirize in the series is a couple who are in the upper class. It's an African-American wife and a white husband. And they live in this kind of, like, mansion. And they're having a Juneteenth party. Do you want to explain the setup of this episode?
D GLOVER: Yeah, so Van is Earn - the mother of Earn's child, Van, is trying to get in good, I guess to, like, get a better job or, like, get a new job with a friend of hers or some - an associate who is, like, the head of - you know, like, basically, like, has a lot of - a lot of upper-class friends who can get her a job. And she has a husband who's white and, you know, is very into black culture. And yeah, like, the whole - the whole thing takes place at, like, a Juneteenth party in Atlanta in, like - I guess in, like, a rich neighborhood probably somewhere, like, you know, in Gwinnett or something.
GROSS: And the white husband has been showing off to your character how much he knows about black culture and African history and African-American history. And your character is just getting really exasperated being preached to by this white guy.
D GLOVER: Yeah, well, I mean, he's - it's funny. Like, I felt like that episode really struck with a lot - like, I had a lot of white guys saying, like, I don't know how to feel about this episode, I think - because I think it struck a chord probably. Like, it's just kind of weird because, like, I think they kind of felt like he was doing all the right things. Like, he wasn't a mean guy, you know? And I think, you know, that's - I think that's the funny part. That's the interesting part.
It's like yeah, it wasn't about him being nice or mean. Like, he didn't - you know, depending on who you are or how you feel, like, he probably didn't do anything wrong. It's just, you know - you know, it's - there's a lot. I think that episode fully exemplifies why it's so hard to be, like, racism's over, you know? It's just, like, tied into so many feelings and emotions that we're not really - I don't know if we're ready to talk about them yet.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear, like, a clip from this episode. And your character and the mother of your character's daughter are there, trying to have this really, like, respectable vibe, which means that you can't say what it is you really do, which is managing your cousin's rap career. So you're - you're pretending that that's not what you do. But then you're kind of outed because the two valets recognize you 'cause they're big fans of Paper Boi, and they want you to, like, sign their girlfriends' underwear as I recall. (Laughter).
D GLOVER: Oh, they - they wanted me to take their sister's underwear and give it to Paper Boi 'cause she likes him.
GROSS: Right, OK. So - so when that happens, like, the white husband realizes, oh, that's how I know you. And that leads to a conversation where the African-American wife is kind of appalled that you're actually involved in the rap world. So why don't we hear a scene from that episode? And this is right when the white husband realizes, oh, you're the guy who manages Paper Boi.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")
RICK HOLMES: (As Craig Allen) I knew it. I knew I knew you from somewhere. I had such a special feeling about you, Earn. Honey. Honey, Earn is Paper Boi's manager - sorry - a very, very talented young rapper.
CASSANDRA FREEMAN: (As Monique Allen) Oh, you manage rap.
D GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) Yes, I manage rap.
FREEMAN: (As Monique Allen) There is nothing wrong with earning money doing something with rap. It's fine.
D GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) Well, it's not just about money. You Know, he's my cousin. He's family.
HOLMES: (As Craig Allen) Yeah, honey, you're missing the point. It's not about money. This is bigger than money. Paper Boi is underground. I've been following Paper Boi since the start. That's how I knew you. I mean, since the shooting, your pictures were everywhere.
FREEMAN: (As Monique Allen) Shooting? Well, you aren't going to shoot up this party, are you, Earn?
D GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) No, I wasn't planning on it.
FREEMAN: (As Monique Allen, laughter) I'm kidding. I get it. Can't choose your family, huh? Every decent person has at least one triflin' thug in the family. Oh, honey, let's go say hello to...
D GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) No, I'm sorry. This is whack. This is whack.
ZAZIE BEETZ: (As Van) Babe, please.
D GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) No, no, no, OK, like, this isn't real life, OK? This party is dumb. She's dumb. This is all dumb. You know that, Van.
BEETZ: (As Van) OK.
D GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) This is dumb. This is dumb.
BEETZ: (As Van) I'm sorry. We're going to head out, all right?
D GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) You know what? Stop stunting on me about my culture. Like, I'm not going to go back to Africa and find my roots because you know what? I'm [expletive] broke, dude. I'm broke.
HOLMES: (As Craig Allen) It's my bad.
D GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) No, don't do that. Don't my bad it and stop being so likable. Stop being so likable. Like, I get don't - and don't be like...
BEETZ: (As Van) Earn, we're heading out now.
D GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) ...I understand because you don't understand. Like, I'm...
BEETZ: (As Van) Now, we're going now.
FREEMAN: (As Monique Allen) Goodnight.
BEETZ: (As Van) Thank you for your hospitality.
HOLMES: (As Craig Allen) OK, well, we'd love to see you soon. Thank you very much for coming.
FREEMAN: (As Monique Allen) Goodnight. Happy Juneteenth.
GROSS: (Laughter) So was it cathartic for you to (laughter) to play Earn just kind of like trying to tell the truth about his feelings?
D GLOVER: I definitely knew where Earn was coming from. I definitely see Earn's point of view, which is kind of like, you know, it's not - it's almost not fair that, you know, this guy's an optometrist and he knows more about my, you know, what - stuff I should know or, like, should have learned, but because of years of unfairness and things going - I just don't know. You know, and I probably won't have that chance, and he's kind of taking - and even though he's super, I guess, respectful or, you know, super aware of his - in a weird way of his privilege, it's annoying to Earn.
GROSS: It's also that this guy is showing off so hard about how much he knows about black history (laughter).
D GLOVER: Yeah, and I think - but I think he actually genuinely - he's like - he's goofy, definitely, like...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, he's definitely goofy.
D GLOVER: ...That guy's kind of corny.
D GLOVER: But he - I think he genuinely likes it. You know, like, I think he genuinely - but he has - that's the thing - he has the option to dig in. Like, he could have done that with, like, Nordic history. Like, that's what I think Earn is probably upset about is, like, he just happened to choose that. I think he genuinely - I don't even think he's trying to show off to Earn. I think he's just - he's really into that stuff, and he's like, oh, Earn gets it because Earn is black, you know?
GROSS: So where did you grow up in Atlanta?
D GLOVER: I grew up in a suburb called Stone Mountain. Yeah, it's, like, east of Atlanta.
GROSS: Tell us about the neighborhood.
D GLOVER: It was a - I think when we first moved there, it was - it was, you know, just, like, pretty like standard suburb. There weren't a lot of black people there when we moved in. But I guess within the first I'd say like three or four years, like, white flight happened. And, yeah, it became predominantly black by the time I was in high school.
GROSS: Were you conscious of that happening when you were young?
D GLOVER: Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, the whole reason we were moving there was for that reason. Like, my mom was trying to get us into a better school system. Like, even the fact that, like, a lot of, like, the kids in the neighborhood - like, I remember, like, a lot of - I had never really heard of soccer, and there were, like, a lot of kids who were playing soccer when I first got there. And I was like, oh, soccer, that's different.
GROSS: My guest is Donald Glover. He created, co-writes and stars in the FX series "Atlanta." The season one finale is tonight. We'll talk more after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review the third and final volume of a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by feminist historian Blanche Wiesen Cook. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Donald Glover. He created, co-writes and stars in the FX series "Atlanta." He also directed some of the episodes. The first season's finale is tonight.
Glover has done improv and standup. He wrote for "30 Rock" and played Troy on the comedy series "Community." He's also appeared in the films "The Martian" and "Magic Mike XXL." He also records under the name Childish Gambino and has received two Grammy nominations. When we left off, we were talking about growing up just outside Atlanta. So your parents were Jehovah's Witnesses or are Jehovah's Witnesses?
D GLOVER: Yeah.
GROSS: So how did that affect - I think your parents, from what I know, didn't want you to watch TV - or at least not a lot of TV. But you seem so absorbed in all kinds of pop culture. It seems like it's really important to you. So was it frustrating for you as a kid to not be able to watch what you wanted to watch or maybe listen to what you wanted to listen to?
D GLOVER: Sometimes. Sometimes it was a little frustrating just because you wanted to be part of the - you wanted to be part of the gang. Like, you wanted to be part of the group, you know, and...
GROSS: Yeah, that's what holds people together, I mean, when you're kids.
D GLOVER: Yeah.
GROSS: But also, often when you're an adult, you share - like, you share, you know, certain shows or websites or, you know, music or whatever, movies.
D GLOVER: Yeah. Like, it's hard. I definitely remember, you know, going to school and people talking about "In Living Color" and me being like, man, like, I really wish I could watch that - like, and saying, it sounds really good, like, references. And, like, I would piece - it actually was kind of helpful because you would kind of piece together jokes that you would hear. And then, like, I'd come up with my own through what I heard. It forced me to be a little bit more imaginative about culture, I guess, like, what things could be, as opposed to what things were.
GROSS: That's funny because it means it helped you become a creator of the kind of material you weren't allowed to watch (laughter).
D GLOVER: Right, I know, (laughter) yeah. I think the thing that, like, my parents were like - well, my - they were like, you know, Bart Simpson's a bad influence - like, "The Simpsons" were a no-go. And, like, I think that was, like, that album was, like, one of the first albums, like, I listened to. It really...
GROSS: Oh, the album of songs from "The Simpsons?"
D GLOVER: Yeah, like, it had, like, "The Bartman" on it. And, you know, all - like, it was great. And I think Lisa Simpson sings, like, "God Bless The Child That Has His Own." And I remember being like, oh, this is all cool. But it's all through, like, "The Simpsons." Like, it was funny. But, like, yeah, out of everyone...
GROSS: I'm not sure if that's the one or not that also has the musical based on "Streetcar Named Desire." (Laughter).
D GLOVER: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Is that on that one?
D GLOVER: I had that album too. I think the first one was, like, a legit kind of album. It had "The Bartman" and, like, a couple other things. And then there was an album that came out later that had, like, all the songs - like, the Mr. Burns, like, buying, like, clothes made out of animals and the "Streetcar Named Desire," like - and yeah, that one had, like, tons of tracks on it. But the first one, which was just, like, kind of, like, I think people realizing what a huge phenomenon "The Simpsons" was, I was, like, obsessed with it.
GROSS: Your parents were foster parents when you were growing up. So how often did you have foster children at home who were part of your family?
D GLOVER: I can't remember a time we didn't.
GROSS: Were they of different ages?
D GLOVER: Yeah, they would come in and out. Some would stay for months. Some would stay for weeks. Some would stay for years. Sometimes, they'd be, like, teenagers. Sometimes they'd be, like, babies. It was a wide range.
GROSS: How did that work out for you?
D GLOVER: It was - it was great. Like, you know, you got to meet, I mean, every type of kid. And you also got to see what - you got to see what was happening in the city through children - like, people your - kids your age. You know, we were, you know, like, we had, like - like, when AIDS was, like, a thing - like, when it was becoming - like, before it was called HIV - like, when it was, like, had just stopped being called GRID, like, we had, like, AIDS patients and, like - who were kids - staying with us. And, like, I remember, like, it was, like, very - you know, to be reading about it and hearing about it in school and hearing, like, actual people talk about it, it's like completely different from living and experiencing it through - with (unintelligible) - with a child.
GROSS: Because you're a comic, a writer, a rapper, an actor, you get to express what you want to say in different forms, in different mediums. So I want to play an excerpt of a comedy special that you did in 2010 on Comedy Central. And this is an excerpt in which you're talking about being a black nerd. And it starts off with you talking about President Obama.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMEDY CENTRAL PRESENTS DONALD GLOVER")
D GLOVER: The best part about Obama is that he's a black nerd. I love that junk because I'm a black nerd. And that [expletive] was illegal until, like, 2003.
D GLOVER: It's awesome. It's so awesome. It's just like, there's black nerds everywhere. You know, like, it's awesome. It's just like they're everywhere now. Just - it's so great. And I love it, like - but it was just hard for us growing up. Like, you know, I remember I was, like, the only black kid at my school for awhile. Like, I was the only - I remember I went to a white school. And white kids were excited. They were super excited. They were like, oh, we got a black kid. This is awesome. We got a black kid. They were like, hey, Donald, what kind of rap music you into and what kind of - what kind of sneakers you like? And I was like, oh, I don't really like rap music. I really enjoy the soulful stylings of The Cranberries.
D GLOVER: We can talk about that. And they were like, no, man. You like sneakers. And you like rap music. And you're going to tell us which one you like. I was like, oh, you're hurting me, Steven (ph), you know?
GROSS: That's my guest, Donald Glover. So OK, so my impression - knowing you only through your work and not as a person, you know, outside of your work - my impression would be that you felt you had black friends and white friends telling you who you were supposed to be. And you weren't - you weren't fitting into anybody's projections. You were going your own way.
D GLOVER: Yeah, I think it's - I mean - I mean, that's pretty accurate. I think it's just, you know, also, like, having time to, like - you know, you got to think about when you're, like - when you're 10, like, versus, like, now or even, like, when you're 50. Like, who are you, really, I think. I know that sounds very - that's very spacey or, like, very, like, just like, who am I? You know, but yeah, you're only really you when you're alone, you know, when you're not basing it off of other people or expectations and stuff. So I feel like I - you know, I never - it's a weird thing. And I think people always ask about what I do. And they - a lot of people ask, like, which one is your favorite or, like, which one do you relate to the most. And I am - I always - I don't know. Like, it's hard for me to - I get asked that all the time. I'm always like, I don't see them as separate things. I'm just kind of, like - play them out, you know, with people and be who I am at that time and not ask questions about it.
GROSS: Well, we need to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you first. If you're just joining us, my guest is Donald Glover. And he's the creator and star of the FX series, "Atlanta." It has its season finale this evening. He also raps under the name Childish Gambino. He co-starred on "Community" and wrote for "30 Rock." So we're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Donald Glover. He created and stars in the FX series "Atlanta." Donald Glover is also a rapper. He raps under the name Childish Gambino. He's also a comic, and he co-starred in "Community" and wrote for "30 Rock."
So what came first for you, was it comedy or writing?
D GLOVER: I guess - I don't know, they're kind of the same thing. They - I would just say music as a language was, like, the first thing. I just remember - I just remember a lot of songs being as a child - you know, there's a lot of pictures of me as a child, like, with a Walkman, like, listening all the time, which I didn't realize. I didn't remember. But now when I look back, I'm like, oh, man, I listened to music, like, all the time.
GROSS: What's some of the things that made the biggest impression on you?
D GLOVER: My dad's collection. My dad really liked - he really liked Funkadelic and Prince and, like, anything he was listening to I would listen to.
GROSS: It's funny, like, Prince was a Jehovah's Witness, although a lot of parents thought his songs were, like, too dirty. But so were you allowed to listen to Prince because he was a Witness?
D GLOVER: No. I was allowed to listen to him because my dad was like, I'm not giving that up.
D GLOVER: Like, I just - again, like, I think that just the contradiction just played a part in that where it's the way we live. You know, Prince can make, like, you sexy [expletive], but he can also make "7." You know, "7" is, like, probably my - probably my favorite spiritual song ever. Like, I had just never - that's - the beginning of that song is so powerful. It makes your - like, your heart kind of stop or something. And, like, you know, in order to write that and sing that, you kind of have to have that inside of you. And you also - and you have to also be at peace with the fact that, you know, I can write the opposite as well.
GROSS: So after a performing arts school, you went to NYU. You studied dramatic writing there. So what were you thinking your future was going to be at that time?
D GLOVER: I think I had aspirations of, like, oh, maybe I'll write for like "Mad TV" or, like, "SNL." And I think that was, like, kind of it. Like, I think, you know, I came - I went into, like - I went into dramatic writing because, like, I think I got the most money, like, for a scholarship that way, even though...
D GLOVER: ...I kind of knew, like...
D GLOVER: I kind of knew, like, writing plays wasn't going to be the move just 'cause - I mean, like, unless I wanted to be like, you know, the special snowflake black writer who, like, writes these, like, very specific, like, plays and, like, lives in, like, Manhattan. I was just - I mean, like, not to say, like, it's about money, but I was just like - I just didn't see, like - I didn't see myself doing that. But it definitely, like, allowed me to, like, experience New York.
GROSS: Well, you did do sketch comedy and improv in college and maybe after as well. And one of the groups you were in was the Upright Citizens Brigade, which is I think what landed you your first TV job writing for "30 Rock" because Amy Poehler was one of the co-founders of Upright...
D GLOVER: Yeah.
GROSS: ...Citizens Brigade. And, of course, she's very close with Tina Fey, and Tina Fey is the creator of "30 Rock." So that's - that's how you got...
D GLOVER: Yeah, I was...
GROSS: That's how you got that.
D GLOVER: I was part of a scholarship program at UCB. Well, not scholarship but like (laughter) you, like, intern there. Like, you clean toilets and they pay you in classes.
GROSS: So Tina Fey has said that when she brought you on to "30 Rock" that you were the only African-American writer at the show at the time but that the real diversity you brought was that you were their only, quote, "cool young person" who could tell them what the kids were listening to these days because you came from a large family in Georgia. You were also helpful in writing for the character Kenneth the page because the character's from from Georgia. Do you remember being used that way, as, like, the cool young person who could tell them what kids were listening to these days?
D GLOVER: Yeah. You know, they used to ask me questions like - or, like, we'll be going about that. And I remember once I pitched a joke about, like, Tracy wearing a T-shirt with a Black Bart Simpson on it or, like, some joke about that. And I remember Robert, who was, like, the head writer, he was like that's funny. And it was like, dot, dot, dot, like - he's like, is that a real thing?
And then, like, I got - like, started explaining. I'm like, well, yeah, like, you know, you go to like - in Atlanta, anyway - I was like, yeah, you go to the mall, like South DeKalb Mall, and they have, like, you know, black versions of characters, like, drawn on the T-shirts. And, like, they were cool. And like - it was weird because I was, like - I had - it was one of the first times I was like, oh, this is a completely different world from - like, I know something that, like, these people don't - didn't know existed, which was really - it was interesting to find
GROSS: So after I don't know how long, you decided to leave "30 Rock" because you decided you wanted to perform. That must have been a really hard decision to make because, you know, writing for "30 Rock" it's a really great job. And you were you were in your 20s, probably in your early 20s. I think you were 21 when you were hired, and you were still living in an NYU dorm working as an RA. So did you think, like, this might be really stupid, but I'm going to quit anyways, you know what I mean? It's really risky to have such a great job and decide that you want to pursue something different.
D GLOVER: It's only risky if you were happy there...
GROSS: You weren't?
D GLOVER: ...You know? No, I mean, like, I had a great time, like, and I learned a ton and I really loved all the people there. And, like, I don't know, I don't think I've - you know, they're some of the funniest people and the smartest people I've worked with. But I just knew I didn't want to stay there. I never saw it as risky just because I was like, oh, like, if I know the answer as far as, like, do I want to stay here? Like, no, then why stay? Like, I don't know - like, it was probably - it was just, like, an honest decision. Like, I didn't - I didn't second guess it because, like, I just knew it wasn't going - I wasn't going to do what was expected of me there, which was, like, I guess become - you know, move higher and higher in the ranks and become, like, a show-runner or something, I'm not sure what would have happened. But I knew it just wasn't for me.
GROSS: So another question about "Atlanta." My impression is - and this might be totally off, so you can just tell me if it is - that your parents worked really hard to kind of move to a suburban neighborhood and to always make sure you were in good schools, even if that meant traveling a big distance, traveling a big distance to a magnet school. In "Atlanta," I kind of have a feeling it's set in the world that your parents didn't want you to be a part of, that your parents tried to get you out of by moving to a suburb, by sending you to special schools.
D GLOVER: I mean, yeah, they just wanted - I mean, like, they definitely wanted me to have, like, a better education. Like, that was a big deal to them, like, the best education that they could afford. You know, we didn't have a lot of money. So, you know, it had to be a magnet school. Like, in most of them you would have to test in or something.
But, I mean, like, the actual, like, things in "Atlanta" - like, it was interesting. I don't think they were trying to keep me away from what was actually happening in Atlanta because, like, we had - you know we had foster kids. And those kids were like - like, they were - they would tell us - or, like, we'd see - I'd see what was happening, you know? Like, I'd meet their parents. Like, I'd see what drugs do. Like, I'd see how - you know, I'd see all that stuff, you know? They're from New York, so they understood, like, you know, you need to be malleable.
GROSS: So real quick, last question. So your rap name Childish Gambino famously came from the Wu-Tang Name Generator. And when the name Childish Gambino came up, did any part of you go, oh, no, really, that? I have to use that? (Laughter) Did it...
D GLOVER: No. That was...
D GLOVER: That was the coolest one that came out, actually.
GROSS: Oh, you tried multiple times, huh?
D GLOVER: No, like, my friends were doing it. And, like, all of theirs were kind of, like, sillier. And then mine - everybody was like that one was, like, the coolest one. Like, it just felt the most like - you know, it felt like it told a story the most, you know, like, it kind of sounds like, you know, a kid turning into a boss. Like, it sounds like - the name kind of sounds like a journey, which I like.
GROSS: Well, Donald Glover, thank you so much. I look forward to season two of "Atlanta" whenever that comes back.
D GLOVER: Thank you. It's nice to finally audio meet you.
GROSS: Donald Glover created, writes and stars in the FX series "Atlanta." The first season's finale is tonight. The show has already been renewed for a second season. Glover's upcoming films include Spider-Man: Homecoming and the Han Solo "Star Wars" movie, where Glover will play a young Lando Calrissian.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the third and final volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.