Donald Glover Explores A Surreal Feel In 'Atlanta'

Sep 17, 2016

Donald Glover's new TV show Atlanta has been described as having "dreamy and weird" moments, of mixing "hyper-realism ... with brief moments of surrealism ... all which serve to disorient." The show has laughs that are "prickly and strange, laced with menace and sadness, if also a real sense of place."

Glover, who created, stars in and sometimes writes and directs the show, says creating that odd feeling was important.

"It had to make people feel a certain way," Glover tells NPR's Michel Martin. "So we were like, 'Well, let's just give people a feeling that they can't really siphon or make into something else.' "

Atlanta is just the latest effort for the soon-to-be 33-year-old Glover, a man of many talents. He started work as a writer on 30 Rock in 2006 before landing a starring role on Community from 2009 to 2014. He's been nominated for Grammys for his work as a hip-hop artist, releasing three albums under the alias Childish Gambino. And he's done stand-up comedy too.

Glover says the impetus for the show came from agents and friends who asked him if he had any ideas for new projects.

"I really, really wasn't looking for that," he says. After his work on Community ended, Glover says he originally planned to go back to doing stand-up. "I really enjoyed the storytelling aspect of stand-up. So I thought I would probably be doing that. Making your own show — it didn't really feel like I was going to do that, I wasn't planning on doing that."

Atlanta premiered on FX earlier this month to mostly positive reviews. The Nerdist noted its "muted, grey colors," which contribute to a surreal mood.

"We always kind of just talk about the surreal nature of just the human experience. And it's a really strange thing," Glover says about conversations he had in planning the show. "Most things lie in the gray area. But I think because of the Internet, and like, social media — things get cut into zeroes and ones really quickly. So we were like, 'Let's just play around in the gray areas.' "

Earlier this year, Glover told reporters he wanted to make a show like "Twin Peaks with rappers."

It's a far cry from his previous role as the goofy Troy Barnes on Community and other roles where he says he played the "token black guy." In contrast, most of the main characters on Atlanta are African-American. The show's writers are all black.

"We kind of realized it was all about tone," he says about Atlanta. "Stereotypes exist, but the way they exist is not how they are to most people. They're usually like very cartoonish."

The key to the show's humor, Glover says, is to make people believe in the characters. "That's what kind of gives things stakes."

The show is serious but has humor that feels natural. "You really feel like he's like stuck in jail when it happens," he says. "Sometimes [the characters are] just not hilarious. Sometimes it's really scary or sad.

"The weirdness of the situation should speak to you at the end of the day," Glover says. "That's what makes me stick around, is something that's going to capture the weird — the funniness."

He wants viewers to feel like "they have some sort of stake in it."

Glover plays Earnest Marks, a character who, despite having an education, isn't doing too well. He has a baby with an on-and-off girlfriend. The show begins with the two in bed together, only for her to tell him she has a date with someone else that night. Later, Earn visits his parents, who won't let him into their house. He can't get anyone to sign up for what he's selling at his job. He ends up in jail after being involved in a shooting.

What message is this sending about African-American culture and life in the U.S.?

"I'm less interested in showing what should be, and more interested in showing what is, from my perspective," Glover responds. He says he doesn't like "being preached to" by TV shows about how people should act. "It doesn't feel authentic." He wants people to "wonder why they're laughing or why that made them feel uncomfortable, rather than tell them like why they're a bad person or good person for feeling that way."

Aside from good reviews, the show garnered some of the best ratings for an FX premiere in years. Glover attributes the success to people "responding to that it's a feeling and not like an algorithm."

With so many options for viewing "content" — cable, streaming, on demand — Glover thinks the space gave him the freedom to pursue the type of show that he says wouldn't have been possible to make even a few years ago.

"I knew if I made something personal it would speak to somebody," he says.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, we want to spend a few minutes with a multi-talented performer whose versatility is continuing to astonish. His name is Donald Glover. Fans of the hit NBC sitcom "Community" came to love him as the goofy Troy Barnes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMMUNITY")

DONALD GLOVER: (As Troy Barnes) Class blows. What I need to know about the universe is that I'm at the center of it. Oh, bing, bong sing along.

MARTIN: Then in 2011, Glover hit the stage as his rap alter ego, Childish Gambino.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE FLY")

GLOVER: (Rapping) Now when they see us in the streets all they want to do is take pics and I'm like OK, yeah, OK. Now when they hear us in the beat all they want to do is make hits, and I'm like OK, yeah, OK.

MARTIN: His rap career was no gimmick. He picked up Grammy nominations for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance. Now Glover is generating yet more acclaim for his latest project, "Atlanta" on the FX cable channel. The series tells the story of a young father trying to support his child and realize his own dreams by managing his cousin, an up and coming rapper. The series, which Donald Glover co-writes, executive produces and in which he stars, is not only getting raves from critics, FX says the series is breaking records for its comic yet often raw take on urban realities.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) I know I have a daughter, and I know she deserves the best. I don't think that I have to compromise what I want out of life to do that, especially if I think it's going to provide for her.

MARTIN: Glover joined us from our studios in Culver City, Calif. And I started by asking him what his team was hoping for with the tone of the series.

GLOVER: We always kind of just talk about, like, the surreal nature of just the human experience, and it's a really strange thing. Like, most of the time, I think people forget that, like, life is hard and also really strange. Like, most things lie in the gray area, but I think because of the Internet and, like, social media, things get cut into zeros and ones really quickly. So we were like let's just play around in the gray areas.

And the thing is about, like, my personal experience I guess being who I am, like, in this body, like, is specific, but also it translates to everybody's weird time being alive.

MARTIN: Do you mean by that being you, being what? Being...

GLOVER: Oh, me being like a black man in my, like, early 30s. Like, it's a very specific thing. Like, there's a million types of other people, but I felt like my specific experience was the best type of experience I could probably, like, write about.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because in your role in "Community" and in some of your previous roles, you're - this is not meant to be diminishing or mean - but you're the black friend, right? You're like the black friend guy.

GLOVER: Yeah, yeah. They call it, like, the token. Yeah, like the token black guy.

MARTIN: Yeah. And your character in "Community" was kind of goofy and not much edge.

GLOVER: Yeah.

MARTIN: But here, you're still a very gentle soul, I think, but there's definitely edge to the circumstance. I mean, the circumstances are very recognizable, I think, to a lot of people. I'm interested in kind of how you got that pitch.

GLOVER: I think we kind of realized it was all about tone, and we were like, well, let's make you believe in all this stuff. Like, that's what kind of gives things stakes that that's what makes it, like, funny or, like - like, you really feel like he's, like, stuck in jail when it happened. Like, it's not like, you know, oh, these like - these guys are hilarious. It's like sometimes they're just not hilarious. Sometimes it's really scary or sad or, like, the weirdness of the situation should speak to you at the end of the day, like, that's what makes me stick around - is something that's going to capture the funniness. I felt like my specific circumstance kind of dictated that on this show.

MARTIN: I've seen reviews in places like - well, of course, NPR and then, of course, The New York Times and then even, like, a Christian magazine aimed at millennials.

GLOVER: (Laughter) What?

MARTIN: Yes.

GLOVER: Really?

MARTIN: Yes. They just gave it really rave reviews, and they are all saying something about, like, how it feels different. How does that sound to you? Does that sound right? What do you think people are responding to?

GLOVER: I think they're responding to that it's a feeling and not like an algorithm. I feel a lot of things are being siphoned down now to, like, really speak to certain people. Like, we kind of hacked ourselves in a weird way where we kind of figured out, you know, that, and we wanted to make a punk show which meant it had to give people a feeling and that they can't really siphon and make into something else where it's just like I can't put my finger on that. And - but also like we're letting people just find the show. I think that was a big deal, too, with FX. I didn't want people to feel like we were just, like, slamming it down their face. Like, I really wanted people to feel like, oh, they had ownership because it felt personal to us.

MARTIN: You know, a lot of the ideas, though, that you're playing with here are very uncomfortable. It seems like a lot of black-oriented art, particularly entertainment. It's like the guy with the regular middle-class job is always the clown, like he's always the one who takes the pie in the face.

GLOVER: Right.

MARTIN: And I just - I'm interested in your thoughts about that.

GLOVER: I'm less interested in showing what should be and more interested in showing what is, from my perspective. One thing that, like, I hate in TV shows that I think is really whack is when I'm, like, being preached to. It doesn't feel authentic. With my stuff specifically, it's like I'm trying to get you to do the work for yourself a little bit.

I think one thing that people resonated with that was cool, like, we were, like, talking to like friends of ours. People were laughing for different reasons. I'd rather have people kind of wonder why they are laughing or why that made them feel uncomfortable rather than tell them like why they're a bad person or a good person for feeling that way. I would - I think, like, that's kind of what we're going through. Even as like a country kind of - what is really sacred to us, like, you have to figure that out yourself. And the show kind of, I think, changes a lot. It's be - it'll be interesting to see how people feel like and how people relate in different ways because, like, it does kind of grow up pretty fast after the next like two episodes.

MARTIN: OK. Well, you're teasing us now because we haven't seen them yet. So we'll look forward to seeing it. That was Donald Glover talking to us about his new series "Atlanta." It airs Tuesdays on FX. He was nice enough to talk to us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, Calif. Donald Glover, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GLOVER: No, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.