‘Atlanta’ Star Donald Glover Wants to ‘Make People Feel Black’
The creator and star of the new FX series Atlanta talks about trying to make the most honest show possible and sharing a name with Trump.
Donald Glover has just finished assuring a crowd of critics and journalists that one day Donald Trump is going to die.
“I haven’t seen the reaction yet,” the actor, rapper, and creator of the new television series Atlanta tells me as we sit down in a dark conference room at the Beverly Hilton hotel to discuss the new project. But he did hear some audible gasps.
Reporters have been known to ask just about anyone of note for their thoughts about the Republican presidential candidate this year, but it was Glover himself who broached the topic of Trump during his show’s panel at FX’s Television Critics Association event. The question was about why he decided to opt-out of appearing in the sixth and final season of Dan Harmon’s Community, which moved to Yahoo in 2015 after being canceled by NBC.
“I just like endings. I think everything should have death clauses in them like humans have death clauses,” Glover answered. “I mean like, thank God, one day, Trump is gonna die. That’s guaranteed. That’s awesome. It’s important that things end because it forces things to progress.
“That’s just the truth,” he adds matter-of-factly when I ask him to elaborate on what he meant. “It’s weird, because he was one of the first Donalds I knew outside of my house. So it’s just funny for him to be that now.”
But we are not here to talk about Donald Trump. We are here to talk about Donald Glover and the remarkable new show he has put together with Atlanta. In the series, which premieres tonight on FX, Glover plays Earn, who sees an opportunity for a better life when his cousin Alfred becomes a viral rap sensation in their home city when he releases a catchy song on YouTube under the name Paper Boi.
The real-life Glover is lot more stylish and put together than his Atlanta alter-ego. His hair a little less vertical, his face a little less scruffy. He snacks on some raw vegetables, speaking softly and deliberately, only lighting up with excitement when discussing specific details of what makes Atlanta—both the show and the city—so unique.
“It’s where I grew up. It’s my home,” Glover says. He wanted to “shoot Atlanta for Atlanta,” instead of having it stand-in for generic American cities, as it has done in nearly every Marvel movie over the past several years. The includes next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which Glover will appear, playing a role he’s not allowed to discuss.
When he received the packet of rules and regulations from Marvel, Glover’s first thought was, “Wow, it’s like being in the CIA or some shit. Do I have to eat this when I’m done reading it?” Just about the only thing he can confirm that he’s not playing the film’s title role—Tom Holland is picking up where he left off in Captain America: Civil War—despite a concerted online effort to make Glover the first black Spider-Man.
Much has been made of the fact that Atlanta has an all black writers’ room, but it is also worth noting that all but one of the writers grew up in the Atlanta area. “The best part about this show so far is that Atlanta is actually excited to see it,” he says, adding that they inserted plenty of “inside jokes” that only locals will get. “It’s a heavy cross to bear to call a show Atlanta.”
Shooting the show in Atlanta also helped inform Glover’s own music, which he produces using the name Childish Gambino. “I got to walk around Atlanta and listen to what was hot at that time. Or just go to the clubs at night and listen to what actual people were listening to,” Glover says. “It was nice to catch the vibe. That always affects the music you’re producing.”
For Paper Boi’s self-titled song, Glover wanted a “classic” Atlanta sound, referencing Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane as two major influences. “I’m not going to out-funny Empire songs. Those songs are funny and also play into what’s popping,” he says. Instead, he wanted something “a little more timeless.” It may not be “super hot,” but “’hood dudes fuck with this.”
Atlanta is primarily a show about hip-hop, but issues like poverty, gun violence and police brutality are also explored. While the show is undeniably funny, there is a tonal darkness that persists, at least in the first four episodes given to press in advance. Yet, as Glover explains, it wasn’t always going to be this way.
Originally, he envisioned the character of Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles being played by Craig Robinson, who has demonstrated a more serious side in Mr. Robot lately, but is still best known for his role as Darryl in The Office and the broad comedy of films like Pineapple Express and Hot Tub Time Machine. The part ended up going to Brian Tyree Henry, a lesser-known actor who has appeared on Boardwalk Empire and The Knick.
With Robinson in the role, Glover says the show may have been—air quotes—“successful,” but “not a show that I would want to keep coming back to.” Like a lot of half-hour comedies, he added, “I think you would have just figured it out sooner. You get ’em. And if they’re for you then you watch it until you’re tired of it. But most shows you figure out pretty early. Even just from the trailer, you’re like that show’s not for me.” He compares Atlanta to a wool jacket that you need to put on to realize that you don’t hate wool jackets. “I actually kind of like this,” he says, as he mimes putting it on. “I guess it is a little itchy, but I like the way it fits.”
The general vibe of Atlanta is very different from that of sitcoms like Community or 30 Rock, on which Glover worked as a writer. Whereas those shows are all bright colors and snappy dialogue, Atlanta takes its time and mines comedy from real-life challenges that the characters face.
“The thing that I’m most proud of with this show is that we got away with being honest,” Glover says. “The things that people are most attracted to online are the things that are the realest, the most honest. We tried to do that on the show because I feel like that’s a part of being black that people don’t see. I’m trying to make people feel black.”
About half of the second episode takes place in a jailhouse where dozens of mostly black men are waiting to be charged. They laugh along with the guards at one of the regulars, a man in a hospital gown who is clearly mentally ill. “Why is he in here every week?” Earn asks aloud to no one in particular. “It looks like he needs help.” It’s all one big joke until the only white officer pulls out a nightstick and strikes the man hard in his head. As the alarm blares and two other officers tackle him to the ground, we realize we’re not at Greendale Community College anymore.
“I don’t think you would watch that scene and say I don’t believe it,” Glover says, explaining why he thinks that type of moment can work in the context of his show. “It’s very possible and in fact it’s definitely happening.” While they were shooting, he felt gratified to overhear one of the extras on set say, “Somebody’s been to jail.” Yeah, Glover confirms, “People who’ve been to jail wrote this.”
Atlanta may represent an exciting new direction for Glover’s career, including his first time behind the camera for at least two episodes later in the season. But he insists he’s not actively trying to reinvent himself.
“A lot of people shoot themselves in the foot when they’re like, ‘People need to see me differently,’” he says, mocking artists who take themselves too seriously. “I think you run the risk of being something you’re not. So I just tried to make this show super personal. The more personal this show is the better.” He says that, more than anything, he wanted to make the type of show he would want to watch, but at the same time hopes it reaches as large of an audience as possible.
“I’m not interested in making niche shit. I think that shit’s boring,” Glover says. “And I’m not interested in making something important.” He adds, “I don’t want to win an Emmy for most diverse cast. That’s fucking bullshit.”