There are a couple of lines in the first episode of FX’s Atlanta that sound for all the world like they’re more about the dude who wrote, produced, and starred in the show than they are about what’s happening onscreen at the moments they’re delivered.
The first is spoken after Earnest (a name which can’t possibly be an accident) proposes a business arrangement with his up-and-coming rapper cousin Alfred (aka Paperboi). Alfred has serious doubts about his cousin’s potential as a manager, and he pays a visit to Earn’s father, hoping to validate his suspicions. But after a few minutes of giving him a hard time, Earnest’s dad says of his son, “When he decides he’s gonna do something, he does it.” On the one hand, this would be kind of an arrogant thing to write about yourself, but on the other hand it describes Donald Glover more or less perfectly, so it’s tough to find fault with the guy for tooting his own horn.
The second line comes from Alfred after he’s heard his underground single (also called “Paperboi”) on Atlanta’s premiere hip-hop station. He cuts the volume on his car stereo and says, “I kind of hate this song.” The sentiment is one that tons of artists eventually express once the thing that brought them initial success loses its novelty and becomes an embarrassing artifact.
It feels like Donald Glover has been saying “I kind of hate this song” since his career got started, growing bored of one thing at just about the time the general public picks up on it and jumping to the next before the first thing has a chance to define him. He’s been doing just that for years.
He started out performing standup and in improv groups, then became a writer for 30 Rock, but the first time most of us noticed Glover, he was playing Troy, an insecure former jock, on NBC’s Community. Along with Danny Pudi (Abed), he was the best part of that show by about a half-mile. It looked like Glover was well on his way toward establishing himself as a comedic force. But then he left the show after releasing a couple of hip-hop albums under the name Childish Gambino, and warning bells went off in my head.
Like an idiot, I assumed that Glover didn’t know where his bread was buttered, and that, like a fair few people who’d tried to put a bunch of slashes on their business cards only to embarrass themselves (if you look to your left, you’ll see Shaquille O’ Neal, and coming up on your right is basically every reality TV star who’s ever written a book or recorded an album), he was making a mistake by not sticking to what he’d done so well on Community. Glover’s work as a rapper generated praise but few raves, and after a series of revealing (and in some cases legitimately worrisome) social media posts made people wonder if he was suffering from depression, it looked like his career might stall out altogether.
Thankfully, that did not happen, and it soon became clear that any concerns about Glover’s ability to switch between disciplines were severely misplaced. He turned in a couple of solid acting performances in major studio movies (The Martian and Magic Mike XXL), created Atlanta, got cast as Lando freakin’ Calrissian in a future Star Wars movie, and made a new Childish Gambino record.
In other words, he’s been killing it. Atlanta makes it obvious that, even as the best part of a critically beloved network comedy, Glover’s gifts as a writer and comedian were being wasted. And speaking of those gifts, let’s not forget his musical talent, because the new Gambino album is AMAZING. It’s not just that it’s really good, it’s that the experience of listening to it is actually jarring. It never makes a move that feels safe. During my first listen, I probably thought, ‘Ok, NOW I know what this album sounds like’ half a dozen times, and I was wrong every time. It’s not even a hip-hop record. It’s a bluesy, psychedelic, soul-funk opus, and I can’t believe the dude who fought a fake civil war as the leader of the blanket fort army on Community made it.
But he did. And if his career to this point is any indication, it won’t be the last time Donald Glover surprises people.