In its hour-long, two-episode premiere, Atlanta does a stellar job of introducing us to the both the series' namesake city and its protagonists.
Pilot "The Big Bang" sets things in motion with a literal bang, as a car door mirror being broken by a passerby quickly escalates into a shot being fired by Paper Boi, an underground rapper who's starting to get a little heat locally. Rather than milk that moment of potential "that's so gangsta" drama for all its worth, Glover, who wrote the episode, works his way backwards, showing the comparative ordinariness of Paper Boi (who's real name is Alfred) his friend Darius, and cousin Earnest's day up until that point.
We quickly get a sense that Earnest "Earn" Marks is a man lost at sea. A Princeton dropout-turned "technically homeless" slacker who works at the airport and currently lives with his on again, off again girlfriend/mother of his child Van, he see his chance to possibly change his life when a co-worker shows a clip of Paper Boi's latest single. Alfred quickly gives him the brush off when he brings up the idea of managing his career, both because of Earn's personality ("I need Malcolm. You too Martin," he says) and because Earn hasn't come around since Alfred's mother's funeral. Yea...these two are gonna have issues. Earnest manages (no pun intended--well maybe) to get into his cousin's good graces by getting one of his songs on the radio via payola, which leads to him hopping into Alfred's ride and being present when mirror-gate kicks off.
"The Big Bang" does a great job establishing the show's world and its comedic and dramatic sensibilities, from the offbeat, hilarious conversations Earnest, Alfred and Darius have about using rats as phones and Earnest's creepy interactions with a guy who may or not be on the bus he's riding with his daughter to its cinematography, which captures Atlanta in a way that feels both naturalistic and surreal.
But "Streets On Lock" is when Atlanta really starts to show its cards. The aforementioned shooting incident makes the local news and lands Alfred and Earnest in lock up for disorderly conduct, with Alfred being bailed out early while Earnest has to wait to go through processing. Through their respective days, the episode makes subtle comments on fame and the way a small, pretty inconsequential event--yea, Alfred shot the dude, but this was hardly a 50 Cent, shot nine times situation--can grow into something bigger; for every Gucci Mane-loving cop and free box of good lemon pepper wings--with blue cheese dressing!--he gets for being "that nigga,"by a newfound fan, there's the odd stranger mean-mugging him or weirdo showing up to his door in a Batman mask.
Later Paper Boi sees a little boy imitating him and watches as his mother tells him not to play with toy guns--a warning that sadly, carries extra weight in a post-Tamir Rice world--and earns her hostile shade when he awkwardly introduces himself. Until she realizes who he is at least. Then its all smiles and more photo-ops. Fame's a helluva of drug.
Meanwhile, Earnest gets a lesson in lockdown, as he watches a frequent jailhouse resident and obviously mentally ill man get cracked across the face by police after he spits toilet water in one officer's face. Like some of Alfred's interactions, it's played for laughs until its not, as is the treatment of a man and his ex Lisa , who's a trans woman a fact known to everyone but him. Earnest tries to offer up a live and let live perspective ("Sexuality's a spectrum,") but it's shouted down amid cacophony of "nigga you gay!" reactions. As Michael Arceneaux noted, being that the ATL is pretty much known as the black LGBT capital of the South, it's a little hard to believe this guy wouldn't know Lisa was trans. Perhaps it was more a case of the lady protesting because her tea hath been clocked. But kudos to the show for broaching the topics of homophobia and transphobia anyway.
In the end, Earnest gets bailed out by Van, and tries to blunt the severity of her side eye by saying one day this will be a funny story they'll laugh about when their daughter's older. That's probably assuming everything works out for them, which, given Earnest's track record for fucking up so far, doesn't seem that likely. But fortunately, the same can't be said for Atlanta.
--A quick two cents on the white boy nigga situation: the show makes the point--one that I agree with--that the reason Dave is comfortable calling Earnest a nigga is because he doesn't him as threatening the same way he does Alfred and an older black co-worker. But I'm hoping at some point Earnest will come for that ass.
Watch the first episode below.