Donald Glover Turns His Eye to His Hometown – and Black America – in Atlanta

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Donald Glover. Photo: Sandy Kim
Donald Glover’s Community
The comic turns his eye to his hometown—and black America—in Atlanta.
Photograph by Sandy Kim

“I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture,” said Donald Glover. The 32-year-old actor was eating takeout sushi at a small table in his brother’s Hollywood apartment, wearing a black pocket tee that matched his black velvet loafers, no socks. “I know it’s very easy to feel that way. Like, I get it, you can hear about the Nae Nae the day it comes out,” Glover continued as his brother played Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64 across the room. “Skrrt Skrrt” by the young Atlanta rapper 21 Savage blared on the speakers. “You follow Hood Vines, and you have your one black friend and you think they teach you everything, I get it that Deshaun said that black people love … nigga, I hate Deshaun.” 

Glover was explaining the genesis of Atlanta, premiering on FX on September 6, which he created, co-wrote, executive-produced, and stars in. It’s a dramedy about two cousins who live in, yes, Atlanta. Glover’s character, Earn, wants to help manage his cousin Paper Boi’s newly hot career as a rapper. Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry, sells drugs with his friend and adviser Darius (Keith Stanfield). Earn — not unlike Glover himself — is familiar with his cousin’s world, but not an active participant; the show explores Earn’s ever-evolving balancing act between his origins and a life often spent in predominantly white settings. 

Glover opted to develop Atlanta instead of returning for the sixth season of Community, the highly referential sitcom on which he played lovable Troy Barnes, a jock-ditz whose sweet silliness soon became synonymous with the actor himself in the popular imagination. Glover had landed at the show after leaving Atlanta for undergrad at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, an improv career with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and a stint writing for 30 Rock. He’d first gained onscreen notoriety in 2006 on YouTube as a member of his sketch-comedy troupe Derrick Comedy, known for “Bro Rape,” a faux–investigative report about the phenomenon of preppy and/or fratty guys’ luring in other preppy and/or fratty guys by way of beer and Family Guy. It was an early viral internet video, one that began to develop the idea of Donald Glover as the token black guy who understood white culture so well — maybe even better than he understood black culture — that he was the perfect candidate to skewer it. (Years later, when Lena Dunham was taken to task for the whiteness of Girls in its first season, she turned to Glover for a two-episode, winking arc in which he played her character’s black Republican boyfriend.)

When Glover began a rap career as Childish Gambino in 2011, he was greeted with both deeply enthusiastic fans and harsh critics. The music was an acquired taste that could be understood either as bad improv or phenomenal hip-hop, but mostly it was seen as his “hipster” quirk, a side career, a reputation he wasn’t entirely able to shake even after two Grammy nominations for his second album. Given the complicated way Glover’s race gets rolled up into his image, it’s not exactly surprising that he wants people to realize they’ve yet to learn who he is or where he’s from.

That would be Stone Mountain, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, where his father was a postal worker and his mother a day-care provider. When Glover was putting together the writers’ room for the show, he looked close to home, hiring his younger brother Stephen (who previously worked as a songwriter) as a writer and story editor. The entire writing staff is black, which is virtually unheard of in television. And while many of the cast members and writing staff are Atlanta natives, with the exception of Glover and Stefani Robinson (FXX’s Man Seeking Woman), it was everyone’s first writers’ room. The atmosphere was informal by design, and Glover asked the network if he could skip using an office. Instead, they worked in “just this house in Hollywood called the Factory. We would just sit around and have conversations,” he explained. There, Glover would write during the day and make music at night.

If that environment was anything like the one in Glover’s brother’s living room, it was unfiltered and wide-ranging: the banter among Glover, his brother, and Stephen’s roommate Jamal Olori — also a writer on Atlanta — covered O. J. Simpson, both the ESPN documentary and the FX show (“Our relationship with O.J. is black people’s relationship with America,” said Glover); The Catcher in the Rye (Glover again: “When we were kids, it didn’t make sense to us. This dude is like, ‘Everybody’s phony’ — that’s such a white struggle, not realizing until you’re a teenager that adults are full of shit. Black people learn that real early”); the question of which is the classic, Usher’s 8701 versus Confessions, Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die versus Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (roomwide vacillation on both); and Michael Jordan’s newfound activism (skepticism all around).

Glover picked Hiro Murai, his longtime music-video director, as the primary director for Atlanta over other people he had met with and loved, including Tangerine’s Sean Baker and Creative Control’s Ben Dickinson. “Hiro’d never done narrative before, never done television,” Glover said. “Everybody kept asking, ‘Are you sure you want to do it with him?’ And I’m really glad, because when I’d ask him, ‘Is this normal for a show?’ he’d be like, ‘I have no idea, I don’t know.’ But that’s how we made something personal. We’d do something and then start giggling and be like, ‘That’s tight, this is dope, I’d like to see that.’ ”

FX was supportive of Glover’s vision, even if it didn’t always get it. An original suggestion from the network was for Paper Boi to live in a home as run-down and “traplike” as possible. “We were like, ‘No, he’s a drug dealer, he makes enough money to live in a regular apartment,’ ” Glover said. “There were some things so subtle and black that people had no idea what we were talking about.” One actor purposefully delivered his line in a drawl that was nearly indecipherable if you didn’t grow up in Atlanta. “After three takes, Hiro took me aside and was like, ‘I don’t know what he’s saying.’ To Hiro, this nigga is speaking patois.” Glover laughed. “That character is an artifact. Culturally, we’re becoming very homogenized. That dude isn’t going to be around in seven years. You aren’t going to be able to find him. White people are moving into Bankhead,” one of the historically blackest neighborhoods in Atlanta. Glover paused. “It’s important that dude gets represented in this show.”

Glover’s been thinking about this sense of place for a while. “I needed people to understand I see Atlanta as a beautiful metaphor for black people,” he said to me when I interviewed him last year. In other words, the city — encompassing Martin Luther King Jr., Aquemini, Freaknik, Madea, Gucci Mane, a cluster of historically black colleges, the legacy of Jim Crow, the legacy of the Black Mafia Family, extreme black poverty, 40-plus years of black mayors, extreme black wealth, and perhaps America’s largest black middle class — is an ideal laboratory to explore the true variety of the black experience.

Glover sees his own life as another useful lens on blackness. “I know when I go to Baltimore, when I go to D.C., it’s like 50-50 — half of them are like, ‘I love this dude, this dude’s cool.’ And the other half are like, ‘This coon-ass dude,’ ” he said in his brother’s apartment. “But I have no hate in my heart for no black person ever. Because we’re in a position where the system has fucked us up so bad we can’t always trust each other.”

The actor can sometimes seem moody or like he has a chip on his shoulder. Because, to some degree, he does. As Glover’s career has progressed, he’s become more reclusive, allergic to the world of sharing and oversharing and to the internet culture that helped create him. “A lot of people don’t understand me, which is good. I don’t give a fuck,” Glover said with a shrug. He admires Dave Chappelle, who so famously turned his back on fame at the height of his success. “I just remember Chappelle’s Show, reading interviews, him being like, ‘We just wanted to make this personal.’ So just let me try and make this show as personal as possible, and not just all the nice and fun stuff of being black shown all the time.”

Glover stood up to play some of his new music. In September, he’s throwing a three-day festival in Joshua Tree called Pharos; he’s also got a gig in the next Spider-Man, following successful film turns in The Martian and Magic Mike XXL. But Atlanta is his focus. “You know, I really believe that I have six to eight, maybe ten more years of being dangerous,” Glover said. “With this show, with this music, I’m just trying to make classics. The second season of Atlanta will be a classic.” He also changed the way he thinks about what makes something worthy of that distinction. “I used to time-stamp things, like boom-boom-boom, this will bring me back to fifth grade,” he explained. “Now I want something that, depending on when you listen to it, watch it, it speaks to different things. It changes.”

That makes sense: Glover has been playing around with perception for years. Is Childish Gambino an alter ego? How much of the actor’s personality showed up onscreen in Troy Barnes? Is Glover’s character in Atlanta closer to his true self? How does race factor in to how we judge all these versions of him? He’ll keep exploring identity politics on his show, but he still sees comedy as the backbone of his work. “The No. 1 thing we kept coming back to is that it needs to be funny first and foremost. I never wanted this shit to be important. I never wanted this show to be about diversity; all that shit is wack to me. There’s a lot of clapter going on.” He was referencing a Seth Meyers coinage: politically correct humor that elicits applause but that isn’t actually funny. “A lot of niggas be like …” — Glover started clapping exaggeratedly — “ ‘So true, yes, so, so true.’ But what you did isn’t funny; they’re just clapping and laughing to be on the right side of history.” 

*This article appears in the August 22, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.