As a show about a trio of black men just trying to survive, FX’s Atlanta hasn’t shied away from taking risks in its first season. With its fifth episode, “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” which aired this week, the already-groundbreaking show pushed the boundaries even further by constructing an episode around a racebent Justin Bieber. Specifically, a black Bieber. That parody has since become a meme — as most things involving the Biebs do — but it’s also being discussed as the pinnacle of showrunner Donald Glover’s canon. Interestingly, “Black Bieber” was largely the brainchild of Donald’s younger brother, Stephen Glover (not to be confused with Steve-O), who wrote this and several of Atlanta’s best episodes so far. (Those poignant jail scenes in episode two? All Stephen’s writing.) Calling from his Atlanta number, Glover spoke with Vulture about writing Black Bieber, how even FX didn’t quite get it, being a first-time TV writer, and why he thought Atlanta would get canceled.
How did the idea to parody Justin Bieber start?
We had a lot of ideas that we talked about before we were even picked up for a show, back when the pilot was done and we were just talking about ideas for potential episodes. Me, Donald, and our friend Swank — who also writes on the show — I’m not even exactly sure how we got to that idea, but it was one we’ve had for a long time. Our show’s not really about messages — I know it seems like there are — but we try to give people things that make them ask their own questions. Black Justin Bieber was just a good idea for that. There’s this movie called The Counselor that we talked about a lot. It’s a really good-looking movie, weird, surreal, and there are things that happen in it that just make you want to watch it. I feel like this episode is kind of like that. Our show’s super-grounded in reality, most of the time, and we’re able to play with reality. What would happen in a real way if something’s just changed slightly?
What was the thought process behind making him racebent?
When we had the idea, we thought about how to do this because there were a lot of different ways it could go. At one point, he was gonna be a light-skinned guy with blonde hair. But then we thought, No, he should look nothing like Justin Bieber. He should be just a regular black guy. There’s a lot of reasons why it’s a good idea because it makes you ask yourself questions about the way you perceive Justin Bieber. Also, no black kid’s ever gonna get the job to portray Justin Bieber. This was a chance for this to happen. You know, no one’s ever gonna be like, “We need to do a movie about Howard Hughes. Time to cast Idris Elba!” [Laughs.] This is something we’re never gonna get to see unless we do it ourselves.
Were you involved in casting Austin Crute in the role?
Yeah. There were a lot of people we looked at, and it was a weird thing, because it’s one of those ideas where we were like, Are we crazy for doing this? This makes sense to you guys, right? My brother, especially, was like, “You seem to have a pretty good handle on this, so you should write this episode.” With the casting, I looked over a lot of videos. But the kid who ended up being Bieber is a guy Donald really liked. It turned out good because he doesn’t look like Justin Bieber at all. But it’s perfect because he makes it his own. I still have people asking if that’s Justin Bieber; they’re still not sure. They think we were hiding him in the episode.
I initially thought it was the white guy behind Crute who the journalist was calling out as Bieber. Then it clicks, and it’s such an aha moment.
It’s so jarring, and the director Hiro Murai helped with that casting, too. You’re not gonna see this on a lot of other shows. I don’t wanna say too much about what we mean by everything that we do because, honestly, Bieber being black has a lot of layers to it. It means a lot of different things.
I took it as a parody of both his behavior — he really did pee backstage! — and the way he latched onto black culture earlier in his career. But it’s also a parody of the way we’re so quick to forgive a white pop star versus a black rapper like Paper Boi.
Just making him black [subverts] it all.
Were there any legal ramifications to using Bieber’s name? Could he sue?
The only thing I remember that was so great about it — me and Donald laughed so much — was when we sent in the script and this lady who does development at FX sent an email back like, “Um, can we actually get Justin Bieber to do this?” [Laughs.] She didn’t even understand that it wasn’t going to be him. She was like, “How are you gonna get him to do any of this?” It was kind of crazy with this show. Once we shot the pilot, people started to be like, “These guys are a little crazy or different, but we can still trust them. Maybe they know what they’re doing.” So with the Bieber episode, they were confused at first. A lot of people were.
But they never tried to stop you once they figured out the premise?
No. But that script definitely got looked over. Just so they could have their input and everybody could feel out the best way to make it good. Everybody was like, “How can we do this the right way, that makes it fit within the tone of our show?” We had to stop and look at that one a little bit.
Did you also write the parody song that Donald performs at the end?
Actually Donald did that one. This producer Ludwig [Göransson], who he works with on his Childish Gambino stuff, did the beat. It was kind of like a real Donald song. We just know that Justin Bieber sound — it’s minimal pop right now. That’s exactly what Donald asked Ludwig for. The lyrics are this weird double meaning, but it’s still a pop song where you’re not paying attention.
That’s also you rapping “Paper Boi” earlier in the season. How did you get involved with the show’s music, as well as writing?
Well, I’ve been rapping for a long time. That beat is from a friend of mine who produces a lot of my stuff, and it was kind of the same process that I use for my own music. We had talked about what kind of rapper we wanted Paper Boi to be — this Southern Atlanta, like Gucci Mane or Jeezy, type of trap rapper. I channeled that. The lyrics aren’t too intense, it’s just catchy. We’re not here to try to hit you over the head with a million lyrics, but you’re still getting something. It reminded me of old Jeezy. There’s also a club episode later in the season that has some original music. We’ll definitely be doing more.
Not only is Atlanta your first writers room, but you also wrote the bulk of the first half of the season. How has that experience been for you?
I didn’t feel a lot of pressure. We always went into this show with the idea that if we do it the way that we believe is good, it’ll be okay. The writer’s room is super-chill — Donald, of course being my brother, helps. My boss is my brother, in a way; we can talk on a regular level. Me and the other writers used to meet at Donald’s house and we would just talk about ideas, things that are going on in life, current events. It was always a super-relaxed vibe, but the focus was, we gotta make something great that we would wanna watch. We thought, We’ll do this and maybe people will hate it. We used to joke, “We’ll get canceled and just become one of those shows that was only on for four episodes. But at least we got to do some crazy stuff!” I never thought about the fact that I wrote most of the season until it was over. I felt like I had a better idea of the tone than everybody else just because I’m Donald’s brother. We understood that humor off the bat, so it was a good idea for me to write those episodes. I still feel like we can do things better. I’m looking forward to season two already. We’re still building this world and we can tighten that up for next year.
Have you already started brainstorming for season two?
We’ve been talking and laughing about stuff. For the first season — even the Justin Bieber episode — those ideas really did come from us just joking around.
So it’s never formal meetings in some boardroom.
It was still a writers room, but it was a weird setting ‘cause we were in a house in the Hollywood Hills. It was a super-relaxed environment — we’re all just sitting on couches instead of an office. The way we talk about ideas is super-organic. I’m glad people aren’t too weirded out by the Justin Bieber episode and could handle it ‘cause there’s some weirder stuff to come.
This interview has been edited and condensed.