deep dives

Tracing the Career Arc of Donald Glover, a Bonafide Quintuple Threat

Donald Glover. Illustration: Bráulio Amado/Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

This July, Donald McKinley Glover Jr. — actor, writer, comedian, rapper, showrunner, idealistic musician boyfriend of Rihanna in the recent anti-capitalist diaspora fable Guava Island and non-swole fashion icon who looks great in Gucci — plays Simba in the live-action remake of The Lion King.

Where’d He Come From?

➽ He was born on September 25, 1983, on Edwards Air Force Base in California, the oldest of a brood including three biological children, two adopted children, and one foster child. (His mother also ran a day-care out of the garage.) He grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where the KKK was refounded in 1915 and which is home to an enormous Confederate monument carved into said mountain. He’s called it “a pimple on the ass of the earth.”

Because He Was Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, Most Pop Culture Was Forbidden (Except Star Wars, Which His Father, Whom He’s Called a “Black Nerd,” Okayed)

➽ He would secretly tape the audio of Simpsons broadcasts and re-create them with his brother Stephen. (In high school, he was voted “Most Likely to Write for The Simpsons.”)

His School Years

➽ He attended a performing-arts high school outside Atlanta. He auditioned with Cameron’s defiant closing monologue from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and a Boyz II Men song.

➽ In high school, he took dance classes, ballet, and tap. Fellow students assumed he was closeted.

➽ He was a virgin who’d never had a drink when he got to NYU, where he studied dramatic writing and did medical studies for cash. He lost his virginity to a trap song.

➽ He formed a college sketch group called Derrick Comedy. Its most popular YouTube video, with 11 million views, is a 2006 TV-newsmagazine parody about “bro rape.”

He’s on a Mission

➽ “Part of the reason I do what I do is that I’m the only one who can do it.”

But There’s One Person Who Can Intimidate Him

➽ Beyoncé, his co-star on The Lion King.

His Big Break

➽ He was hired as a writer on 30 Rock right out of NYU. “Donald was our only African-American writer at the time, but his real diversity was that he was our only ‘cool young person’ who could tell us what the ‘kids were listening to these days,’ ” Tina Fey recalled in her memoir. One line he wrote for Kenneth the Page: “It’s hard for me to watch American Idol ’cause there’s a water bug on my channel-changer.”

You Can Skip Writing a Joke for Him

➽ In 2009, he starred as ex-jock Troy Barnes on Community, where he proved such a reliable improviser that the show’s scripts would simply state “Donald says something funny.”

His Non-Wedding Plans

➽ When he was a child, he dreamed of becoming a wedding planner. He does not currently believe in marriage.

➽ He has two children with his partner, Michelle. Parenthood, he says, is “like ayahuasca.”

His Music

➽ He performs under the name Childish Gambino (which comes from an online Wu-Tang “name generator”) to make it clear he isn’t doing comedy raps. He calls his early efforts “decrepit Drake” and early on described his female fans as “pretty girls who try to be geeks but obviously aren’t.”

➽ He credits drugs with making him a better rapper.

➽ His favorite karaoke song is Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.”

➽ Pitchfork called his debut album “one of the most uniquely unlikable rap records of this year.” He says the pan “put a lot of people on my side.”

➽ He has spoken periodically of his intent to retire from music.

➽ By the standards of awards ceremonies, his music career (five Grammys) is more than twice as successful as his television one (two Emmys).

➽ He spent three years tinkering with the song that became “This Is America.” It was finally released in May 2018, in part because of his SNL-hosting gig.

Mortality / Immortality

➽ As a young man, he fantasized about his 78th birthday, which he would celebrate by doing every crazy thing he hadn’t yet done. He stopped doing this once he realized most men in his family die in their mid-60s.

➽ Disney digitally scanned his likeness for his role as Lando in Solo. He wonders whether it will now be used to put him in more films after his death.

➽ He decided to leave Community because “I knew I was gonna die. And if I knew that it was just like, ‘This guy from Community died,’ I’d be really disappointed.”

His ‘Look’

➽ He’s gone shirtless with his semi–dad bod. Said the Reddit r/donaldglover, “Shoutouts to Donald for promoting healthy male body image.”

What He Said About Execs

➽ “You have to make them understand that you speak their language — that you speak old white man.”

What Dan Harmon Said About Him

➽ “If I were Donald Glover, I would try eating the moon.”

*This article appears in the July 8, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Tracing the Career Arc of Donald Glover, a Quintuple Threat