Television Workshop: Donald Glover's Atlanta

By Caleb Michael Sarvis


"The Club"


“This is meaningless,” Darius says in this episode. He’s responding to his being denied access to a VIP section in the club, but as he fades away out of the shot, the phrase permeates through the rest of the episode. It’s also the last we see of him until the end.

The majority of the episode takes place in the club, perfectly titled Primal, save for the last five minutes or so. In the tradition of last week, rather than work through the episode chronologically, I’m interested in breaking down some of the recognizable writer decisions by Jamaal Olori, writer of this week’s episode.

On a Closed Setting

This is an effective move in short fiction. Take a cast of characters, some familiar, some unfamiliar, and put them together in a small space. Primal, the club, is actually quite big, but, in relation to the rest of the world, is small enough that our characters can’t get too far from one another. Additionally, there’s a lot to be said about the modern club scene that ends up being said in this episode. The air of bravado and flashy façade we are supposed to buy into brings a lot of social baggage with it, and as a result, gives the writer an opportunity to explore their characters as compared or contrasted to that baggage.

Clubs are mysterious. Between the strobe lights, the roped off couches, or the elongated bars in the corner, there’s a lot to question and explore. This is why Chris, the promoter that owes Earn and Alfred money, is able to slip away when Earn goes looking for him. There are plenty of shadows to lurk in, literally and metaphorically. The club music itself inspires its own situational study. DJs manipulate our comfortable familiarity by stretching or chopping songs we know into bass thumping, heart-beat emulating tracks. When we are at the club, we are letting our inhibitions go. This can do wonders for a writer, especially when you have characters that aren’t willing to let themselves fall in line. When Chris disappears behind a secret wall and Earn says, “I hate shots,” before downing one, the episode immediately picks up pace. The bartender offers a human perspective on his disdain for the club atmosphere, all the while serving him more shots.

Walls are made to be broken in a story. When you put characters in a closed setting, they immediately desire to leave it. (Think Clerks, “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”) Earn finds himself pulling a fire alarm to open a secret passageway that leads him to Chris. He vomits on the floor, demands his five-thousand dollars, and leaves with seven hundred fifty. The isolation, while still within the club, works in elevating the significance of the scene.

On the Surreal and Fight against Genre

Strobe Light Disappearing Act. Secret Passageway. Man rubbing his nipples. Vomiting with no consequence. Sure, these things are bought into by the audience. Atlanta has earned that trust. It’s also earned so much more. Outside the club, they laugh about Alfred’s beating Chris into giving him the money. They laugh more as a scuffle breaks out between two drunkards. The incident, as most of the episode, is pretty funny. Then shots are fired. The hoard of people run away, jump into the cars, including Earn and Alfred, to escape the violence. This show has proven that it will turn violent in the blink of an eye (something I don’t believe it should justify whatsoever). IMDB and my On-Demand menu list Atlanta as a comedy, and while it’s funny, I don’t think it wants to be under any genre. Atlanta wants to be a story.

As they hop into their cars, there’s the roar of a vehicle we never see. We catch a glimpse of someone in a seated, driving position, but no sign of a car. It’s invisible. There’s mention of the invisible car earlier in the episode, when Darius shows Alfred pictures posted by Marcus Miles, point-guard for the Hawks (and club’s special guest). The pictures look like a fun joke, something anyone could post at any time. “That shit ain’t real, man,” Alfred says.

But in the end, it’s there. Someone in Atlanta drives an invisible car. That’s the nature of this story.

I don’t know if that’s a joke or not, but it’s certainly audacious.

The episode closes at a diner (which reminded me of the diner used in Childish Gambino’s music video for “Sweatpants” – also directed by Hiro Murai, but after re-watching I can confirm they are different diners). Earn and Alfred recant the story of the shooting outside the club. They are laughing again now that they are safe, and the audience is okay because we just watched an invisible car drive into the commercial break. The moment feels nice and warm, until the news reports the shooting outside of Primal, and a woman names Paper Boi a suspect for an armed robbery.

Alfred’s face melts into a shamed, wounded expression before he says, “Fuck the club.”

Two Things Working for Me: First, small details continue to mean great things. Marcus Miles not only has an invisible car, but he has a pet peacock that wears a leather jacket. Darius doesn’t have the required yellow wrist band, but he does have a purple one and a red one. Earn doesn’t scare people the way Alfred does and is easily taken advantage of. Second, the invisible car was a fucking treat. Its return is a beautiful fulfillment of an earlier promise. Not only does it catch me off guard, it runs over people as it drives away. I didn’t catch it the first time, but on the second watch there are definitely bodies tumbling in the air.

Two Thing I’m Not Sold On: I’m not a fan of the wise bartender. It makes sense that Earn would get drunk on his own, but I would have preferred one of the patrons buy him drinks and talk his ear off. The wise bartender with the slice of perspective is a tired move, even if it’s in a club. I like her telling him about the fire alarm, though. This episode also missed a glaring opportunity to use Zan. Maybe the club isn’t his scene, but Zan should have been slinging shirts or tailgating in Paper Boi’s VIP section. His phone should have been in the room when Alfred slapped Chris with the stack of cash.

Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer in Jacksonville, where he lives with his wife and works as the Fiction Editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine. He'd love to hear from you: @calebmsarvis