Commentary: It’s hard to explain Atlanta to outsiders, but FX’s Atlanta gets it

Donald Glover has proven himself a worthy ambassador to tell our story
Atlanta FX
Photograph courtesy of FX

For Atlantans, translating what it means to live or be from here to outsiders can prove to be a challenge, and we tend to show more than tell. We sometimes do this with the things we’ve come to understand as shorthand for the city: We complain about the humidity. We groan about the traffic. We bring a friend to homecoming weekend at our historically black colleges. We blast trap music. We go to the grocery store in heels and full makeup, because you never know.

We also point to things Atlanta is not. (We’re looking at you, Married to Medicine, Real Housewives, and Love & Hip Hop Atlanta.) But while you can find Atlanta’s fingerprints all over national pop culture—look at the beats that launch the latest dance crazes like the TZ or the Running Man Challenge or the Nae Naenot everyone sees Atlantans for who we really are.

As a Grady-born black child who grew up in the shadow of the city, I learned early: To be an Atlantan is an inheritance, and to whom much is given and much is expected. Among those who have best been able to tell our story are rap historians like Jermaine Dupri, Outkast, Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy. They delighted outsiders and locals alike with their drawl, their swagger, their words, and the videos that put the city on display. To be an Atlantan is to put the city on your back and demand the respect that doesn’t come easy to Southerners.

Even our airport reinforces the idea: Regardless of who you are, where you’re from, or where you’re going, at some point, you will pass through Atlanta—but, as the saying goes, “You flew here; we grew here.”

Then came Donald Glover, the Stone Mountain native best known for his role on NBC’s Community and his rap career as Childish Gambino, to tell our story with FX’s Atlanta. No matter that he isn’t “from here,” technically. As anyone from the ten surrounding counties who claim to be natives can tell you, Atlanta is more than a place; it is a feeling.

In ten episodes, Glover has proven himself a worthy ambassador. Even in just the first episode’s opening credits, Atlanta, which films in the metro area, captured the city perfectly: The lush trees—a subtle nod to our sleepy roots—are interrupted by the snarling highways that give way to the concrete and steel that rise from what seem like a thousand Peachtrees. Cranes dot the skyline, a symbol of the new and constantly changing place that began as Terminus nearly 180 years ago.

For Atlantans, the show is a mirror, an inside joke, and a celebration of our daily lives. To be sure, there is a story arc of sorts: the misadventures of a band of brothers navigating love, family, friendship, 20-something angst, and dreams deferred—all while functionally stoned. But Atlanta‘s real appeal lies in its ephemera—the scenes that make us locals stare at the television, mouth agape, wondering, “Did anybody else just see that?” before taking to Twitter to confirm that yes, your fellow Atliens just caught it, too.

The heavenly moment the trio opens a box of lemon pepper wings from J.R. Crickets? Been there. And when the transcendent first beats of Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck” dropped on national television, we were all taken to the place that can still incite the ratchet rapture in even the most professional Atlien.

Atlanta—the city—is nothing if not a series of seeming contradictions. In truth, it is the inevitable coexistence of things and people that comes from a place nicknamed “The City Too Busy to Hate.” It is big-box Chevys and Maybachs at Publix, Hennessy at the ballet, Madea and Martin Luther King Jr., the homeless man with a degree in urban planning.

Atlanta sees this, too. How does someone as trifling as Earn get into Princeton? Paper Boi has a hit song, yet still lives in the bando—because who doesn’t have a hit song in Atlanta? Van is the Responsible One with a hood streak. And Darius simply and wonderfully defies any explanation.

What also makes Atlanta work are the archetypes that are so Atlanta: The crackhead valet working in the parking lot of the expensive restaurant, the transgender inmate in holding at the jail, the woman in the club with every intention of sitting atop her rightful perch in VIP all night—and with absolutely no other intentions—the Negro spiritual singers on the manse stairway, and on and on.

These scenes are organic, not the forced interactions that pass for plotlines on reality television. The show manages to be Atlanta just by being. Like the humidity. Or traffic. Or Hawks’ games.

Atlanta is not an easy thing to explain to the uninitiated, which is why Atlanta matters, what it means to be from here, what it’s like to grow up here, date here, party here, hustle here, but never do we relieve ourselves of the burden of trying. Now, we aborigines can simply point to a 30-minute episode and say, “Watch this.”

And much like the city, you either get Atlanta or you don’t.

Errin Haines Whack is an award-winning journalist who covered Georgia politics and urban affairs in Atlanta for more than a decade. She is a native of Fairburn, Georgia, and tweets at @emarvelous.