How This Year’s Best TV Show Matters to Southern Urbanists

A young man walks down a suburban street, and enters a storage facility. He opens his unit, lays down on the bed inside. He stares down at two $100 bills. He earned them by managing his cousin, an Atlanta rapper.

This closing scene of FX’s Atlanta is emblematic of many of protagonist Earn’s struggles: hustling to earn an income, being homeless, being a provider to his daughter. This scene and many others in the show, which recently won a Golden Globe Award for “Best TV Series Comedy or Musical”, portray the urban issues Atlantans face, namely poverty and auto dependence, while celebrating its hallmark rap scene.

The Atlanta skyline. Photo: Brendan Lim

The backbone of the series is its score, chock full of tracks by Atlanta rappers. Donald Glover, who created the series and stars as Earn, is a hip hop artist himself.

And hip hop is the centerpiece of the series, compelling Earn to seek out his cousin, up and coming rapper Paper Boi. In an Angles blog, Adeyemi Olatunde wrote about the intersection of urban issues and rap music:

Rap, real rap, is a gateway into the lives of some members of our society that is often glamorized by the industry as a one-dimensional space which is crime ridden, drug filled land of immorality.

And the world Glover shows us isn’t glamourous. Paper Boi is party to multiple violent altercations and sells marijuana because rapping doesn’t pay. He lives in multifamily housing, and cannot shake the stereotype of a violent thug. In multiple situations, Paper Boi is denied an opportunity to redefine himself on his own terms.

In another episode, Paper Boi is a member of a panel discussion about transgender issues on a public access network. This exchange in particular speaks to the expectations that society sets for young black men, and how oppression is or isn’t experienced in solidarity.

The host asks him, “Isn’t the lack of a father the reason you hate trans people?” The host has assumed he is from a fatherless home (his reaction is captured in this gif).

“It’s hard for me to care about this when no one cares about me as a black human man,” responds Paper Boi.

Atlanta creator Donald Glover plays Earn, Paper Boi’s cousin and manager. The character is a suburban Atlantan living paycheck to paycheck. Photo: NASA

Glover is intentional to mix identity and setting with Atlanta. After winning the Golden Globe, he told journalists that “I only cared about what people in Atlanta thought. You can’t name a show Detroit and then have Detroit people hate it. I was only caring if my parents thought it was cool, if I could go to a Chick-Fil-A and see that people knew the new Donald Glover show.”

Atlanta is a metropolitan area of many suburbs. One of Earn’s greatest struggles is transportation, having to take the bus or rely on his daughter’s mother or Paper Boi for rides. Grist’s Ben Adler wrote that Atlanta, “is about working-class African-Americans in the Southern suburbs, and it highlights one of the country’s biggest, least-appreciated problems: living without a car in the midst of sprawl.”

Earn’s living situation is reflective of a significant trend in the South, the suburbanization of poverty. The stress Earn faces from having no steady place to call home is palpable in his relationships with other characters, and speaks to the experience of poverty. The portrayal of mobility challenges in Atlanta is also striking. For suburban dwellers, there is a trade off between costs and distance from midtown Atlanta. But transportation costs are higher, and transit is less frequent, evidenced by Earn’s dependence on friends and an infrequent and inconvenient bus system. The series investigates the social impacts of sprawl, but this growth trend has significant carbon footprint consequences, too. And while innovative projects such as the Atlanta BeltLine seek to incorporate a more compact and sustainable urban form in Atlanta, they also raise concerns about affordability and gentrification.

Atlanta’s carbon footprint is more than 10 times greater than Barcelona’s, despite similar population sizes. Source: World Resources Institute

Atlanta is a social commentary on urban form and experience, as is rap music. It is an expression of community, a celebration of culture, and a critique of larger social forces. As a white person, this was the first time I have ever watched a show that portrayed white characters only as flat. Watching this show helped me step into a world I thought I knew quite well (the urban south), but in fact largely misunderstood. Planners can learn quite a bit from interpreting data or reading reports, but they won’t understand life in Atlanta until they watch this series.

Brian Vaughn is an Editorial Board member and undergraduate content editor for CPJ. His favorite Atlanta rapper is André 3000 of Outkast.