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Donald Glover: "We Never Wanted 'Atlanta' To Feel Important"

The multi-talented actor discusses his new FX show, breaking stereotypes, and why the city of Atlanta is still full of possibility.

Donald Glover: "We Never Wanted 'Atlanta' To Feel Important"

Donald Glover as Earnest Marks in Atlanta

[Photo: Matthias Clamer, courtesy of FX]

Donald Glover has come a long way. A decade ago, the Stone Mountain, Georgia native achieved viral fame as a member of Derrick Comedy, one of the first comedy groups to breakthrough on the internet, before heading to the writers’ room at 30 Rock and landing a career-defining turn as Troy Barnes on Community. Somewhere in between, he managed to launch a successful rap career under the moniker, Childish Gambino, and star in a few blockbuster films (The Martian, Magic Mike XXL) for good measure.

But next Tuesday, September 6, will see Glover finally share a television project of his own, when FX premieres his solo effort, the moody and clever Atlanta. The dramedy follows Earnest ‘Earn’ Marks (Glover), a young father desperate to hitch his wagon to the rising star of his drug dealer-slash-aspiring rapper cousin, Alfred ‘Paper Boi’ Miles. Fast Company spoke with Glover—shortly after he appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon alongside the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team—about his own rising star, what it was like to return to the South more than a decade after leaving, and how he hopes the show’s characters will defy television archetypes.

How was Fallon last night?

It was cool, though I don’t watch those things. But the Olympic team was really cool to meet. They were like, really sweet and funny.

They looked like they were having the time of their lives.

Yeah, they were in the hallway. It sounded like a party. Their whole families were there. And also, you forget, they’re like 16. So, it sounds like a high school hallway from the outside. You hear people cackling and laughing and running. They have all this pressure and they’re like 16.

Yeah, Aly Raisman is only 22.

And Gabby’s 20! She can’t even drink. It’s really funny.

You were there in support of Atlanta and I have to say I loved the show. I thought it was funny and well done. And I’m from Marietta, [Georgia] so I was watching it and thought, This is too real. It hits too close to home.

That's crazy. So, you understand.

Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles in Atlanta[Photo: Guy D'Alema, courtesy of FX]

Most definitely. When did the idea for Atlanta form in your mind? Was it a revelation or were you thinking about it for a long time?

It just kind of fermented for a long time. I think it’s kind of your job to slow down time while you’re making a project, kind of like aiming for a bullseye. I think the farther away and the more you commit to things, the worse it’s probably going to be. So, you have to keep it fluid. I had the idea for a long time, but it changed because of the people I wanted involved in it and because television changed so quickly. It took a while to actually understand what we were going for. My brother, [Stephen Glover] me, and [series director] Hiro Murai kind of sat down and kicked to each other what we wanted out of the show.

Was it always going to be based around someone like Earn, someone who is struggling, or were there other iterations of the show that you had in mind?

At a certain point, it was just going to be a different tone. I wanted different people to play [Earn’s cousin] Alfred. It was going to be a completely different tone. But Earn’s character, my character, I never was planning on it to be that. I just knew it was necessary at a certain point. If the tone of the show is going to be about playing with the idea of realism, I felt like you needed a character that touched on something that people probably don’t always see, so it felt a little real. I feel like everybody’s like, ‘We try to play it real.’ But I didn’t want to make any archetypes that were too in your face. I feel like Earn is an archetype that’s not too in your face.

I also found Paper Boi, Earn’s rapper cousin, to be a particularly compelling character. He’s a drug dealer, which fits a very certain stereotype, but then you see him alongside people who are even more one-dimensional than him and suddenly you know he’s unique. How does he play into your vision for the show?

Stereotypes come from somewhere. People just don’t know people. I just tried to show a real person. With everybody on the show, it’s like, let’s make sure they’re real people. The second they don’t feel like real people, it feels more like a sitcom to people, which we didn’t want to do. I was like, I don’t want to make it a sitcom. I don’t want it to feel like what people think about when they say, "sitcom." Let’s make sure these characters feel like people and you’re surprised and interested when they make a decision based on their experiences. So, with Earn and Paper Boi and [Paper Boi's friend] Darius, I was like, let’s make sure that their friendship feels honest and then after that they can do whatever they need to do. I feel like people forget how much they’re different from their friends, how often people’s friends are very different and have different ideas and they come together to smoke or chill, but you live completely different lives and sometimes your philosophies cross and sometimes they don’t. And that's what makes for an interesting relationship.

To that point, the phrase that kept cycling through my head while I was watching the show was "everyday blackness." The blackness that people see on TV or on social media is either black tragedy or black magic, but black people have beds and they sleep in them for eight hours a night, like everyone else. Was that a part of what you were trying to convey?

We never wanted the show to feel important. I really wanted it to be a funny show first and foremost and I felt like real life is enough. I feel like real life is crazy enough and weird enough and has enough insane elements that it feels extraordinary regardless. It never really was our goal to make people feel like, ‘Oh, I’m going to see everyday blackness,’ even though you probably will. It’s interesting, watching it with a crowd yesterday, we got huge laughs in parts where I was like, "Wow, I always felt like this show was kind of slow." A lot of things move in real time on our show. So, it was cool that these people relate and actually laugh like it was Bridesmaids or something. There were big laughs.

The show does have a certain lethargy to it, which I find to be so authentically Southern. I found myself listening to the cicadas and trains going by and these sounds that are very much a part of that landscape. Because Atlanta’s a big city, but it’s still in the woods.

Yeah, it’s still very Southern. We tried to make it feel like the jungle because it does feel like going different places in Brazil and places like that. There’s a lot of greenery and Atlanta just feels like it’s plopped in the middle of nature and there’s all this green around it. Like on the outskirts, where the jungle actually happens, where it’s actually kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, a kind of a mentality happens. We wanted to make it feel like the woods or the jungle with the cicadas and the sounds and everything that’s out there to make it feel a little more like early man almost. It’s about hearing things and they might be scary or they might just be textures of the world around you.

Something that I also noticed audio-wise is you do music supervision on the show, which is a job that showrunners usually export to a studio. And the musical picks are pretty diverse: There’s Shabazz Palaces, Beach House, Bill Withers, and a lot of hardcore rap. When you were putting together the soundtrack for Atlanta, what mood were you trying to set through the music?

We wanted to make a punk show, that was the thing we really wanted. So, in order to do punk, it just needed to feel like it shouldn’t be on television. And we just knew that music wasn’t going to be on television, that people aren’t playing 21 Savage or Kodak Black on television yet because there’s no place for that. So, everything needed to feel real so when things that may not necessarily feel real immediately happen, they’re justified and grounded. So, it felt like all these song choices, which were made by Fam Udeorji, who’s a music consultant, me, Hiro, [music supervisor] Jen Malone, and the editing staff. We were all playing around. I would come in and listen and it was nice because it was very collaborative. I remember one time I came in and I was like, "Oh, that’s such a good song! Good job! Who chose that?" And Hiro was like, ‘You did. You chose it. You wrote it in the script.’ [laughs] It did feel very collaborative and all the music came from a place of if something felt too cool for the moment, we’d talk about it. If it felt too mainstream, we’d talk about it and change it up and make sure to represent Atlanta, but also to represent a mood.

I mean, I feel like it’s a good enough mix of music that it could have its own soundtrack. Have you considered that?

I think a lot of people will really want the soundtrack and I’ve been kind of batting it around. It’s hard to do soundtracks now because they’re always just, like, content and I don’t want it to be content. I don’t want it to be a playlist because it just gets eaten so fast and music, as part of the world, is cooler if people just feel it.

Zazie Beetz as Van[Photo: Matthias Clamer, courtesy of FX]

Back to the show itself, I know you were back in Georgia for filming, but how long has it been since you lived in Georgia full-time?

High school. High school is the last time I really lived in Atlanta.

And you never really got over the city?

It’s definitely a distinct way of life that you go back into really fast. My sister had a birthday down there and we went to a karaoke bar and the area was pretty close to where I grew up, but things changed and hadn’t changed at the same time. Things that were there, like a pho house, I was like, "That wasn’t there when I was a kid." But at the same time, it’s still predominantly black. I think the inner city of Atlanta has gentrified a lot. The east side of Atlanta—when I was growing up, [the] Zone 6 [neighborhood] was not anything. It’s funny to me because it’s changed a great deal, but at the same time it hasn’t changed. People are just realizing that Atlanta has a lot of potential, which is half of the reason I really wanted to do a show there. It just moves slower than everywhere else, which allows people to "discover" it.

I feel like you also did a lot of opportunity-giving with this show. Your director, Hiro Murai, is best known for being a music video director; your brother, Stephen, is writing episodes, and most of the people in the writer’s room are from Atlanta. When you were creating this show, how did you think about lifting up the people around you and promoting voices that aren’t necessarily well-represented?

Honestly, I just kind of looked at it like you kind of have a responsibility. I always wanted to give back to Atlanta. I feel responsible to do that because when I was there, it was hard for me to find anything. There’s no information. I tried to get to New York as soon as possible because I knew there was stuff there and if I was there, I would be able to find it somehow. This is before the internet. You just had to work at [Atlanta’s] Shakespeare Tavern and hope for the best. You didn’t know how that stuff worked. So, I feel like it’s my responsibility to do something with this show, but also hiring the people around me from my brother to Hiro. I’ve been in television long enough to know what is good quality and that’s all I was interested in. If the quality’s good, let everyone around me be a part of that and I can help direct them toward what I feel is good quality. The jokes need to be funny, the quality needs to be high. It never felt like a burden or something that I thought about. FX, at first, I'm sure were like, ‘You’re just hiring all your friends,’ which isn’t wrong. But I knew they were special. Like, none of them had ever been in the system before, so none of them were thinking in terms of the industry, which kept me real. We got something authentic out of Atlanta because nobody there had worked on any shows really before other than me.

[Photo: Matthias Clamer, courtesy of FX]

You do have a lot of industry experience. I remember watching Derrick Comedy videos in my high school newspaper class and now, 10 years later, we’re talking about the TV show you created. How have your experiences with Community, 30 Rock, stand up, and Childish Gambino affected your vision for this show?

It’s been interesting to have to grow in public. It’s weird. I definitely took a lot of knowledge, but I think that’s everything. You take what you learned from the last project and then you apply it to the next thing whether that be social or political or art-wise. It definitely helped to have a lot of projects, especially seeing how Tina Fey worked on 30 Rock or how Dan Harmon worked on Community.

Did you take anything in particular from watching Tina or Dan run their own shows?

I liked the way Tina ran a room. She had a really good balance of being—and I mean this in the best way possible—afraid of her. She was super smart. She was always the smartest, funniest person in the room. But you wanted to impress her. At least I did when I was younger. But you really wanted to make your jokes good. In some cases, you’d overthink the joke you were about to pitch. But I liked the way she ran a room because we were allowed to be creative, but you had to be diligent and come in on time. And also you got to see how hard she was working. At the time, she only had one daughter. But she would come play with her and then you’d go over to her house and write at her house in the living room after she put her daughter down. And then she’d run back down stage to film and then come back up for a little bit. That always really inspired me, like, you can do whatever. I just really liked how she ran a room.

And what’s your own managerial style?

I’m a little more lax. [laughs] I mean, we did it out of my house, this place called The Factory. I kind of did it a lot like her in a sense. We would think and talk and I would be working on music or other projects in between and doing an interview and running around. It was similar in the sense that I was running around a lot. I feel like the best ideas come from people not feeling like they have to have the best ideas. Some days, we were lost. Some days, we would just sit down and watch TV episodes and laugh and talk about why those episodes were good, which sometimes felt like was less work than I wanted, but at the same time—

You got it done. You got a show, it’s coming out.

It’s coming out. Actually, we don’t have any shows. There’s a lot of promos, but we only got those four episodes you’ve seen. We haven't finished. It’s all a lie.

What do you want people to be left with when they finish season one of Atlanta?

I honestly just want people to walk away wanting to see more. I want people to walk away being excited. I don’t like shows where you know exactly what’s going to happen next on some level. I want this show to keep people on their toes.

And a locally focused question: Will the characters ever go to [world-famous strip club/music venue], Magic City?

I can’t guarantee that. I feel like strip clubs are a very important part of the culture in Atlanta, but Magic City is almost a tourist trap at this point. It’s a tourist-y place, where people are like, ‘Oh, you have to go to Magic City.’ I would need to use Magic City perfectly and maybe show some other strip clubs to show Atlanta taste. We’re not just going straight to the bulls-eye, you know? There are a bunch of other great strip clubs, regional strip clubs that are great.

Yet, I’m not sure if America is ready for the Clermont Lounge.

I know they’re not ready. That's exactly why we’re going to probably go there.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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