It is hard to think of a series in recent memory more committed to putting its environment front and center in the narrative than “Breaking Bad.” Albuquerque is a character from the opening frame of the series, white pants flapping free across a bright, picturesque blue sky: A character just as vibrant, and most would agree integral to the show, as Walter and Jesse (Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul) themselves.
Knowing the series was originally to take place in Riverside, California, makes the show’s focus on its setting that much stronger: The contrast between bright blue skies and blazing red desert typified many of the show’s dichotomies and dilemmas, and provided an evocative backdrop for the show’s most iconic and tense sequences: You cannot think of “Breaking Bad” without thinking of New Mexico, and for a lot of us, the reverse is true as well.
Albuquerque exists, for many of us, as an imaginative blank, already ready to be filled in by “Breaking Bad’s” details, that’s not true for everyone: Everybody lives somewhere. So when FX revealed the September 6 premiere of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” locals and vocal fans of the city were nervous and skeptical about the way their home would be portrayed. Would the series make the city an integral part of its identity, more than just a title? Which “Atlanta” would the show be about, and would it be presented authentically? Or was it simply a “Made in Georgia,” tax-incentivized production decision?
Following two cousins trying to get rich on the promise of one’s burgeoning rap career, it became clear early on in the pilot that “Atlanta” would find itself thoroughly and mindfully rooted in its home terrain: Glover, and director Hiro Murai (who directed all ten episodes of the first season) would make a point of shining subtle, but necessary, spotlights on each of the areas and levels of class, wealth and poverty, and demographics that make up the sprawling city.
In the pilot’s opening credits, a montage of drone footage introduces viewers to the city’s layout, while efficiently revealing the range of its neighborhoods and regions. A class system introduced simply, indelibly and without a single word or monologue to tell us what we’ll be exploring: A suburban cul-de-sac cuts straight to a broken down, burnt building.
For a show about a group of young, black men trying to thrive in a world that insists on holding them down, establishing the environment where they’ve spent their lives is imperative. Murai and Glover make it clear beautifully, subtly and — thankfully for the pilot’s runtime — efficiently.
Later in the episode, the story’s main trio discuss their future and possible wealth, getting high on a broken-down couch in the middle of a field, right alongside upscale apartments and development homes.
This is one of many moments in which the conflicting lifestyles of “Atlanta’s” heroes is laid out before our eyes: Now that Paper Boi’s career is taking off, they are almost close enough to touch what they could always already see.
As Glover’s Earn faces down a power-tripping, white frenemy (Griffin Freeman’s Dave), trying to get his cousin’s rap single in rotation — a hail-mary toward his own path to success — we fall back to frame him in the shadow of the rusted, ugly bridge above: His struggle is to escape a crumbling stasis built long before his time. To build a bridge to something better.
Murai makes his presence known, expertly, in “Atlanta’s” pilot — these moments of visual storytelling are a clear indicator as to Glover’s intent as producer when he contracted him for all ten episodes. Murai comes from the music video scene, making this his first standard narrative work, and it shows: He’s given the city a look and feel that immediately set “Atlanta” apart from any other current show — comedy or otherwise.
We are enthralled, pulled in by the show’s early aesthetic, its bold choices and confidence in their layered meaning. “Breaking Bad” fans have spent years dissecting the show’s visual foreshadowing and storytelling techniques (sometimes even more than actual moments of action or dialogue), and “Atlanta” seems poised to draw — and certainly merit — the same kind of attention.
In a pre-premiere Vulture interview, Donald Glover mentioned his desire, in part, to “show white people, you don’t know everything about Black culture.”
By hiring an entirely black writing team, and trusting the directorial reins to Murai, Glover communicates these themes through more than just plot and dialogue: The story tells itself to us with every channel available, which in the end is always what sets the award-winners and buzzy prestige shows apart. As each episode builds on those that have come before, the art direction and larger patterns and themes will continue to reveal themselves — just like Atlanta herself.