Pilot Season: ATLANTA

Donald Glover’s Atlanta is unique in many ways: it plays with style, tone, and ancient mythology while still staying mostly grounded in reality; it evokes a hyper-specific place* but with characters you could imagine living in most US cities; it hits a dark notes most US half-hours won’t come near; it clearly utilises Glover’s experience in the music industry without being so inside-baseball a casual viewer can’t follow.

Glover’s show pushes boundaries hard, especially in S2, partly enabled by where he was in his career, and who he was working with. But a pilot: a pilot still has to sell to the producer, the network, and the audience. So let’s look at how Atlanta’s pilot works as an episode of TV, something which introduces a series and shows us who these characters are, but also tells its own story.

The opening scene starts en medias res; we meet the characters and are immediately thrown into the chaos of their situation. Because we’re in an intense situation, character personalities and tendencies are heightened, so we immediately see Earn as a nervous, attempted-peacemaker, Paper Boi / Alfred as an impulsive, in-your-face type, and Darius as a stoner.

BANG. The inciting incident occurs just before the 2-minute mark. We’re in with a vengeance.

After the credits, we’re in a wholly different scene: the first was night, chaos, full of people, this is daytime, quiet, just two people.

It’s hardly new to begin an episode with a Big Event and then flashback (some may argue so tired it’s exhausted; don’t tell Vince Gilligan). Two things here make it work. The first is the constant ingredient in these scenarios: a million tiny things which boil down to how well it’s executed / how it ends. This is something the audience has to trust in, so the intervening material must be interesting on its own, and you can’t infinitely drag it out, much as certain series try. The second crucial ingredient is the scene immediately following. Atlanta gives no obvious THAT MORNING chyron; we’re not sure where we are in relation to the opening scene, and crucially, Earn’s first comments are about a dream he had, casting doubt on how much of the opening scene was ‘reality.’

Earn’s dream is the subject of a conversation which introduces us to Vanessa, seemingly Earn’s girlfriend. This scene is wildly different than the opener, a situation many viewers wouldn’t’ve found themselves in. Its elements are relatable to anyone who’s had a significant other: discussion of a dream; joking-are-we-joking-oh-danger-ok-whew about what that person did in the dream; kissing, then verbal missteps leading to an actual fight. We begin to wonder how this ties into the opener when bam, 5-minute mark, new information: Earn and Vanessa have a kid, Lottie.

The ensuing mundane-ish conversation is also relatable to almost anyone, even if only from hearing others do it over and over: negotiating rent and life details, sorting childcare schedules. Then CASUAL BOMB DROP! Van mentions she has a date; so we learn they’re in an open, casual, or at least non-traditional, relationship.

Cut to Earn at his day job chatting to his coworker Swiff about the above; Earn mentions with Van dating, he may be getting kicked out of the house. This colours in some of the prior sketching; he and Van are casual and Earn has a place to stay with only sometimes. Swiff mentions Earn is high, so we know he regularly smokes on the job / to handle anxiety around said living situation. There’s a short, silent-comedy bit with their boss before . . .

Earn walks up to a house quickly revealed to be his parent’s house, crucially, wearing the outfit he was wearing in the opening scene. I have two pilot scripts for Atlanta [more on that later] and neither specifies his outfit from ‘work clothes’ to ‘night of the shooting’ clothes. In some scripts the action lines would flag this for the reader eg: “Earn wears the same outfit as the gas station parking lot” is more explicit than in both cases noting “Earn is wearing a red tee with blue sleeves over denim shorts,” and the difference could be down to anything from the writer’s style, to what the writer really wants the reader to focus on for the in any given scene.

Earn has an exchange with his parents which is fraught and references a history without spelling anything out too laboriously; this is a fine line to walk, and it’s inevitable in a pilot some things will be exposition-y, but every scene so far has approached it from a slightly different angle, so it feels fairly organic. They’re literally talking shit, which is funny and gross and absurd on its own, as well.

The above four scenes show Earn in quite different environments. Every conversation must serve at least some of the following four purposes: tell us about his situation, tell us about his personality, further the episode’s plot, and entertain. Before the 9-minute mark, we know Earn is broke and about to be kicked out of his kinda-girlfriend-coparent’s house where he’s been crashing, we know what his general personality is and how he reacts in multiple settings and situations, we know something of his drug use, we know he’s making decisions which will lead him to be involved in a shooting, and we have an idea of his relationship with every other main connection / character, even though we haven’t yet gotten much about the other two main characters . . . which is about to change.

To get to Darius and Paper Boi, Earn walks again; it’s a general transition / establishing shot, but when taken with the other scenes of him walking (to his parent’s, to the music studio) it shows-without-telling us he doesn’t have a car, is too broke to get an Uber, and even if he’s taking public transportation, it’s not getting him all the way to his goals.

It doesn’t cut to him knocking, however but to Paper Boi playing video games and Darius muchie-rustling through the fridge. Because we saw Earn first, we assume he’s about to arrive here, which is key; had we cut from his conversation at his parents straight to this scene, it may have seemed this was in their house, or that it was a non sequitur.

We can see Paper Boi is wearing a different shirt from the opener as he has four-line exchange with Darius, establishes their dynamic without Earn. Then a knock, the door opens from the inside, we see Earn for a moment before the camera jumps back outside to be with Earn as a large pistol is levelled at his face.

What is the purpose of this? While the moment itself comes as a surprise, it’s not played for a ‘gotcha’ – we know it’s Paper Boi on the other side, we know Earn doesn’t have a hole in his head during the opener, and a show isn’t going to kill its lead (let alone its creator) in the first 15 minutes. So, why spend precious pilot time on this bit? It’s telling us about their dynamic, the level of trust, what Paper Boi thinks is funny or image-centric, Paper Boi’s casual relationship to Chekhov’s gun, foreshadowing / post-shadowing / reminding us of the gun in the opener and how volatile Paper Boi can be.

Paper Boi lets Earn in for the longest, talk-iest scene yet, running four minutes, or about 20% of the pilot’s runtime. It stays fresh by using movement in both conversation and blocking. Earn, Paper Boi, and a paranoid-homemaker Darius chat while settling into the living room, where Paper Boi rolls a joint and Darius snacks. Midway through their chat they jump to the outdoor couch; the excuse given is to smoke their 4:20 joint, but for production reasons it’s clear they wanted to break things up visually and thematically, as well as establish the smoking couch as a location for the series. This move also allows the conversation to jump straight to business without writing intermittent or ‘on-ramp’ dialogue. Earn perches on the arm of one couch and the edge of another, never taking off his backpack: a clear signal he’s not fully comfortable, always ready to take off. Though we know Earn was high at work, he declines to smoke with Paper Boi; a great character detail. Once Paper Boi and Darius are done smoking, they get up to walk towards the house and Earn runs after, desperate, trying to keep up; not for the first or last time this episode.

All the while, conversation flows between pop culture, sex, Latin prefixes, personal history, American history (Malcom X) and modern politics (Don Lemon), and finally Earn’s reason for being there (wanting to manage Paper Boi’s career). The rabbit trails aren’t mere filler, they show how these characters tick. Earn tries to act as though he knows more than he does. Darius is in full-on stoner mode, his treatise on rat-phones is hilarious and foreshadows one of his later side hustles. Paper Boi often ignores or contradicts what others are saying, and the last 10 seconds he gets a bit angry, lashes out, and gives us a key piece of information – his mom passed, Earn hasn’t been around since, and he knows Earn just wants to cash in on his success – in a way which feels organic to his anger and their relationship so far as we’ve seen. He tells Earn to walk, repeating the theme mentioned earlier. Earn does, to the parking lot of a radio station where he ‘casually runs into’ Dave.

At first the conversation seems the usual small talk patter of acquaintances who haven’t seen each other, but it actually forwards both character and plot. When Dave tells a story in which the N word is the punch line, we see Earn flinches and hint at discomfort, but he doesn’t confront Dave. He’s used to taking this sort of thing, and clearly wants something so will keep on taking it. Earn gets to the point: will the station play Paper Boi’s single? Dave names the price: $500. In the pilot’s most basic narrative trick, Earn sums up his situation in the episode so far under pretext of trying to get Dave’s sympathy: he earns minimum wage, he’s about to get kicked out of his place, he’s got to pay rent, his parents won’t let him in the house, he’s desperate.

I call the bit a ‘basic’ narrative trick, but like most of things which seem simple or even formulaic when spelled out like this, it’s actually quite difficult to get right, and takes much writing, rewriting, throwing away, digging out of the trash three months later, rinse, repeat. Too much basic formula and you’re boring. Too little and you’re going to be indecipherable and producers won’t pick up your pilot. The dialogue has to be, well, basically this.

Dave won’t budge, though, explaining pay-to-play is just how the music industry works, and walks away. Earn then asks a nearby janitor if Dave ever said the N word around him, the janitor replies hell no, he would kick Dave’s ass. This exchange is risky, because it’s explicitly spelling out the earlier exchange to any audience who didn’t pick up on how Dave doesn’t respect Earn and Earn lets it go, it only works because it does double duty, establishing of camaraderie between strangers so Earn can ask ‘hey, how late are you here working?’

The scene cuts away with them mid-conversation, so we know Earn’s putting a plan in motion, we’re just not clear yet what it is; that plan will drive the next act. The whole thing has taken two minutes.

The next scene is the first without Earn, but he’s introduced us to all the players in it. Paper Boi goes to talk to Earn’s parents; he’s changed shirts since the previous scene, and is now wearing the black polo he was wearing in the opening scene. We’re one step closer to that Inciting Incident.

We see in how Raleigh and Gloria talk to Al that they have a better relationship with their nephew than they do with their son. In an organic, family-gossip way, we hear Al is actually considering Earn as a manager, and find out a tiny bit more about the Princeton hint from earlier; Earn dropped out but hasn’t shared any details about why with his family. So long as the pilot has its own driving event and we’re finding out plenty of specifics, it can afford to drop small mysteries about characters, and even hit the same note more than once, but it’s always a balancing act.

That last bit of the conversation (starting at 16 minute mark) turns into a voiceover of sorts for the next scene, a dialogue-less segment in which Earn grabs money from a pristine Jordan shoe box (showing it’s a secret stash) and walks into the radio station where the janitor from earlier lets him through the foyer to where Dave is DJing. The March 2 script merely says “Prince, the janitor, lets Earn in the building” but in that above shot it looks as though Earn is descending into a mythical underworld; Hiro Murai does excellent work all series, and clearly already knows where things are going here.

Earn taps on the glass with a CD and a wad of cash, nods to Dave, then slips the package under a door marked “Kyle P” and leaves. Dave looks pissed, but since he’s on the air can do nothing but watch.

Raleigh’s words to Al don’t tell us the action of what’s happening, but instead gives us insight into why / how Earn is doing it: “Earn’s good at keeping his mouth shut . . . Earn tryin’ like the rest of us. cut back to the scene of Paper Boi and Raleigh to end their conversation But when he wants to do something, he does it. On his terms.”

We’re three quarters of the way now: we’ve gotten backstory and general tone, met everyone and seen how they relate to each other, set two plots in motion and established their very different stakes: a shooting which stakes are well established, and Earn spending all his available money in a play for Paper Boi’s attention.

The next scene [which is in a different spot in the March 2 script, whether that was changed with a rewrite or in post] veer offs with a hard cut to Earn and Lottie riding the bus; reminding us he has coparenting responsibilities as well.

This scene is all about Earn’s mental space and establishing that as a show, Atlanta will happily fuck with tone and style. Glover stated up front Atlanta was Twin Peaks with rappers” but even that show needed its pilot to set things up for the audience in a clear, distinguishable way. A cold open to make one curious, not unlike Atlanta! An audience surrogate! A clear setting of place! A mystery table setting! Hmmm, maybe I should do the Twin Peaks pilot . . .

Back to the bus. A suited CHRIS BOSH MAN passenger appears, gives some delightfully weird stoner philosophy which pokes at Earn’s feelings, then makes a sandwich and appears to vanish, using the time-honoured visual language of “2-shot, something happens, camera cuts-or-pans to follows the look of one character to frame out second character, then cut-or-pan back to the 2-shot with the other character having disappeared.’ Earn sees him outside the bus with a dog at his heels, which hits the mythical note again and makes us wonder, then the final shot is a wide where we see a Nutella jar on the seat where before there wasn’t, intimating that the man and the sandwich – if not the conversation – was real and not a figment of Earn’s imagination.

Earn pulls out his phone to text Van, and it rings: Al. Atlanta incorporates phone and social media use effortlessly but not too relentlessly, and though it may seem weird for Paper Boi to *call* instead of text, this is immediately explained when Earn answers, cutting between him on the bus and Paper Boi and Darius in Paper Boi’s car, listening to the radio which is blasting Paper Boi’s single.

Just like that, the scheme worked, we’re a step closer to ‘getting the gang together’ and resolving this episode’s main questions. Earn says he’ll come right over to talk about managing Paper Boi, and after a wide of a generic street to elapse time, we see Earn walking again, this time up to the parking lot of the convenience store / nightclub** we recognise from the opening scene.

We know how it ends, but we didn’t see the leadup til now.

Earn smokes a joint which earlier he had declined, showing he feels – or is pretending to feel – comfortable with conducting business as Darius said all rapper managers must: while high. He’s signalling he’s decided to play the game. Dave comes up, upset Earn bypassed him, and Earn fucks with him by insisting he tell Paper Boi the story which punch line was the N word . . . which Dave stutters and won’t say in front of Paper Boi. Earn is clearly not ready or able to demand respect on his own, but he’s willing to leverage Paper Boi’s status and physical presence to do it for him.

This ‘bit’ would not have carried its weight in a pilot episode had its sole purpose been to have this delayed payoff; every exchange in a pilot is precious space. But because it worked on its own establishing the Dave/Earn dynamic and giving Earn something to. connect to the janitor over, it is even sweeter to see it circled back around here, telling us about what steps Earn is willing to take, and showing he’s clever to boot.

We’ve come full circle in a few ways, and now the addition insight we have into Earn and Paper Boi’s personalities is going to further inform the second viewing of the shooting we saw earlier, which plays out in truncated form, note, once again, Earn running . . . BLAM.

Smash cut to Earns mom babysitting Lottie at Van’s house** leaving as quickly as possible when Van comes home from her date.

A news report details the shooting; another narrative shortcut, but this one isn’t to open the episode, or tell us something we. don’t know, it’s to tell Van something.

Closeup on Van’s face as she utters the episode’s closing line: Idiot.

Stray Observations

*I enjoy that the script as well as the shoot is clear about its place

but maybe I’m weirdly nostalgic for MARTA. In the way you miss that ex who wasn’t always that great to you but who sometimes was exactly what you needed and on her good days was better than just about anyone else in any major US city, and would even take you straight into the airport.

– As seen in that screenshot the script also does that thing some writers love and others eschew, which is cite specific songs or art.

– I’d 10/10 watch an entire episode where Earn works as a parkling-lot-attendant-scammer, something ATL is rife with in a way I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Script Notes **

I’ve read two different versions of the pilot script floating around, an undated “PILOT” which is much more on-the-nose and details Earn’s leaving Princeton, and a March 2 2015 “THE BIG BANG” which is much closer to this structure, though still has quite a few differences to what ended up on screen. Reading them in order gives some insight into how it got from A to B to Pilot, why some scenes were dropped, how they were changed as the structure shifted or characters gained new motivations, etc.

There are a few bits which feel as though once shot, the pilot ran long and needed adjusting, most in the last act:

1. In the March 2 script Earn sent a text to his mom asking her to cover by babysitting Lottie; that’s missing in the aired pilot, so we’re not sure what’s happened til Mom runs out the door with an “Earn had business.” That line feels like your typical narrative shortcut, along with a newscaster scene (though at least that’s the closer, not the opener).

2. Similarly, how did Dave know where to find Earn; of course Earn could have simply called him while walking to meet Paper Boi, but it still feels odd for him to show up in the middle of nowhere, out of nowhere. However, things happen so quickly once we’re in that scene, it’s something which could have been considered superfluous or less important than everything else and so discarded with a ‘the audience will keep up and/or not notice.’

3. The convenience store location also feels quite generic for such a specific location callout by the broadcaster, which makes it feel like they were shooting out of order and/or something had to be tweaked on the fly.

But if it works, well, it works. The rules are there to be broken once you know what the fuck you’re doing. And Donald Glover knows.

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