What it feels like to be black

(From left) Joan Q. Scott, Donald Glover and Zazie Beetz in Atlanta.
(From left) Joan Q. Scott, Donald Glover and Zazie Beetz in Atlanta.PHOTO: FOX

Golden Globe-winning TV series Atlanta uses comedy and drama, along with abstract elements, to depict what it is like to be black

Ever wonder what it feels like to be black? The creator of the acclaimed television show Atlanta wrote it so he could show you.

The comedy-drama, which many critics named as one of the best new series in the United States last year, seeks to capture the precariousness of life for many African Americans, explains its star, writer and executive producer Donald Glover.

He stars as Ern, a black Princeton University dropout struggling to make ends meet as he attempts to get his cousin Alfred's rap career off the ground and his own life back on track.

Atlanta, which airs in Singapore on FX (StarHub TV Channel 507 and Singtel TV Channel 310), took home this year's Golden Globes for Best TV Series - Musical or Comedy and, for Glover, Best Actor in a TV Series - Musical or Comedy.

Glover says there is a point to the show's playful experimentation with tone and form, which combines comedy and drama with elements of the abstract and surreal.

"The thesis was kind of to show people how it felt to be black - and you can't really write that down," says the 33-year-old, who appeared on the sitcom Community (2009-2015) and also has a successful career as the Grammy-nominated rapper Childish Gambino.

"You kind of have to feel it. So the tonal aspect was really important to me," he tells The Straits Times and other press in Beverly Hills recently.

"There really isn't a limit to how abstract you can get as long as you believe it. I think if you have something that is grounded on some level, you can go anywhere. People want to go there with you."

In this case, the story is grounded in the uncertainty of the daily grind for Ern and Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who frequently encounter guns, drugs and violence in their home city of Atlanta, Georgia.

Glover says: "This is a good world to be in because I always want people to be scared - because that's how it kind of feels to be black.

"There are awesome things going on here, but it can be taken away at any moment," says the actor, who has a one-year-old son with his girlfriend.

Co-star Henry, 34, grew up in the city and can vouch for the authenticity of the show's distinctive and often comical dialogue, including during a tense jail scene where Ern is being detained along with several other black men.

"That's how we talk," he says. "As far-fetched as it seems, it can be the absurdity of what happens to them in that life. Sometimes you just have to find the humour in it."

In addition, the show reflects the unique culture of this part of the southern US, which "is just so familiar and familial at the same time", Henry adds. "No matter where you are in any corner of Atlanta, people speak to you.

"I live in New York now and, if I get in an Uber there, it is understood that you get in the back and you do not talk.

"In Atlanta, they are, like, 'No. You sit in the front with me.' I'm, like, 'Oh, okay. Can I put my iPod on?' And they're like, 'Okay - what are we listening to?'

"And that could be with a black, white or Latino driver. It is the last place that you think you could have these kinds of relationships where your racial, economic background and social background don't matter."

Finding the laughs in difficult moments was another ambition of the show, says director Hiro Murai, 33.

A Tokyo-born film-maker best known for his music videos for St Vincent and Childish Gambino, he says: "It's technically comedy, but a lot of the stories are about the grey areas. You are not sure if you are supposed to laugh. Even in that jail scene, I think you go into it thinking it can be funny and then you feel bad for feeling that way afterwards.

"So we are trying to create a tone in a world where those things can happen and where you are allowed to laugh at the hard jokes and the characters, but you also feel real stakes. We talked about how important it was that we can make hard jokes, but, also, people can get shot and die - and that you actually care about these characters."

•Atlanta airs in Singapore on FX (StarHub TV Channel 507 and Singtel TV Channel 310) on Tuesdays at 10pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2017, with the headline 'Using the surreal to keep it real'. Print Edition | Subscribe