Donald Glover has the hottest new comedy on TV with FX’s Atlanta, but his breakthrough from token Black friend to primetime titan didn’t come overnight.
Glover’s first success came as a member of the Derrick Comedy YouTube trio. The sketch troupe was made up of three nerdy friends who uploaded skits that played to the lowest common denominator of America’s chief consumer — White males. Derrick Comedy’s videos used toilet humor and gay jokes to mock the hyper-masculine “bro” culture that was dominating college campuses and mainstream media at the time, with YouTube videos like 2006’s “Bro Rape: A Newsline Investigative Report” and 2007’s “Dickmento.”
“Bro Rape” was a parody of Dateline’s To Catch A Predator. It featured Glover’s character sexually preying on his “bros” and poked fun at things like AXE body spray, popped collars, and Livestrong bracelets. It’s gotten over 10 million views to date, and less than a year after “Bro Rape’s” release, College Humor partnered with Derrick Comedy to distribute similar skits, like “Dickmento,” another tongue-in-cheek attempt to flip the latent homosexuality of White patriarchy into viral views.
Derrick Comedy soon leveraged their online following into an independent film, 2009’s Mystery Team, which starred Glover as the leader of a dimwitted trio of teenagers who solved mysteries around their neighborhood. Mystery Team put Glover on the map in the comedy world as a leading man, and led to writing jobs and roles on primetime comedies like 30 Rock and Community. Glover found himself on the fast track to comedy stardom, but he was also still the only Black guy in the room. And before he could hit his top speed as mainstream comedy’s token Black friend, he abruptly changed lanes.
Around 2011, Glover put his promising comedy writing and acting to the side to focus on recording music. He dropped a surprisingly good EP (titled EP) and began pursuing a rap career under the moniker Childish Gambino (he got the name from a Wu-Tang name generator). To prove he wasn’t joking, Glover toured campuses with a show that opened with his stand-up comedy routine and closed with his rap performances. His musical talent was undeniable enough to silence critics who called it a gimmick, but his uber-nerdy aesthetic was a tough sell for the rap game, even post-Drake.
Despite rave reviews and a national tour, Glover never collected rap’s traditional come-up accolades, like XXL’s freshman cover or an official co-sign from an OG. But MTV did compare him to a young Kanye West, and his cross-platform following was enough for him to lean on while his music steadily converted doubters. As Childish, Glover did tracks with ScHoolboy Q, Beck, Nipsey Hussle, and Leona Lewis, and eventually earned a 2015 Grammy nomination for his album Because The Internet. And he did this all while continuing to appear in hit movies and TV shows like 2015’s The Martian and HBO’s Girls.
From mocking the bros to rocking the mic, Glover has defeated every system he’s encountered by refusing to conform or compromise. And Atlanta is his greatest triumph to date. Beyond the ratings records and critical acclaim, the show’s mere existence is proof of a growing trend in media. This isn’t a “Black show,” it’s a good show about non-White people. The scripts aren’t riddled with stereotypes or cues aimed at establishing cultural clout, they’re peppered with subtle moments that sum up the Black experience without alienating anyone. Except, maybe the White men who’ve refused to share their platform throughout the history of cinema and film.
“We kind of hacked ourselves in a weird way. We wanted to make a punk show that they can’t really siphon,” said Donald Glover to NPR.
Unlike the Norman Lear productions of the 1970s and ’80s or the countless generic Black sitcoms of the 1990s, Atlanta isn’t “the” Black show in a network’s line-up. And because they aren’t bearing the burden of representing a universal Black experience, Glover and his collaborators have the freedom to focus on creating a great show.
Glover told NPR he wanted people to like it, but not know exactly why they did. “I can’t put my finger on that,” is the effect he and his team were aiming for. The Atlanta crew may not have been trying to create a culminating moment in Black television, but that is exactly what they did by avoiding the tropes and clichés that have defined Blackness in American media through Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the hip-hop era.
Even the Black viewers who overlooked Glover’s nerdy token chic over the years can’t deny how good Atlanta is. The show doesn’t use the broad strokes that make Tyler Perry and black-ish generally relatable to Black audiences. Instead, it allows audiences to reflect internally on the nuances of the modern Black experience when most shows attempt to project these experiences outward. This level of subtlety isn’t possible on token sitcoms, but White audiences have enjoyed it for generations.
Casts and crews are more diverse than ever before and the rush of color is bringing more life and authenticity to every element of media. Racial stereotypes will probably never die, but Atlanta is proof that they can evolve.
No moment shows that potential more than a subplot in the pilot featuring Glover’s protagonist Earn and his White friend Dave. Dave is a local radio DJ who feels comfortable saying “nigga” around the mild-mannered Earn while telling him a story. At this early point in the episode, Earn is approaching Dave for a favor and avoids confronting him about his word choice. But Glover’s character gets his revenge at the end of the episode when he prompts his White friendly to tell the same story in front of his cousin Paper Boi, a local D-boy-turned-rapper. Dave doesn’t learn his lesson until he’s already made a fool of himself.
Glover seems to have pulled a similar coup on the primetime television world. After doing his time in mostly White writers’ rooms and making jokes for mostly White college crowds, he’s earned the world’s full attention and the right to make a show on his own terms. Ten years after using the Internet to infiltrate a segregated media world, Donald Glover has flipped the script on Hollywood and carved his own lane. One that doesn’t require swerving or code-switching. Atlanta’s not just a hit, it’s a breakthrough. And Glover’s come a long way from trying to break the Internet with frat humor. He just broke the mainstream media by being himself.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty, Twitter
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