Warning: Spoilers for the first season of Atlanta ahead.
When Atlanta launched, Donald Glover told E! that he “wanted to make Twin Peaks for rappers.” The ultra-tweetable, quotable Twin Peaks comparison has meant it’s been considered a singularly juicy piece of Americana, melding white American TV culture (Lynch’s influential “something creepy’s going on in this normal American town” that’s been replicated in everything from Pretty Little Liars to Stranger Things) with arguably that most iconic of black American music, hip-hop.
However, this take on things ignores the obvious: Atlanta’s influences aren’t just Lynch and the city’s music scene. One of its key influences isn’t American at all — it’s British. The weirdest, most unexpected aspect of the show is how it’s the closest thing to a kitchen sink drama we have on the small screen at the moment.
Kitchen sink realism was an art movement that began in Britain in the 1950s. While it first came to life on stage, you’d probably recognize it from the films it spawned: The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, A Taste Of Honey, Billy Liar, Alfie. The films were identifiable by a few key features: money (or lack thereof) was a central part of the action; they often centered on a young, angry male, and they were often set in locations totally alien to a metropolitan, London-centric audience (the Midlands, the Northern cities). Arguably in its focus on money, its disinterest in storybook visions of romance, its leading man and its location, Atlanta is a modern-day kitchen sink drama. Let’s explore.
Given the names of two of the main characters — Earn and Paper Boi — it’s not exactly surprising that the series is, to quote Paper Boi’s hit song “all about that paper, boy.” Which is a typical kitchen sink drama premise — in films like The Entertainer, the courses of people’s lives are decided because of whether or not they’re breaking even financially. When Archie Rice’s last shot at making money — putting his aging, famous father back on stage — backfires, he’s bankrupt and will have to either accept jail time or emigrate to Canada. He opts for the former.
This feels a lot like Atlanta, where money isn’t so much an element of the plot as the plot itself. Earn sweats through most of the episodes in hot pursuit of some cash. Even on payday he’s broke, something that his contemporaries even find bizarre (“C’mon dog, you’re broke on payday, what are you, 12 Years A Slave?”). He’s basically homeless and relies on his ex-girlfriend Vanessa or his cousin Paper Boi for a roof over his head.
We see how subtly but powerfully money exerts its influence in the opening scene when we’re confronted by the assumptions we make about money and status via an obnoxious couple. The couple knock rapper Paper Boi’s wing mirror off of the side of his car, seemingly half by accident, and when Paper Boi chases after them to demand compensation, the woman cries, “Just get another mirror! You’re Paper Boi — you’re rich, right?” As we quickly come to realize, he isn’t. That’s the point. That’s why he continues to confront them even when they get abusive about his music. That’s why he cocks his gun at them. And that’s why he eventually shoots the man. The scene manages to feel both familiar and completely radical: we’ve all seen the cliched scene of a hotheaded young guy losing their shit and shooting someone on TV. But this is something entirely different. Paper Boi’s body language is loud and clear: he has no desire to shoot someone. He doesn’t have anything to prove when it comes to his reputation (he’s already a drug dealer) and he doesn’t get a thrill from violence. When he pulls the trigger, we’re aware that it’s a debasing act for him, too — if he were wealthier, he wouldn’t have to shoot someone over a wing mirror.
But it’s not just about Paper Boi’s finances: Atlanta’s unswerving focus on the depressing state of Earn’s bank account is probably the most radical aspect of the work. While other high-profile shows in recent years are purported to be about people who are broke — Breaking Bad and Girls are the first that spring to mind — somehow the topic gets glossed over in the follow through.
Spoilers coming up: While making money to provide for his family after his death might be Walter White’s initial justification for his radical career change, once his cancer miraculously goes into remission in Season 2, he realises his career in meth is as much about thrills as it is dollar bills. Similarly, while Girls starts off by examining how Hannah Horvath can possibly survive in New York without her parents’ financial cushioning, its enthusiasm for its characters’ financial situations seems to trail off and we’re given very little explanation as to how the women exist in New York without steady jobs.
In contrast, almost every episode of Atlanta has been built around the issues Earn’s lack of financial resources create. This is kind of perverse: we tune in to a show about an aspiring rapper and his cousin and expect it’s going to be about Paper Boi fighting his way to the top or about creating music or about Earn’s relationship with Vanessa. But instead, the show pulls a fast one: we’re tuning in for glamour and instead we get (with the obvious exception of the black Justin Bieber episode), gritty realism.
You know you’re watching a kitchen sink drama if romance comes with a helping of unflinching realism. In A Taste of Honey, Jo’s attraction to a sailor leads her to sleeping with him and becoming pregnant — without much ceremony or drama, he leaves, telling her he’ll come back, but they both seem aware that he won’t. Similarly, in A Kind Of Loving, typist Ingrid is more infatuated with the father of her unborn child than he is with her — when, at the end, she loses her baby, he doesn’t suggest they split up, but suggests they enjoy “a kind of loving together.” However, we’ve already seen an old man from the town warn him that he’ll “look a right clown if she won’t have you back,” so we know his motivations are more centred on his reputation than on performing an act of romantic altruism.
Perhaps what makes Atlanta so compelling is this similarly uncomfortable approach to romance. Like so many kitchen sink couples, Earn and the mother of his child, Vanessa, don’t have any sort of easily definable relationship. They live together and there are moments of real warmth between them which lead the audience to hope for a conventional romantic narrative — maybe Earn’s going to turn things around and win back her heart. But then Vanessa will ask Earn to watch their baby so she can go on a date with someone else and we realize we don’t even know what happened to break the two up in the first place. We don’t know why Vanessa has a discussion with Earn about his paying rent in the first episode — where was he living before?
While initially we’re rooting for Earn to make things work, watching Vanessa come and bail Earn out of jail and pay for the privilege (on top of that rent he isn’t paying) encourages the audience to take a more ambiguous stance on their connection: is this really the guy that could make her happy?
Another clue to Atlanta’s unlikely influence is found in its setting. A lot of the discussion surrounding the show has been about its choice of location. It’s particularly novel because it’s not set in New York or L.A., but a less oft-documented American city, Atlanta, which is all the tastier for audiences because that’s where Donald Glover grew up. This feels particularly fitting with kitchen sink drama territory. While a few of the films — The L Shaped Room, Poor Cow, Alfie — are set in London, most were set outside of the South and demanded broad regional accents from their cast. A Taste Of Honey is set in Manchester, Room At The Top in Yorkshire, Look Back In Anger shows us the Midlands, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning shows us how hard life can be as a Nottingham factory worker.
And it’s not just the where but the how. There are plenty of beautiful sights in Atlanta that Glover or director Hiro Murai could have focused on, like the skyline at the Jackson Street Bridge or the views at Piedmont Park. Instead we get a vision of the city dictated by daily life — the interiors of buses, fast food joints and parking lots. This feels like a conscious decision on Glover’s part — we get to see Paper Boi cooling off in the parking lot following a set but not actually in the club performing — a shot that could demonstrate a slightly more glamorous side of Atlanta.
This feels on par with something like A Taste Of Honey, where we get to see real life Salford (a borough of Greater Manchester) — school playgrounds, suburban streets, the inside of a shoe shop. The film makes no attempt at finding a picturesque part, wanting to show Salford as it’s actually lived. Well — as it’s lived by people without money.
While the phrase “angry young men” was actually coined to describe the playwrights who first came up with this new form of social realism, it’s just as often used to describe the protagonists of many such dramas. Characters like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’s factory worker lead Arthur Seaton, instructs the audience “don’t let the bastards grind you down!”
So can we count Earn as one of their number? Initially, it doesn’t seem so. Episode one makes us wonder how exactly Earn manages to accept one indignity after another with such zen, monk-like amounts of chill. If anything, he’s not angry enough. But once we get to know him a little better, we see he’s just good at disguising his anger — that public displays of rage are a privilege reserved for other people. He advises Paper Boi against challenging the folks who knock off his wing mirror, and against feeding his online troll, Zan. In both cases, Paper Boi’s tirade makes things worse: he shoots a guy and ends up in jail, and the attention from Paper Boi only encourages Zan to double his efforts to annoy him online.
But make no mistake — Earn is angry. We finally see everything he endures simmer to the surface in episode four, when he realizes Darius has invested some money for him which he needed immediately:
“I needed that money, my daughter needed that money, not in September, today. You see, I’m poor Darius, poor people don’t have time for investments because poor people are too busy being poor.”
Besides which, given the location, "young angry man" takes on a whole new dimension. We realize Earn’s every bit as angry as Paper Boi — but as a broke, practically-homeless black man without the status that Paper Boi has, he doesn’t get the luxury of expressing his feelings. In 2016 alone, seven black men in Georgia have been shot by US police and according to the Guardian’s statistics, Georgia is the seventh most deadly state in the U.S. for police violence. As such, Earn’s carefully repressed anger doesn’t feel like an individual quirk, but representative of the modus operandi of an African-American man in that state who has contact with the news. Because in a city in which, as happened to Deravis Caine Rogers in June, a black man can be murdered by police in his car just like that (according to the police investigation, the dashcam video showed “no provocation”), anger is too dangerous an emotion to be indulged.
Sure, but why now?
To suggest that Atlanta is the only modern example of a television show with an interest in money and class would be a vast exaggeration: from 2006-2009, we got the critically-acclaimed Everybody Hates Chris and more recently in 2011, the series Hung focused on a high school basketball coach in Detroit who resorts to prostitution to support himself. Atlanta is simply the most recent (and most high profile) of these efforts. Which begs the question, could there be larger factors at play behind this resuscitation of the kitchen sink aesthetic in recent years?
Back in the '50s, the political backdrop was one of instability: the Cold War between Soviet Russia and the United States started in 1947 (and would drag on until 1991) and the nuclear weapons held by both sides meant a serious threat to life on the planet, while the 1956 Suez Crisis caused trouble in the Middle East when Britain and France failed to retain control of the Suez Canal. It was hard not to derive a sense of Britain declining as a world power and life on planet earth as one of upheaval and entropy. While the political parallels aren’t exactly overwhelming, the general sense of instability holds true for both the recession and the African-American experience in 2016, with the surge in police violence and loss of innocent lives leading to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Playwright Bernard Kops wrote in 1956: “We write about the problems of the world today because we live in the world of today. We write about the young because we are young. We write about council flats and the H-bomb and racial discrimination because these things concern us and concern the young people of our country, so that if and when they come to the theater, they will see that it is not divorced from reality, that it is for them and they will feel at home.”
Aside from the “H-bomb” of the above, it feels like the quote could just as easily apply to Atlanta. The revolutionary aspect of the show is the way it highlights, by contrast, how “divorced from reality” so much of the rest of television is. We can follow the storyline of rapper-on-the-rise in something like Empire – but how many of us can relate to the Lyons’ gilded struggles that take place in penthouses and at award shows? Glover’s Atlanta is a quiet masterpiece because, despite the celebrity of its writer, it is completely rooted in the everyday. Like Kops’ work, it is all about “council flats” and “racial discrimination.” Like the work of kitchen sink dramas, it encourages us to demand why the rest of the entertainment industry is so concerned with presenting their audience with a depiction of life they probably can’t relate to. It questions why entertainment should be actively apolitical, distracting its audience from the bleakness of reality with escapism.
The flipside of recent years in which absolutely everything feels like it’s in decline politically is that it makes it less and less possible for those in the entertainment industry to continue to turn a blind eye to the hardships of reality. Kitchen sink dramas — with their associations with somber factory workers and mundane tragedies and broad regional accents — haven’t been fashionable in a long, long time, but perhaps given the time we live in, with a growing rich-poor divide and rising civil unrest, the form is long due a revival. It’s notable that it’s Glover, he of the charm and charisma and 1.85 million Twitter followers (despite no longer using the channel), who is partly responsible for this resuscitation in the form of the sadcom. So here’s hoping this is a sign of things to come. Real life for the 99% is too sad, too painful and too funny to be skimmed over any longer.