Photo: J. Merritt / Getty Images
  /  08.07.2018

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

—by Kemet High

Donald Glover is the best rapper-actor since Will Smith in the 1990s. His ability to make music, act, and produce has made him a renaissance man in the world of entertainment. After a six-year run with NBC’s 30 Rock, Donald Glover created Atlanta, a show about a rap artist named Paper Boi in his titular hometown, which was was picked up by FX in 2015, making it one of the few black television shows to be played on a major television network. In light of Glover dropping his third studio album as Childish Gambino, Awaken, My Love, Atlanta exemplifies his peerlessness when it comes to creation. But if you’re not from Atlanta, there are certainly some references that may go over your head. Still, there is one thing in the show that connects all audiences, and realistically seems to be the best component of the series: the music.

Atlanta, Georgia is home of Southern trap and opportunity. In an area where crime and eccentricity is normalized to the point where people don’t flinch, the numerous encounters and experiences are told through the music that listeners love to consume through artists like Future, T.I., and Gucci Mane. Paper Boi plays the fictional clone of a popular trap rapper who has reached both local and national fame, however still hasn’t managed to make it out of the hood. And the closing song of episode one, “Paper Boi,” sounds no different than the songs in the Friday night playlists of Atlanta’s V103 and Hot 107.9 radio stations. The original track speaks to its demographical origin of the south with its heavy trap snares, gory content, and repetitive singalong chorus that make the track easy to latch onto.

Episode one set an exceptional tone of the impact that the music would have in each episode following. Glover’s inclusion of “No Hook” by OJ Da Juiceman provided 30 seconds of fame and pride. Those outside of the city wouldn’t even likely recognize that OJ is an Atlanta rap legend. Even if you didn’t consume his music on your own, you definitely had one of his mixtapes that they used to hand out at flea markets. Between “Paper Boi” and “No Hook,” the music of Atlanta was true to its origin, and as far as history tells, people have always been infatuated with music from the south.

Glover himself (who plays Earn on the show) has a history of challenging the “normal” notions of sound. As a rapper hailing from Stone Mountain, his discography has led him to the genres of funk, pop, and of course R&B. His versatility as an artist seamlessly transitioned into the soundtrack of the show, providing no limitations on the kind of music used. In both seasons of Atlanta, the music spoke to each era between the 1960s and 2010s. Episode six, “Value,” about that one friend who puts you in situations so awkward that you want to fight, takes us back to the early 1970s. As Van, Earn’s girlfriend, gets fired from her teaching job for failing to submit a drug test, Earn is struggling to make a living by managing and lifting Paper Boi off the ground; the loss of income meant that their family would endure even more struggles. This heavy conclusion was met by The Funkadelic’s “Hit It and Quit It,” released in 1971. The modern dilemma of weed and its place within the professional world was suddenly greeted with an entirely new antiquated element. The music of Atlanta could come from a radio station, iPod, or jukebox, exemplifying its use of every era.

Now we can fast-forward to the mid-2010s. Season one of Atlanta emphasized some old school classics from artists like Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke, and The Ebonys, but equally represented the very music of 2016 that was being streamed millions of times. Episode two of season one, “Streets On Lock,” tells the story of the aftermath that stems from Earn and Paper Boi getting arrested for a shooting incident. As Earn awaits his bail at the precinct, the first scene is accompanied by Yo Gotti’s gold single, “Law.” Atlanta‘s ability to synthesize scenes and music made popular at the same time welcomed the attention of viewers. And the season’s musical cameos came as a result of the message each scene attempted to portray. Episode three of season one, “Go for Broke,” brings viewers along to a drug deal involving Paper Boi and his homeboy Darius, and Migos not only made an acting cameo, but provided the closing theme for the episode with “Spray the Champagne,” a standout hit from their debut album Yung Rich Nation.

At this point, a few things were clear about the soundtrack of the show: it catered to multiple eras, the South, and hits that were played by popular demand. However, it wasn’t until season two, ‘Robbin’ Season,’ that the demographic element was expanded even further. The music in this season created the opportunity to travel thousands of miles through 30 seconds of sound. The first episode, “Alligator Man,” bursted open with Jay Critch’s “Did It Again” featuring Rich the Kid. Jay Critch hails from Brooklyn, New York, so you know the city was going wild when they heard this one play. The use of “Did It Again” set the context for the grittiness and exposure to crime that was even more relevant in season two than in season one, as the first episode begins with an armed robbery of Mrs. Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits. Episode six, “FUBU,” takes us back to the 1990s as Earn and Paper Boi are dealing with the headache that is middle school and “jonin” (a term used for negatively talking about someone in Atlanta). There was no better way to create time travel than the use of Nas’ “If I Ruled the World,” which served as the closing song.

From Atlanta to New York City, the demographic relevance protruded through each episode, strategically using musical elements that people from all over the country could be proud of, and making viewers feel as if they were traveling from city to city while staying true to the Georgia capital.

For 30 minutes or more each night, FX was transformed into a Sirius XM hip-hop station, turning the soundtrack into a Rubik’s Cube of sound that anyone can solve. After a very successful award show run stemming from season one, season two of Atlanta has been nominated for 16 primetime Emmy Awards.

Past the realm of sound, Glover is known for his transformation of art, producing a show that spoke to us in every way and that enlarged the scope of a typical television show’s soundtrack. From the triple-threat that has proven himself time and time again, we didn’t expect for the music to be anything less than the main ingredient. It’s what makes the show so rich and, frankly, is the real reason to its success.

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