Here’s the description FX provides on its press site for the first episode of Atlanta: “Paper Boi? Who the hell is that? I swear everybody want to be a rapper now-a-days smh. Song is bumpin tho.” Here’s how the site describes the first episode of Better Things: “Meet Sam Fox.”
Atlanta, which premiered on Tuesday, takes viewers on a hip-hop odyssey through the streets of the show’s eponymous city. Creator Donald Glover plays Earnest “Earn” Marks, a Princeton dropout who returns home and teams up with a rapper cousin whose star is on the rise. Better Things, which premieres on Thursday, was created by Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon, who plays Sam Fox, a single mother raising three daughters while working as an actor in Los Angeles.
Both are slice-of-life comedies told through the distinct perspectives of their well-known creators. But those episode summaries neatly convey the divide between these two excellent new shows: Better Things is prosaic about the little things. Atlanta is poetic about the big stuff.
When Atlanta begins, Glover’s Earn is in a tight spot. He has a baby daughter and an on-off relationship with the girl’s mother, Van (Zazie Beetz). Since his job soliciting credit-card sign-ups at the airport isn’t exactly lucrative, he’s also stone broke. When a co-worker tips him off to a hot new single by some rapper named Paper Boi, Earn realizes Paper Boi is his cousin, Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), and offers to help manage his budding career.
Atlanta may send some critics scrambling to Urban Dictionary; in one scene, at an Atlanta police station, a character speaks in such a thick local accent I could barely understand what he was saying, which I suspect is kind of the point. During the recent Television Critics Association summer press tour, Glover told journalists, “The thesis with this show is kind of to show people how it feels to be black,” adding, “I always want people to feel scared because that’s what it’s like to be black.”
Atlanta has a definite narrative arc, and some episodes, like one in which Earn takes Van out to dinner and panics when he can’t pay the bill, have more conventional sitcom setups. But with all episodes directed by music-video director Hiro Murai — the longtime collaborator of Glover’s alter ego, Childish Gambino, making his first foray into narrative storytelling — Atlanta often feels like a series of loosely related, stylish vignettes. We follow Earn, Alfred, and Alfred’s partner in crime (literally; he’s a drug dealer), Darius (a very funny Lakeith Stanfield), as they hustle across the city in search of answers to life’s big questions — and, of course, money, which is forever in short supply.
As the success of Empire has illustrated, hip-hop culture — a world that white America usually glimpses via rap music videos — is now firmly entrenched in the mainstream. But Atlanta has the feel of a music video that’s wrapped for the day, when the gold chains come off and the crew sits down to smoke a blunt on the porch.
The show is simultaneously high-stakes and low-key, the tone abruptly shifting from the abstract to the all-too-real. Earn spends the second episode in a police station waiting area, where he and the other men waiting to be processed watch a mentally ill man drink water from a toilet. While Earn is concerned, the others — guards included — just laugh; the man’s in there every week. But when he turns and spits toilet water all over a guard’s shirt, several officers beat him to the ground and restrain him, ignoring his screams. The men in the waiting room turn stone-faced. It’s not funny anymore.
The world of Better Things feels safer than the world of Atlanta, but no less volatile. If you were a fan of Adlon’s character, Pamela, on Louie — where she also played single mom and the object of Louie’s undying affection — you’ll like Sam Fox. The pilot opens with Sam sitting on a mall bench while her youngest daughter (Olivia Edward) sobs uncontrollably beside her. “Do you want to buy her the earrings?” Sam asks an older woman sitting on the bench, dispensing disapproving looks. “Cause that’s why she’s crying, because of six dollar earrings that she has at home already.”
Sam’s deadpan weariness offsets the manic energy of her three daughters, who, like Sam, are androgynously named: Duke (Edward), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and 16-year-old Max (Mikey Madison). Sam isn’t an apron-wearing, cookie-baking kind of sitcom mom, but neither is she a harried, frenzied mess; she’s too tired to be hysterical. She’s kind of like a less caffeinated Lorelai Gilmore, if the Gilmore Girls protagonist had three unruly daughters instead of one saintly one, lived in L.A. instead of quirky small-town Connecticut, and found a home on an upwardly-mobile basic cable channel like FX instead of the teen-skewing CW.
In a great scene from the pilot, Sam sees the actress Constance Zimmer, another middle-aged, sardonic brunette, at an audition for a small part on a procedural (“Listen, Jack — I started this firm, and you are not getting rid of me!”). Zimmer asks if she’s seeing anyone, and Sam replies, “I’m dating my daughters. They’re my love life.” When Julie Bowen walks out of the audition room, smiling and shaking hands with the producers, they both get up and leave. It’s Julie Bowen. Game over.
Of course, plenty of recent comedies take place in the entertainment industry (BoJack Horseman, Lady Dynamite, Take My Wife, and Difficult People come to mind), but it’s refreshing to see a show about a working actor slogging through voiceover gigs and one-off roles in sci-fi series in order to feed her kids, not her ego.
If Atlanta’s meandering fragments evoke the music it’s centered on, Better Things is as no-nonsense as the life of a single, working mother. Short, soundtrack-less scenes show Sam dragging the garbage and recycling bins up the driveway; making dinner; picking up a stray sock on the staircase on her way to bed. One episode opens on a tight shot of Sam’s face and bare shoulders, in what appears to be a strenuous sex scene — until the camera pulls back to reveal the protagonist wrapped in a towel, furiously plunging a toilet.
But Better Things leaves room for little reveries in which Sam latches onto a stray moment of escape. After she catches Max in her bedroom with two friends, half-naked, giggling, and stoned, she wearily closes the door and heads off to bed when she gets a text message from a male friend. As Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” begins to play, Sam’s phone takes up the whole screen, interspersed with flashbacks to Sam meeting the man in a hotel room. The camera lingers over those tell-tale ellipses as Sam asks when he’ll be back in town — and whether he’ll be alone.
In Atlanta, Glover’s Earn is frantically casting around for something that will provide stability for his family — for the tools to build himself a life. Better Things’ Sam is firmly locked in hers. The experience of an upper-middle-class white woman in Los Angeles and that of a poor black man in Atlanta don’t appear to have much in common, but both series center on the ongoing struggle to make yourself happy while doing right by your family. “I just think we need a chance as humans to fail in order to discover what actually works, you know,” Earn tells Van in one episode of Atlanta. “People don’t think there’s a process to being happy.”
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m.; Better Things airs Thursdays at 10 p.m., both on FX.