City as PROTAGONIST: The Role Played by the City of Atlanta in the Work of Donald Glover
Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino described the role that the city played in his work in the following way:
“To represent the streets and the various districts as dramatis personae, each one with a character in conflict with every other, to give life to human figures and situations as if they were spontaneous growths from the cobbles of the streets, or else protagonists in such dramatic contrast with them as to cause a whole string of disasters to work in such a way that at every changing moment the true protagonist was the living city.” 2
With Calvino’s approach in mind, I will explore the role of the city of Atlanta in the work of American actor, rapper, and director Donald Glover. Through an investigation of how Atlanta plays the part of muse, protagonist, antagonist, and foil in the life of Earn (one of the show’s main characters, also played by Donald Glover himself), as well as the lives of the rest of the cast, I will examine how the city becomes a character in Glover’s comedy-drama television series Atlanta.
Calvino’s conviction that the “living city” is the “protagonist” in much of his work illustrated in the quote above will be employed throughout this argument. Moreover, viewed through a multi-disciplinary lens, the work of other writers, artists, philosophers, and architects throughout history will be connected to this central point.
The influence that the city of Atlanta on Donald Glover’s real-life creative processes will also be the subject of analysis. Are there connections to his lived experience? Does the lived experience of the people he has known influence particular scenes or decisions? What is the specific role of the city and how does it affect choices and decisions made by the other characters in the series? What connections or references are being made to broader social or cultural events that had occurred in Atlanta and in other cities around the world?
Two specific episodes of Atlanta will be subject to analysis. Using the methodology of semiotic analysis, primarily in the style of Italian novelist, literary critic and philosopher Umberto Eco, connections and parallels in meaning will be drawn between the dialogue, visual direction, and theme of each episode. These points of analysis will then be related to the hypothesis that the city is a character in the TV series. This method will also be used to reveal ways in which Glover alludes to the history and present-day reality of Atlanta.
To understand a person in the present, it is first necessary to understand their past. Similarly, the history of the city of Atlanta must be explored in order to understand its modern-day relevance. As a character, Atlanta can be marked by four major events; the razing of the city by the Union Army under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman at the end of the American Civil war; the practice of slavery which was especially prevalent in the American South; the central role that Atlanta played in the Civil Rights movement spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the evolution of Trap music, led by rappers Cool Breeze, Dungeon Family, Outkast, Goodie Mob, and Ghetto Mafia among others.
2.1 Historical Background
“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it…Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war.” – General William Tecumseh Sherman’s comments to Prof. David F. Boyd at the Louisiana State Seminary 3
Located in the American South, in the State of Georgia, Atlanta was founded as a transportation hub at the intersection of two railroad lines in 1837. After being mostly burned to the ground during the American Civil War, in what some saw as an unnecessary act of retribution 4, the city rose from its near complete destruction to become a national center of commerce and the unofficial capital of the “New South”.
Despite multiple warnings—such as General Sherman’s above—the state of Georgia voted to secede from the Union and join the rebel Confederacy on January 19th, 1861. During his ‘March to the Sea’ towards the end of the war in 1865, General Sherman signed Special Field Order No. 15, distributing some 1,600 km² of confiscated land along the Atlantic coast to freed slaves. 5
Although slavery was officially abolished when the Thirteenth Amendment took effect in 1865, the practice had already been theoretically abolished by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. However, this applied only to slaves located in territories that were in rebellion from the Union. Because the Union government was not in effective control of Confederate territories until later in the war, many slaves were still held in servitude until those areas came back under Union control. 6
2.2 Civil Rights
During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Atlanta became a major organizing center of the civil rights movement. In addition to being the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, one of the key reasons Atlanta became the movement’s headquarters was its strong infrastructure of black churches, social institutions and political organizations. The city was also home to one of the most successful black business communities in the country, known as “Sweet Auburn” Avenue. The city earned a reputation as “too busy to hate” for the relatively progressive views of its citizens and leaders compared to other cities in the so-called Deep South.
Atlanta had established a reputation as a land of upward mobility for black Georgians looking to improve their lives, however, this was not always realized. Growing up in Atlanta, Dr. King’s middle-class background offered some insulation from the brutalities of the Jim Crow system, yet the same year that he was born, Dennis Hubert—a sophomore at Morehouse College and son of a prominent black minister—was murdered for allegedly insulting two white women. This injustice illustrated the limitations of middle-class standing for the Atlanta’s blacks. On the other hand, Dennis Hubert’s white killers were in fact, arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, a highly unlikely outcome in any other more rural county in Georgia. This demonstrates that Atlanta, with its more urban and cosmopolitan social environment, possessed a different soul, so to speak, than the rest of the state. 7
2.3 Atlanta and Hip Hop
In 2009, The New York Times noted that post-2000, Atlanta moved “from the margins to becoming hip-hop’s center of gravity, part of a larger shift in hip-hop innovation to the South.” Atlanta hip-hop’s pop breakthrough involved a blend of various hard-core sounds from the West, bass beats from Florida, and styles and images from the North. Producer Drumma Boy called Atlanta “the melting pot of the South”. Producer Fatboi said that the Roland TR–808 (known colloquially as the “808”) synthesizer was central to Atlanta music’s versatility. 8
“With the exception of Outkast, let me think, Goodie Mob… with the exception of that, before I came in the game, it was Lil Jon, Outkast, Goodie Mob, okay so you had crunk music and you had Organized Noize. There was no such thing as trap music, I created that, I created that. I coined the term, it was my second album, Trap Muzik it dropped in 2003. After that, there was an entire new genre of music created. An open lane for each of you to do what you do, and live your lives, on T.V., and be accepted by the masses. The masses have accepted you ’cause I opened the door and you walked through it. Don’t forget who opened that door cuz.”—Atlanta-based rapper T.I., in a December 2012 interview 9
Throughout 2018, Atlanta Trap music continued to dominate pop music charts. 10 In 2017, Atlanta recording artist Future had back-to-back releases that debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. Many other Atlanta artists, most notably Lil Yachty, Ludacris, and Migos have also capitalized on the internet and the cultural buzz surrounding Atlanta to help make their name and further cement their music careers.
Atlanta’s hip-hop scene is also responsible to sparking a number of dance crazes. Moves such as the “Dab”, the “Whip”, and the “Nae-Nae” have all ascended from Atlanta based hip-hop into the global mainstream. Thanks in part to the rapid diffusion enabled by social media, these dance moves have been embedded in global popular culture, with prominent figures of mainstream recognition such as 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton even practicing these moves on the popular talk show, Ellen. 11
The music and lyrics of Atlanta’s music scene reflects the inherent tensions within Atlanta’s wider black community. Many areas of the city continue to languish in poverty and despair, while other parts have risen to levels of prestige and wealth not seen since the reconstruction. The black nouveau riche, steeped in Atlanta’s black popular culture from the past and present, have redefined what it means to be elite, yet at the same time, they have also become resistant to other aspiring movers and shakers who desire to join their ranks.