“Atlanta is a Trojan horse,” says Donald Glover, the creator and star of the dramedy, which premieres Sept. 6 on FX. The show is ostensibly about an Ivy League dropout and new dad (Glover) who helps his cousin launch a rap career. But in reality, it’s a bold exploration of race and class that feels like nothing else on television—partly because the writers are all black, as are the stars.
“The thesis was: How do we make people feel black?” says Glover. “It turned into something more attainable than that, but that was the idea. I was like, ‘Let’s make something that shouldn’t be on the air, something controversial.’ If it’s canceled in 10 episodes, I’ll be happy with those episodes.”
In the first episode, a white character tells a story using the N word to Glover’s character, Earn. Later, Earn goads that same character into telling the story again—but this time in front of Earn’s rapper cousin, Paper Boi. In the second telling, the white character awkwardly omits the N word.
“That tone, I think, is specific to being black. You’re laughing at the heartache of the situation—how economics and status and identity plays into when people think the word is appropriate,” Glover says. “Most shows would have a character say, ‘Here’s when you can use that word.’ That’s whack. The situation is more complex and weird than that.”
He strove to make the white character cool—“like Diplo”—so that viewers wouldn’t dislike him. “My biggest problem with a lot of movies about race is people aren’t trying to be evil. People are trying to survive and feel good. When racist stuff happens, it’s usually primitive, human sh-t.”
It’s weighty material for the man best known for crafting Tracy Morgan’s bizarre jokes on 30 Rock (“Werewolf Bar Mitzvah”) and rapping under the alter ego Childish Gambino, a moniker spat out by an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator. But Glover’s been building this particular Trojan horse—a searing social commentary hidden in a laugh-out-loud show about rap—his entire life.
He grew up in Stone Mountain, Ga., home to a mountainside carving of Confederate icons that stands as the Mount Rushmore of that cause. (It’s also the hometown of 30 Rock character Kenneth the Page.) Glover was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and for a long time wasn’t allowed to watch television, so he listened to audio recordings of Simpsons episodes in bed at night. “Being a Jehovah’s Witness, it forces you to feel like you’re always looking behind a curtain,” he says. “It always keeps the magic alive in you.”
He went to college at NYU and joined the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, where Tina Fey tapped him to write for 30 Rock (via recommendation by UCB co-founder Amy Poehler). But he left the Emmy-winning writing team after three years to act on Community. Glover moved on after five seasons of that series to create Atlanta. “Working on two special shows made me want to understand my purpose,” he says. “Tina always seemed happy. I want that.”
His pursuit of happiness has been a complicated journey, as his leapfrogging from dream job to dream job might suggest. “I feel like millennials never feel like they have enough, really. People are like, ‘Oh you’re this man-child,’ but really I think it has more to do with the possibilities being endless. A lot of us choose endlessness over a definite ending.”
It hasn’t helped that his identity has been relentlessly scrutinized by the public. In 2010, he off-handedly tweeted that he’d like to play Spider-Man, accidentally kickstarting an online campaign to get him cast in the role. (The part eventually went to Andrew Garfield.) Glover was suddenly thrust into a debate about the lack of diversity in superhero films. “The Internet is a strange box,” he says. He’s also had to deal with criticism of his music, which persists despite two Grammy nominations for his last album.
“I used to try to dissect why people didn’t like certain parts of me. Now I’m like, ‘Those are people’s feelings, and it’s O.K.,’” he says. “I’m not interested in making people happy.” Case and point: He’ll skip dropping an album on iTunes in favor of releasing new music during a live concert event at Joshua Tree, Calif. on Sept. 2-4. “It could be a disaster. People might hate it,” he says.
Now 32, Glover seems to be finding his way. His new perspective emboldened him to create Atlanta’s sometimes unlikable protagonist, who often puts his own interests ahead of his responsibilities as a father. It freed him to take on bigger issues like the futility of fighting a broken prison system, the inescapable cycle of poverty, the hypocrisy of certain rap lyrics—and that’s all just in the first three episodes. And don’t expect a traditional story structure or narrative. “I don’t care about shows where it’s like, are they going to make it?” says Glover. “I think it’s more interesting to ask, why are they hustling?”
Atlanta isn’t the only reason his star is on the rise. After successful turns in Magic Mike XXL and The Martian, he was cast in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming. Though he will not reveal the character he’s playing, he says the studio wasn’t just paying lip service. “You never want it to feel like affirmative action, and it wasn’t that at all,” he says. “I know the director, and he has some really cool ideas.”
He’s also rumored to be the first choice to play Lando Calrissian in the new young Han Solo film. He won’t say whether there’s any truth to those reports but, like everyone else his age, he worships the franchise. “I grew up on it. It’s a dynasty.”
But if Glover leaves his mark, he wants it to be with Atlanta. He hopes the show’s candor and multidimensional characters will allow it to last beyond the current moment in television, when programs featuring non-white casts are commanding renewed attention.
“Diversity means money. There are so many screens now, and they need content to fill those screens,” says Glover. “If they were making black shows, left and right, and they were making no money, people were turning off black-ish week after week, no one would be interested in diversity. But they’re watching it.”
“I’m definitely stuffed into that conversation,” he continues.
But he thinks he has something that can endure. “I studied a lot of black iconography,” he says. “The show is me trying to make something iconic.”