Why “Atlanta” Creator Donald Glover Is One Of The Most Creative People In Business
Donald Glover is tired. Like, bone-tired–the kind of tired that crushes his normally bright voice into a monotonous murmur. “This is a different level of production than anything I’ve ever been involved in, you know?” he says. It’s close to 9 p.m. London time, and Glover is coming off another grueling 10-hour day on the set of his latest movie–the as-yet-untitled Star Wars film in which he plays the beloved Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi character Lando Calrissian. It’s a part that has required Glover to not only undergo intensive stunt training but also participate in daily weight-lifting sessions and abide by a strict muscle-building diet. Most nights, he says, he leaves the set barely able to walk.
Though shooting a mega-budget sci-fi blockbuster has proven more extreme than his typical workday, Glover has lately been getting used to fatigue. Consider the relentless pace of his last 24 months, a period that has cemented his reputation as one of the entertainment industry’s premier polymaths. In addition to playing Calrissian in the eagerly awaited Han Solo-focused prequel (due next summer), he will appear in this July’s Spider-Man: Homecoming in a mysterious role that has been the subject of much online speculation. (Glover won’t divulge anything for fear of, as he puts it, getting “dragged away by the Marvel police.”) Last December, while still making the Spidey film, Glover released his third official album under the name Childish Gambino–the well-received Awaken, My Love!–and in September he put on a sold-out, three-day multimedia event in Joshua Tree, California, to debut his new music.
But the project that has truly kick-started Glover’s career–that has transformed him from a well-respected performer into one of Hollywood’s most exciting and in-demand creative minds–is the FX television series Atlanta, which he created, stars in, cowrites, and executive produces. When it premiered last September, the show quickly established itself as something original and important: a cerebral not-quite-comedy that uses the 30-minute-sitcom format to explore issues of race, class, ambition, friendship, relationships, parenthood, and other endlessly complex subjects. It’s all filtered through Glover’s unconventional aesthetic, which blends pathos and humor with a giddy surrealism that comes and goes like fragments of a dream.
Atlanta has been celebrated for its diversity: The cast is composed entirely of people of color, as is the writers’ room. Glover stars as Earnest “Earn” Marks, a Princeton dropout who washes back up in his hometown, crashing with his on-again, off-again girlfriend (Zazie Beetz) and their toddler daughter. Dead broke, Earn ingratiates himself with his cousin, a rapper who goes by Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), and the first season loosely follows their travels through the local hip-hop scene. Atlanta is a show created by an African-American man in 2017, and its concerns, if not always overtly political, are necessarily wrapped up in questions of what it means to be young and black in America today. (Atlanta recently won a Peabody Award, which recognizes, in part, societal impact.)
Over the course of its 10-episode run, the show built an impressive audience. By its November finale, Atlanta was averaging more than 5 million viewers per episode across platforms, making it the most-watched comedy in FX’s history. It went on to win two Golden Globes–one for Glover, for best actor, and one for best television comedy–and FX quickly announced it was re-upping the series for a second season, which is due next year.
In January, the network tapped Glover for an unusual exclusive overall production role, which enables him to create an unspecified number of other shows (including a recently announced animated take on Marvel’s Deadpool, which will air on FXX). “FX, to me, feels like a safe creative place right now,” Glover says. “I’m hesitant to say that, because it’s owned by a big conglomerate [20th Century Fox], but I mean it: If I have an idea, they’ll find a place to put it.” To the network, Glover represents the rare kind of visionary talent who can attract intense interest at a time when it’s harder than ever to break through the cultural clutter. “He’s remarkably multifaceted,” says FX president John Landgraf. “I look at Donald first and foremost as a creator, but also as an entrepreneur–someone who is almost boundaryless, who can do almost anything they set their mind to.”
For Glover, Atlanta’s success–and FX’s faith in his voice and creative vision–is gratifying. “I had this thing, starting out, where people didn’t really trust me,” he says. “I say that as a young creative person, and I say that as a young black man.” The shows that he will create via his FX deal are a chance to prove, as he puts it, “that I understand what hits are–that I can make a hit. I’m gaining people’s trust. Every one of those roles is a step that brings me closer to doing the things that I want to do, on my own terms.”
Though Atlanta is not autobiographical, Glover did grow up in a suburb of the city, the son of a postal worker and daycare manager. After graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2006, where he was a member of a popular comedy group, he was handpicked by Tina Fey to lend some millennial savvy to the writers’ room of 30 Rock, and three years later he scored an acting role on cult-favorite sitcom Community, playing Troy, a washed-up jock. Though it was a supporting part, Glover’s endearing performance earned him outsize attention and appreciation. When Glover started releasing music as Childish Gambino, many fans and critics were skeptical. But it turned out he was serious about broadening his creative purview, and his albums Camp (2011) and Because the Internet (2013) won some devotees. His most recent, Awaken, My Love!, a carefully crafted tribute to Funkadelic and other sounds of the 1970s, has been admired by both fans and music critics.
Glover now essentially juggles four separate careers, any one of which would be a full-time occupation for most people: star and showrunner of a hit TV show, in-demand film actor (he will also voice Simba in the upcoming remake of The Lion King), creator and producer of multiple future FX programs, and recording artist. Today, in operating this culture factory, Glover has come to rely on a team of colleagues and family members, which includes his longtime manager, Dianne McGunigle, and his kid brother, Stephen Glover, a rapper and one of the writers on Atlanta. Glover refers to this group as a “hub” that gives him a creative base as well as advice, especially as the number of opportunities that come his way have multiplied. “Freedom is responsibility,” he says. “This idea that the only thing stopping you is your own imagination–that’s beautiful, but you still need structure, you still need boundaries, even if you’re making them yourself.” A similar dynamic is at play with the Atlanta team. “At its best,” he says, “it’s like a Ouija board. We’re all pushing and pulling together.”
Part of his strategy includes paying close attention to social media, carefully monitoring reactions to his various projects. “A lot of art is a dance you do with your audience,” he says. “You’re playing off the vibes, the wavelengths, the algorithms that your audience is giving you. And now that I’ve got that information, I can get ready to dance with them again for [Atlanta‘s] second season.”
Surprisingly, he does not himself actively participate, having deleted all of the posts from his public Twitter and Instagram accounts two years ago. “I wanted, when I said something, for people to know I meant it,” he now explains. “Instead of 140 characters with no detail, I’d rather be like, ‘Here’s this thought. I made a thing out of it, and there’s a whole world contained in there.’ I want you to be able to immerse yourself in it.”
I ask Glover whether, during rare moments of downtime while shooting the Star Wars movie, he finds himself thinking about his next big projects. He admits that he feels an intense sense of urgency. “The way I look at things, I have only a couple more years of being dangerous,” he says. “A couple more years of making risky moves.” After that, he seems to be saying, he’ll be fully caught in the Hollywood machine–less able to gamble with a show as irresistibly strange as Atlanta. “But while it’ll be from a very different place, I hope I’ll still be making good stuff.”