'Atlanta' offers sharp commentary on the intersection of music, culture, and industry

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ROBBIN' SEASON: Donald Glover's "Atlanta" offers an authentic look into the life of a rising artist navigating the ever-changing music industry.

We still haven’t heard any new original music from “Atlanta,” despite the fact that the critically acclaimed FX series follows a pair of cousins attempting to escape poverty in the city by forging a path into the music industry.

Viewers first heard Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) self-titled hit single in the first season of the Donald Glover-created series, but the song is still being used to advance the show’s storyline in the shows second season. “Atlanta: Robbin’ Season” began airing earlier this month, taking place during holiday season, a time when robberies are common in Atlanta.

On paper, “Atlanta” is a show about a rapper and his manager, but, in many ways, that fact is often relegated to the background. Paper Boi, the local drug dealer with a hit song, is in many ways the series’ most interesting character. Henry effortlessly displays the resentment Paper Boi feels for the life he’s been subjected to as a poor black man in Atlanta. Even when he’s making bad decisions, there’s a deep understanding of how circumstances beyond his control have influenced who he’s become.

At its core, “Atlanta” is really about survival by any means. Still, the show has always made subtle commentary about the music industry. In season one, viewers get to reflect on how Justin Bieber’s real life antics would be perceived differently if he were a black man. None of the episodes have provided sharper commentary on how rappers fit into the current musical landscape than the second episode of season two, though.

“Sportin Waves” (March 8, 2018) showcases the struggles of Paper Boi as he attempts to juggle hustling and being a rapper. The episode begins with Paper Boi being robbed by his supplier, who tells the rapper that he’ll be fine despite the robbery. He does have a hit song, after all. “I ain’t making no money off that fucking song,” Paper Boi responds, through gritted teeth. The moment underscores the dual life rising stars often live both as people who are expected to behave like they are already successful and as someone who is likely still struggling to make ends meet.

Later, Paper Boi visits a tech startup with his cousin and manager, Earn (Glover), in an attempt to grow his audience and make some money from his musical endeavors. The scenes that follow force viewers to reflect on the ways in which tech companies influence music and authenticity, and the ways in which rappers are framed in this narrative. When Paper Boi struggles to connect with a crowd of mostly white hipsters during a performance, another black man performs energetically on top of a table in a conference room. Paper Boi delivers “drops,” or promotional spots, for the “fresh rap mix playlist” (think Spotify’s influential but major label-influenced “Rap Caviar”) in a monotonous tone, despite being asked to deliver it like he’s “at a party and everything’s crazy.” Meanwhile, rapper Clark County snags an advertisement deal for “Yoo-Hoo” drinks that features a catchy jingle and the rapper enthusiastically milly rocking across the screen. As Vulture reporter Angelica Jade Bastién points out, the fake commercial and the juxtaposition of Paper Boi and Clark County demonstrates the way black artists are often forced to perform and conform in order to attain success.

One of the most interesting moments of the show for me, though, may not have stood out to many people as the previously mentioned scenes did. When Paper Boi and Earn first enter the tech company’s office, they hand a man who goes by “35 Savage” a CD containing some of Paper Boi’s new music. Viewers never get to hear the new music, though. The tech company doesn’t have any disc drives and struggles to play the emailed version of the music. This moment is extremely timely. Earlier this year, Billboard reported that Best Buy will stop selling compact discs in July and Target is planning to move to a “scanned-based trading” model for CDs and DVDs. This would mean that Target would pay for inventory after it has been sold, or scanned, in stores, similar to consignment agreements. This is sad for music fans who grew up with CDs, but the move makes sense economically. Computers and cars rarely come with drives for discs because most music fans have turned to streaming services.

Neither Paper Boi nor Earn would have the latest technology in “Atlanta,” though. It makes sense that they would show up to a meeting with music on a CD, just like it makes sense that tech companies wouldn’t have disc drives. The brief interaction offered a subtle but powerful commentary on the ways in which tech companies inform music culture and how class informs our knowledge of these technological trends.

Where a series like “Empire” features original music that can be purchased and streamed, “Atlanta” doesn’t. But, unlike the hit FOX series, “Atlanta” does provide a more authentic look into the life of rising artists and the ever-changing music industry where tech significantly informs how music sounds and is distributed.

I’m still curious to see how Paper Boi continues to develop as a character and, thus, what that means for his music career. Today’s musical landscape is the perfect playground for Glover’s fictional struggling rapper. There are many storylines worth developing this season, including a look at “Atlanta’s” leading lady Vann (Zazie Beetz), but hopefully Paper Boi’s story doesn’t get pushed to the background again.

Jewel Wicker is an Atlanta native and award-winning freelance reporter who has been covering the music industry and hip-hop in Atlanta since she was a college student at Georgia State University. In her spare time, she loves to eat lemon pepper wings and debate the validity of your favorite artists.


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