Hip-Hop

Donald Glover on How Making FX's 'Atlanta' Is Like Producing a Record

Donald Glover Atlanta
Matthias Clamer/FX

Donald Glover as Earnest Marks in Atlanta.

Atlanta is home to some of hip-hop’s biggest forces today, making Donald Glover’s dramedy series about two cousins attempting to navigate the rap scene more relevant than ever before. After waiting over a year for new episodes, FX’s Atlanta is finally returning to the small screen Thursday (March 1) after a long hiatus as executive producer, creator, and writer Glover has had an array of projects on his plate, including his much-anticipated role in the 2018 release, Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Deemed as a “cold” season by the showrunner, Atlanta has declared season 2 the Robbin’ Season because it touches on themes of robbery and shoplifting right before Christmas time and New Year’s when these types of crimes are usually at its peak.

While Childish Gambino (Glover's stage name) is now Hollywood elite, there was a time when even he was not always safe from being a victim of burglary. The multi-talented creative detailed his own experience to Billboard at the Atlanta Robbin' Season premiere at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles saying, “I definitely got robbed once and I didn’t know I was robbed the whole day. I kept making excuses being like I must have left it there and I was like, ‘I don’t have my wallet. I must have left it there.’ And then around the fourth thing, I thought I had my laptop and I looked into my car and all my change was gone.” He continued, “And I got robbed! I actually got the laptop back, which was super helpful — which is a longer, weirder story.”

Atlanta follows two cousins as they set out to make it in the music industry while also navigating the streets of their neighborhood. It’s no secret that music plays a prominent role in the show — from creating the general tone to showcasing Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles' anthems as an artist — so it only makes sense when Glover admits that creating the FX show is almost one in the same as producing an album.

“I think this season we tried to parallel Paper Boi’s career with the show like after you come out with your first mixtape and everyone is like, ‘yo, you’re fucking awesome. Yo, when’s that next mixtape coming out? And it better be better...as good' and you kind of realized, oh you can’t even give people that feeling that you gave them the first time because now there’s context,” says the experienced 34-year-old, who released the Grammy-nominated album, Awaken, My Love in 2016. “Now that first season or that first mixtape has context for the second, so you have to decide am I in this to make money or am I going to make this thing? Am I going to be as free as I was the first time? So I feel like it is just like music. You feel the same pressure but you have to…this season was us kind of being like….instead of us chasing it, us examining what that is.”

And there was indeed more than enough time to evaluate what everything would look like from the three-dimensional storylines to the series' overall evolution. Created over a longer span of time in comparison to other television shows, Atlanta was delayed due to Glover’s hectic schedule with other pressing production projects. Brian Tyree Henry, who plays "Paper Boi," describes how it was a challenge to juggle everyone's busy schedules and to recreate his character, Alfred, after such an extended period of time. He credits the cast and crew for the seamless process.

“You know, yeah. All four of us have been so busy in between. And we stay in contact with each other. We stay in support of each other wholeheartedly, but I remember getting to Atlanta filming it in the fall. But our writers are so brilliant and our creative team is so brilliant,” said Henry. “I trust these people more than anything. And by that, I mean our characters and cast, so yeah, I was a little nervous like yo, where’s Alfred at right now? What’s going on? But you know that’s the greatness of it because that’s life. That’s exactly how it is. You never really know what you think you know and especially for Alfred, you know, he’s born and raised in Atlanta. Things are changing for him.”

Despite the challenges on set, you can witness the glimmer in Henry's eyes as he gushes over the subsequent season -- particularly because of his own character's development and how he’s transforming as an artist and an individual.

He expands on what to expect from Paper Boi this season sharing, “The restraints of Alfred. I’m not going as crazy as I used to because it’s a different life now for him. [He] doesn't really have the way/the means anymore to just go out and bust a cap in the parking lot anymore. He realizes there are consequences for his actions.”

The Atlanta native himself shared the most exciting details of the night, teasing that viewers are in for some major surprises and shockers. “I think also y’all are really going to enjoy the fact that the familiar bonds and friendships that you didn’t expect, you may see this time. Friendships aren’t safe. Like I think the people need to realize that nothing is safe this season,” he said smugly. “Anything can happen anytime. Robbin’ Season…hints. Things are changing for all of us. And this ground and territory is not as assertive as it use to be, so you guys are going to see…whatever you come in thinking you know, you don’t know.”

Robbin’ Season may have unforeseeable twists and unpredictable turns, but there's one thing that's for certain: music is the unifying force that brought the cast and crew together on set as well as continues to serve them in their personal lives. When asked about their favorite Atlanta artists, here's who they could not stop raving about. 

Brian Tyree Henry: Outkast, Organized Voice, all of them. It was a soundtrack to my life. I went to college there. And shout out to Usher ‘cause I know he’s here.”

Zazie Beetz: “I just think what was big for me in my formative years and it’s like Outkast, Andre 3000. I just grew up with them from middle school to high school. During that time, it meant a lot to me.”

Stephen Glover, writer & producer: “Right now, 2 Chainz is the best, but I like Rich the Kid. That’s my personal favorite right there.”

Atlanta Robbin’ Season premieres Thursday (March 1) at 10pm ET/PT on FX.