Donald Glover
Magazine Feature

Hot Off 'Atlanta,' Donald Glover Prepares for 'Star Wars' & Childish Gambino's Funkadelic-Inspired Return

Donald Glover wanted to throw a party in the desert for 10,000 of his biggest fans. It would be a party with purpose — “a shared vibration for human progress,” in his words — organized around a series of concerts and unfolding across three days. He caught wind of a promising location in the Mojave, a couple hours east of Los Angeles: 420 acres belonging to something called the Institute of Mentalphysics. The institute hosts new-age retreats and describes its land as home to “a unique energetic ‘vortex,’ ” noting that the site’s special power became clear when the group’s founder laid eyes on it and, at that moment, a great light shone overhead. Glover, an actor-musician whose spiritual-seeking has taken different forms through the years — yoga, meditation, surfing, backpacking, mushrooms, ayahuasca — had found his spot.

He named the party Pharos, after the ancient Greek lighthouse, and scheduled it for Labor Day weekend. The vibrations weren’t free: To attend, you had to download a Pharos app, which presented as a cryptic countdown clock before revealing itself as a sleek e-commerce portal through which you could buy your $99 ticket. The app also included Glover’s rules for the weekend, among them “no irony,” and Utopian proclamations like “a rational, progressive and spiritually fulfilling global pantheism can be reached without disregard for our process of change: evolution.” You could also buy a $45 commemorative hoodie.

Brooke Nipar
“I never walked in [to FX] being like, ‘I want the Louis C.K. deal,’ ” says Glover. “I was just [like], ‘You guys really don’t have any choice. There are so many other platforms to do this on.’ ”

The Pharos concerts numbered four in all and featured one act: Donald Glover. Most people know him from his acting — in his acclaimed show Atlanta, his lead role on the wonderful Community and performances in The Martian and Magic Mike XXL, and his recently announced turn as Lando Calrissian in a future Star Wars installment. But since he was in college, Glover has been making music under the name Childish Gambino, building a fan base full of the kinds of obsessives who’ll follow him into the desert. His last album, 2013’s Because the Internet, posted 992,000 equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music, and his on-demand audio and video streams total 1.1 billion. Until now, he has leaned toward confessional, hyper-referential rap. At Pharos, Glover unveiled songs from his forthcoming album, Awaken, My Love!, in which he leaves rap behind for trippy funk rock indebted to ’70s visionaries like Funkadelic and Sly & The Family Stone. In an era of relentless digital distraction, when music has been reduced, in Glover’s unhappy estimation, to so much ephemeral “content,” Pharos was about introducing his music to the world within an atmosphere of focus, introspection and positivity. “There was a layer of sacredness,” says Glover — no irony — as he recalls the weekend. “It was amazing.”

Glover, 33, is sitting shoeless in a rental house on Los Angeles’ Eastside. It’s an October afternoon, two months after Pharos. He’s wearing a black T-shirt that looks extremely soft and brown corduroys that look even softer. His black Tesla Model S is parked out front. This house serves as headquarters for his management team, an occasional crash pad and a writers’ room for the FX series Atlanta, the unclassifiably excellent post-sitcom sitcom that — alongside Pharos and Awaken — absorbed Glover’s creative energies this year. Glover, who grew up in Atlanta, created the series, oversees its scripts and is one of its stars. Nominally about an MC trying to capitalize on a regional hit with his buddies, Atlanta, FX’s highest-rated comedy, feels like nothing else on TV. Exploring issues of class, family and identity as they relate to four black Southerners, Glover and his collaborators mix social realism (The Wire is an avowed influence) with eerie fantasy (Twin Peaks is, too); linear storytelling with postmodern play. “Donald made his own weird, original thing — sometimes it’s hyper-real, sometimes it’s surreal, sometimes it’s unreal,” says FX president John Landgraf, who likens Glover to Louis C.K. (another Atlanta influence) for his “ability to bring about everything he wants to create” and who calls Glover’s series “a whole picture of what it is to be young, gifted and black in Atlanta — in America — today.”

Glover raises a lighter to a bowl loaded with stinky weed, then supplies me with an Oculus virtual-reality headset loaded with footage shot at Pharos. I find myself in an enormous dome. Twinkling galaxies and a giant animated witch doctor are projected overhead. Virtual Glover works a stage with a live band and six-piece choir. He’s wearing a yellow grass skirt and furry yellow booties, his face and chest bare save for streaks of iridescent paint: an Afrofuturist priest whipping his congregants into a fervor. In crafting the concerts, Glover took inspiration from Mmanwu, traditional Nigerian masquerades in which tribesmen don masks meant to embody the living dead — a motif consonant with what Glover characterizes as his belief “in the infinite,” which extends, he elaborates, from “the Periodic Table” to “pyramids and shit, where it’s, ‘Well, that really took some foresight.’ That’s the spirituality of just existence. Or just earth. How well it works.” It doesn’t matter if this makes complete sense to you — it makes enough sense to him and, as Atlanta has proven, when Glover follows his mind wherever it leads, the results are worth watching.

Glover’s big idea was for people to enter an entire alternate reality of his oddball devising: As his ever-expanding résumé illustrates, he has a head full of ideas that can’t be contained by any single genre, much less any single art form, and for all the hyphenates that are attached to his name, he wants to be known, above all, as a builder of worlds. This ambition is as evident in his concept-heavy music-making as it is in Atlanta, and it stems not from mere whimsy but from lifelong feelings of alienation. When he’s describing Pharos — when he’s describing anything, really — Glover drifts into abstractions that can verge on inscrutable. But the weekend, at its core, reflected a profoundly simple desire: He wanted to create a weird place where he felt like he belonged. “It’s cool to be able to make a home for a little bit,” says Glover. “If you don’t have a home, you make one.”

Awaken, My Love! began for Glover with a childhood memory. “I remember listening to songs my dad would play — albums by the Isleys or Funkadelic — and not understanding the feeling I was feeling,” he says. “I remember hearing a Funkadelic scream and being like, ‘Wow, that’s sexual and it’s scary.’ Not having a name for that, though; just having a feeling. That’s what made it great.” Abandoning straightforward sense-making intrigued him: Whereas previous Childish Gambino albums featured verbal acrobatics and a constant deluge of similes — “very written,” as he puts it — he approached Awaken as “an exercise in just feeling and tone.”

Thinking further about the ’70s, Glover saw potent parallels between then and now. “It felt like people were trying to get out of their minds, with all the things that were happening — and that are happening right now,” he says, alluding to contemporary uprisings like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. “How do you start a global revolution, really? Is that possible with the systems we’ve set up? There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution.”

In November 2015, Glover got to work, renting a house in the Hollywood Hills. (He likes working out of houses.) In the daytime, writers worked with Glover on Atlanta scripts; at night, musicians replaced them, jamming on tracks. When I ask how the two projects related to each other, he says, “I never really saw them as different things.” Among the themes connecting show and album is fatherhood: Glover became a dad in 2016 and, although he declines to talk about it in any detail — to say whether he had a son or daughter, or to discuss the mother — you can see him processing the experience in his art. Glover’s Atlanta character, Earn, is doting, but too absorbed by his own issues to be fully present with his daughter. Several songs on Awaken are about, or directly address, a newborn child — Glover tenderly describing a baby’s arms and legs one moment, pleading with his lover not to take the kid “away from me” in another. When I ask Glover about becoming a dad, his perspective is as zoomed-out as can be: “It’s something everybody grapples with: why we’re programmed the way we’re programmed. A child is information. You’re programming this thing.” He concludes that, “At the end of the day, all you can really do is plant a seed that you’re not going to see grow into a tree.” 

Colleen Hayes/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
From left: Danny Pudi, Gillian Jacobs, Chevy Chase, Glover, Yvette Nicole Brown, Joel McHale and Alison Brie in Community.

Glover’s conversation follows a stream-of-consciousness logic fully apparent only to him; both the show and album thrive on a related sense of unpredictability. On Awaken, ostensible love songs ripple with surprising notes of fear and jealousy; romantic desire assumes a menacing edge. On Atlanta, seemingly innocuous social interactions are charged with confusion and foreboding; violence explodes without warning. “If I put on my left-brain, TV-executive, analytical hat, it’s not easy talking to Donald, because he’s not interested in distilling and simplifying things for you to understand,” says Landgraf. “But if I put on my right-brain, art-loving, philosophical hat, he’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever talked to.”

Glover has connected Atlanta’s off-kilter atmosphere to a broader political point about American blackness: “I want people to feel scared, because that’s what it feels like to be black,” he has said. “Amazing things can happen, but it can be taken away in a moment.” He tells me that to be black in this country is to be intimately familiar with a near-constant, mind-f—ing “sense of the unknown,” and that this guided him and the members of his all-black writing staff as they shaped the series. He characterizes Atlanta’s ambiance as “kind of nightmare-y. It’s not even, ‘Oh, it’s scary,’ so much as the feeling in a nightmare where you’re like, ‘I know how to run fast, but I can’t. I know what’s going on, but I have no control.’ ”

Glover has been making category-confounding art since he was little. In fifth grade, armed with a Talkboy cassette recorder, he would tape TV shows, commercials, music videos — “anything” — and analyze them incessantly. He began using the Talkboy to make what he calls “audio movies — like radio plays, but I called them audio movies. I’d do all the voices, everything. I really wanted a video camera. But my parents ... we were broke.”

Glover’s dad worked for the post office; his mother ran a daycare center out of the house. He has two younger siblings: a sister, Brianne, and a brother, Stephen, who makes music under the name Steve G. Lover and has writing credits on eight episodes of Atlanta. The family also hosted foster kids, which meant that Glover saw extreme disadvantage up close. When his mom lied about his address to finagle him into Kittredge High — a predominantly white school in Dekalb County — Glover got a look at privilege. “It made my perception of things very elastic,” he says. He often felt like a misfit, stranded between seemingly tidy categories. To some black peers, he has recalled, his bookishness and artistic interests made him an object of mockery; of white classmates, he later rapped, “They all make fun of my clothes and want to touch my hair.” Music and comedy offered a way for him to explore these tensions, transforming misfit anxiety into pride.

Guy D'Alema/FX
Joan Q. Scott, Glover and Zazie Beetz in Atlanta. 

“Donald’s humor comes from his own experience — and his own experience is complex,” says Tina Fey, who gave Glover his first show-biz job, writing on 30 Rock. He was studying playwriting at New York University, where he formed a comedy troupe with friends. Their videos made it to Fey, who was so impressed that she hired Glover as an undergraduate — “just a baby,” she says. It was a dream gig, but not Glover’s; he quit after two years. “He wanted to pursue performing,” says Fey. “Normally you’re in the position of telling people, ‘Maybe pursue it on the side. Don’t give up your income,’ because you don’t feel like they’ll make it. But with Donald the answer was clearly, ‘Yep. You’re wasting valuable time here. Go get famous.’ ”

Joining the Star Wars universe will doubtless make him more famous than ever. “When the world found out I got the part is when I found out,” says Glover, adding that he’s a fluent, longtime devotee of the franchise. “Growing up, I was pretty into it. I got taken out of school to see Episode I. It was the first toy I had. The Dagobah system” — Yoda’s home — “has definitely played a part in my dreams.” Despite his enthusiasm for that gig, though, you can see Glover’s career on the whole as the story of a guy working methodically to become his own boss. He was fantastic on Community as jock-turned-geek Troy, but he also used that show to build awareness of his music and his stand-up. After four-and-a-half seasons, he quit Community, devoting himself to music and scheduling a string of network pitch meetings that eventually led to Atlanta. Glover says there has been no master plan animating his career choices, though: “I wish I could say I sit there and I plan thoroughly, but I honestly don’t.” Instead, he points to something more restless, and ravenous, at work. “It’s, ‘I know what this is,’ ” he says. “Why keep eating it?”

Glover is on the house’s back patio, staring at a bowl of jelly beans, trying to think funny thoughts. He and his staff are batting around ideas for Atlanta’s second season at a weathered picnic table: not the typical setting for a writers’ room, which is exactly how Glover wants it. “I don’t like offices,” he explains. “We could probably have one at the Fox lot, but then it wouldn’t feel like hanging — and that’s crucial for making interesting stuff. I don’t want it to feel like a television show.” He’s joined by six members of his staff — four men, including his brother, Stephen, and two women. Candy and laptops crowd the table. A dry-erase board is propped up nearby, upon which Glover is scribbling potential ideas. At the moment, they’re discussing a scene set at a fancy party, and it’s compellingly difficult to say where the shit-shooting stops and the writing starts.

“Remember we were at that house in Pacific Palisades?” asks Glover’s friend and writer Jamal “Swank” Olori.

“That girl who got locked in the bathroom?” replies Glover, grinning. He turns to the other writers: “There was a bathroom all the way upstairs, off the master bedroom, but the lock was broken, so you couldn’t open the door from the inside. This girl goes upstairs…”

“…nobody can find her,” says Swank. “There’s no reception up there, so she couldn’t text anyone.”

“Then two-and-a-half hours later they open the bathroom door, and she busts out, crying,” says Glover. “Like, gughhhh — collapsing into someone’s arms!”

Everyone cracks up. Swank remembers something else from that party: “That white dude who was in the jacuzzi with five girls. How did he feel that comfortable, to where he just started up the jacuzzi?”

Joseph Okpako/Redferns via Getty Images
Performing as Childish Gambino in London in July. 

Stephen pipes up: “That’s how you knew he was rich. He knew how to work everything.”

Glover’s eyes light up. “We didn’t know how to work any of that stuff,” he says. “That’s funny. Being in the bathroom and not knowing how to use anything.” After a quick beat, trying to incorporate this into Atlanta, his brain makes a distinctly Gloverish leap. “What if in the bathroom there’s just, like, an orb? She’s trying to wash her hands, and she’s like, ‘I don’t know how this orb works…’ ”

He heads to the dry-erase board to get it down. The orb makes no sense on one level; on another, it’s perfect. Glover tells me later, “I don’t want to give people the slow drip of the same thing. That’s what people pay for now: ‘Just give me that thing over and over again.’ ” He grins. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think you want that.’ ” 

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of Billboard.