Those old happy-sad theater masks, the giant emoticons of yesteryear? Life as we know it is often made up of more jumbled emotions, hybrid states of heart and mind that don’t quite fall on one or the other end of the laugh-cry spectrum.
Which brings me to “Atlanta,” the excellent new FX comedy-drama-ish series created by and starring Donald Glover. One of the best steps forward on scripted TV in recent decades — along with anti-heroes, short seasons, and serial narratives — has been the advent of a half-hour TV genre that acknowledges the complex tones and feelings that can’t be easily labeled sitcom, drama, or dramedy. Shows including “Nurse Jackie,” “Baskets,” “Girls,” “Master of None,” “Louie,” “Transparent,” and now “Atlanta” address the gray areas of the human spirit, the irony, the despair, the moral half-light, and the small but meaningful triumphs and failures we experience — things that don’t tend to be fleshed out on, say, “The Big Bang Theory.” They’re anything but sitcommy, these shows, as they consciously veer away from punch lines and laugh riots but still inspire the occasional smile.
“Atlanta,” which premieres with back-to-back episodes on Tuesday at 10 p.m., is exactly this hybrid genre. It behaves like a quiet low-concept indie film broken into half-hour set pieces, as it embraces the ups, downs, and especially the in-betweens of its hero’s journey as a young, poor black man in the South. It’s melancholy, amusing, clever, insightful, humane, and, with its beautifully shot Atlanta location, steeped in local specificity. There are a few moments in the four episodes sent to critics when the emotional beats are hazy, the ideas vague, the vibe too meditative; but there are many, many more points when the show blows you away with its intelligence, humanity, and unwillingness to rush or telegraph any of its jokes or misfortunes.
Glover plays Earnest “Earn” Marks, an ordinary guy trying to pull himself out of financial and domestic quicksand. A Princeton dropout, he lives in Atlanta and has a lousy commission job at the airport. He is essentially homeless. His parents, Riley and Gloria (Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Myra Lucretia Taylor), have firmly pushed him out of the nest, and the mother of his baby daughter, Van (Zazie Beetz), impatiently lets him stay with them sometimes. In one excruciating scene, we see him order a kid’s meal — the only thing he can afford — from a difficult waitress at a fast-food restaurant. He whispers his order out of shame, which is kind of funny, and definitely kind of not.
Earn’s current dream: To manage his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), an up-and-coming rapper in the Atlanta scene who goes by the name Paper Boi and who makes good money on the side selling drugs with his eccentric roommate, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). Alfred isn’t convinced Earn can do the job; “I need Malcolm, you too Martin,” he says. But their lives intertwine after they’re involved in an explosive incident that brings attention to Alfred and his growing career, and Earn continues to push for a rags-to-riches story.
Don’t expect a focused tale about a fast-rising star in the rap business, though. There is absolutely nothing “Empire” about this show, and nothing conventional, either. As Earn’s days unfold, “Atlanta” falls into all kinds of resonant byways, with Earn, Alfred, and Darius forming a small-time stoner crew having mundane encounters directly and indirectly involving racial politics and identity. In a richly faceted vignette in the first episode, Earn tries to get some radio airtime for Paper Boi from a guy named Dave, who is white. Dave tells Earn a Flo Rida story in which he repeatedly uses the N-word. Later in the episode, Earn baits Dave by telling him to repeat the Flo Rida story in front of Alfred and Darius, which Dave does, but this time anxiously and without the N-word.
Glover’s performance will surprise many who know him mostly from his more upbeat work as Troy on “Community,” just as Aziz Ansari’s sweet performance on “Master of None” was an unexpected treat after his obnoxious turn on “Parks and Recreation.” As Earn, Glover is, like his show, muted, broody, and extremely sympathetic. Henry is perfect as Alfred, delivering self-aware lines — “I scare people at ATMs, so I have to rap” — in a no-nonsense tone that is both honest and wry. He makes Alfred’s reaction to his newfound fame believably mixed. And Stanfield nearly steals the show with Darius’s oddball stoner thoughts, which occasionally contain truths. Watching “Atlanta,” you quickly feel as if you know him, as well as Earn and Alfred, even while you have no idea where this wholly original series is heading.
Starring: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Zazie Beetz, Lakeith Stanfield
On: FX, Tuesday at 10 p.m.