Basically since its inception, pop music has put as much effort into glamorizing what happens behind the scenes as what happens in front of it. The pop stars of the modern era replaced folk heroes not just in popular opinion but also in terms of mythbuilding, with their origin stories as important to their success as their actual hits. And naturally, hip hop’s ascent in the pop culture sphere coincided with the mythologizing of the genre’s biggest stars. Even as hip hop icons fought to prove their connection to the common people, they also fought to prove they were larger than life, superhuman and immortal on and off record. So it’s funny that in 2016 two hip hop stories have emerged and captured commercial and critical attention with contradictory approaches to pop mythology. The first, Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix epic The Get Down, literally mythologizes the early days of hip hop, weaving together kung fu and musical storytelling over a more “realistic” portrayal of the gritty ’70s Bronx. The second, Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta, takes an almost dystopic view of hip hop’s present, following two young men trying to hustle their way to the top while avoiding the pratfalls of mixtape culture, in the process showing a more accurate picture of the music industry, where the things you have to do just to get by aren’t all that dissimilar to a life of crime.
From an aesthetics standpoint, it’s not hard to see why each auteur was drawn to their selective eras. Luhrmann works best when he’s fusing together two different but equally bold and brash eras, be it the Renaissance and ’90s LA in Romeo + Juliet or 19th century Paris and ’00s mash-up culture in Moulin Rouge, while Glover’s outsider persona, straddling geek and hip hop culture, has been as important to his television personality as to his musical alter ego Childish Gambino. Both artists are drawn to dichotomy, but Luhrmann treats it as spectacle while Glover treats it as a philosophical internal process.
The Get Down is set in a heavily detailed but not-quite-accurate ’70s New York, when major labels still controlled the music industry but were beginning to realize they did not have their finger on the pulse of America’s youth. Gay dance clubs were creating major hits outside of the major label system and influential DJs were starting nearly as many careers as their A&R peers, mostly through the disco genre that rose up alongside NYC drug culture. The vital dance music text Last Night a DJ Saved My Life paints a portrait of this scene as a hedonistic Wild West, with rogue tastemakers breaking through a previously impenetrable major label system, causing a torrent of genre hybridizations to emerge, eventually paving the way for hip hop. At the same time, New York City was in the midst of economic failure, and political figures like future mayor Ed Koch were keen to use the emergent dance culture and the increasingly more visible graffiti as scapegoats for the moral decay of the once great city. It’s no wonder Luhrman would be eager to work within this setting, to drape it in the iconography of kung fu flicks, with their own chaotic settings, and add the wide eyed optimism of musicals over top.
While The Get Down doesn’t flinch away from highlighting the pessimism and uncertainty that defined ’70s New York, it’s clear Luhrmann mostly sees it as an opportunity to give The Get Down’s heroes something to rise up from. After all, heroes are only as good as the struggles they overcome and what better showcase for that than a city that is literally on fire, tearing itself up as it tries to figure out its future? This is also the kind of story musical heroes love to call their own, particularly in the world of hip hop, where artists make the struggles of their home neighborhoods– and the things they had to do to get by amidst those struggles– a key part of their artistic narrative. Artists like Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z don’t just want to celebrate New York, they want to discuss how their personal growth is connected to the rise and fall and rise of the city, how they love the city not in spite of its failings but often because of them.
It’s a romanticized view of cities and strife and personal artistry, one that operates in broad strokes in order to make it more universal, to fit into the classic hero’s journey archetype. But it’s not really all that accurate. Almost from its first shot, Donald Glover’s Atlanta makes it clear that romanticism is not something it’s interested in. Set in a grimy gas station parking lot, where the main crew of characters are in a heated, pointless altercation, Atlanta’s opening is chaotic in a far more tedius way than The Get Down ever is. Before we know anything about Atlanta’s characters we are shown the low stakes drudgery of their lives, their desire for something bigger and better clashing with their awareness that they’re living in a city no one romanticizes and that everyone around them is dealing with too many of their own struggles to care about their desires. There is no myth to be built from Atlanta— this is a truly street level grind, carried out by people who know getting anywhere in the music industry means hustling nonstop and being endlessly bored and disappointed and frustrated.
Throughout The Get Down, Justice Smith’s Zeke and Herizen F. Guardiola’s Mylene are depicted as saintly forces. Zeke is treated as the potential savior of his community, and is even used as such for the purposes of political maneuvering. Mylene possesses a heavenly voice and angelic looks and also carries the weight of familial and community expectations. Zeke’s main problem is that he lacks confidence in his talents and doesn’t believe he deserves better than what he has, while Mylene is the opposite, fully confident in her abilities but restrained by the expectations of domesticity her family flings at her. But Donald Glover’s Earnest is constantly portrayed as a fuck-up among fuck-ups. He has a strained relationship with the mother of his child, his parents view him as an economic burden and his cousin, rising mixtape artist Paper Boi, refuses to trust him, let alone confide in him. No one in Atlanta has time for Earnest, and in the show’s most intimate moments we watch him pathetically confront this, culminating in his questioning of the universe, asking if some people (like him) are just supposed to “lose” all the time.
Because of the way it’s structured, we know that Zeke will succeed in The Get Down. The show is framed as a megastar’s confessional, the story of the show happening within the lyrics of his song during a sold out stadium show. We don’t necessarily know what will become of Mylene, or of Zeke’s mentor-collaborator Shaolin Fantastic (though because of historical hindsight we do know Shaolin’s own mentor Grandmaster Flash becomes one of hip hop’s first success stories), but even if they don’t succeed on their own, we’re aware of their importance via Zeke’s eventual accomplishments. But Atlanta is presented in a quasi-cinema verite style, its narrative sometimes jumping back and forth in time but never enough to give the viewer any real advantage over the characters. When Earnest succeeds, as he does when he manages to secure Paper Boi airplay on one of Atlanta’s biggest hip hop stations, it’s almost immediately met with disaster. And even though that disaster serves to make Paper Boi’s star rise a little bit more, it’s never treated as a true success; if anything it only serves to create further anxiety for Paper Boi, forcing him to wonder about the path he has chosen for himself and what else he’ll have to do to get further.
This is one of the most remarkable things about Atlanta, its willingness to completely deglamorize the hustle of the music biz. Paper Boi is successful enough to get radio play on a top station, be recognized on the streets (albeit usually after some prompting) and get hyperbolic coverage in Complex (“Complex asks if Paper Boi is ‘Atlanta’s Tupac.’ They say no, but still…”), but he’s still living in a dingy, cluttered apartment with a spacey roommate and he gets into a gun fight over a request that an asshole pay for breaking his car mirror. In The Get Down, Zeke’s rise certainly brings confrontation, but Luhrmann romanticizes even that, showing Zeke and his crew unquestionably demolishing the competition in battles while Mylene almost immediately overcomes demo jitters to produce a devastatingly great debut. Paper Boi and Earnest barely tread water, and Bryan Tyree Henry never depicts Paper Boi as a fully confident force of nature guaranteed anything resembling success– he reacts to the expectations members of the community fling on him after his arrest with queasy anxiety, particularly when one restaurant employee informs him that he’s “one of the last real rap artists” just because he was involved in a violent dispute. At one point, Paper Boi even settles into the resignation of an already over-successful artist, admitting to Earnest that he hates his own eponymous hit single.
Atlanta communicates that weariness in its visual aesthetic as well, from its opening montage of wrecked Atlanta houses and run down neighborhoods to director Hiro Murai’s decision to fill nearly every frame with sickly green and yellow hues. The Get Down might feature plenty of burned out sections of the Bronx, but it’s always rendered in painterly orange and red to match the characters’ preference for those colors, their superhero-like code names etched on the back of bright red jackets when they team up amidst a backdrop of green screen rubble. It’s not that Atlanta doesn’t indulge in surreality– an important early scene has Earnest engaging in a dreamlike conversation with a well-dressed man on the bus, ending with the man walking away from the bus stop and into the woods with a dog– but it’s the surreality of the sick and anxious, not the whimsical and hopeful. The Get Down wants its dreams to come true, Atlanta wants its dreams to end so that something resembling an actual life can begin.
Until that happens, Atlanta’s characters are stuck in a Sisyphean cycle of trying to grab the few disappointing opportunities that are available to them, forever chipping away at whatever personal ethics they have until they’re either so corrupt they’re successful or doomed to the type of life they were avoiding in the first place. That might not pack the tidy and exciting punch of The Get Down’s hip hop mythology, but for artists working within a broken, pessimistic, surreal music industry, it likely hits a lot closer to home, and is all the more valuable for that. Given that The Get Down is a continuation of the pop mythologizing that artists and fans alike are so used to, you could even argue that Atlanta’s existence alone is more exciting. We’ve had more than a century of larger than life pop heroes, isn’t it time we had some musical icons who suffered the way we do?
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover