If you think about it, Donald Glover has been on the come for a good long while. His first breakthrough – of a sort – was his role as the meta-jock Troy on Community starting in 2009. A part that allowed him to be goofy and cool at the same time. 89 episodes in, he walked away after the 5th season in 2014.
Community was well loved by those who watched – not that many did. And as much as Glover was terrific (which is to say very), it only hinted at what he could do.
A stand up special for Comedy Central in 2012, Weirdo, laid more clues about the versatility of his humor. There was a nerdy quality to it, which overlapped with his Community character, but a lot more edge. Sexuality and social issues combined with a more cutting delivery showed that there were levels to Donald Glover that had not been seen yet.
More significantly, he released his first album, the alterna-rap classic, Camp, in 2011 under the moniker Childish Gambino. By the end of 2012, he had earned cult status on television, as a stand-up, and as a hip-hop artist. That’s one hell of a multi-hyphenate already, but Glover was just getting warm.
A second excellent Gambino record came in 2013. Because The Internet did a lot of what Camp had done, only it sold better. He also started dabbling in film as well. Small parts in The Muppets, The To Do List, Magic Mike XXL, and The Martian followed.
All of his previous work set the stage for 2016. When Glover went full genius on us. In September of that year he dropped his masterpiece of tone, comedy, and social observation. Atlanta was masterful out of the gate. A mixture of humor (often dark), hip-hop, urban southern culture, mumblecore drama, with flights of fancy thrown in that made the stew both unusual and aromatic.
Glover does a little bit of everything on the show. As Earn, the nominal lead, he plays the manager of his local legend rapper cousin Paper Boi – played wonderfully by Bryan Tyree Henry. He also is a somewhat ne’er do well father of a little boy he shares with his girlfriend (Zazie Beats, in full breakout mode). The entirety of that description tells you almost nothing important though. Glover shares in the writing, direction, and produces as well. The show is quintessentially him.
It is also quintessentially and unapologetically black. How black is it? Well, in season one, they cast Justin Bieber with a young black man and explained exactly nothing.
There is nothing like it currently on TV. Hell, there’s nothing like it historically in the medium either. The show has a woozy quality that is all its own. I swear, when a character smokes weed (as they often do), I can almost feel my eyes burn from the smoke, smell the Funyuns on Paper Boi’s fingertips, and the must in the couch made up of crumbled chips, dropped ash, and the occasional spilt beverage.
It was correctly lauded as a show both of and beyond its generation. Of the moment in subject matter, while being far ahead in its execution and eccentricity. On Atlanta, anything can happen at any time. While there is the thread of a grounding story through most episodes, there are also stand-alones. Some which don’t feature Glover at all. It is bold in every measure.
That would have been enough for one year, but just as 2016 was about to close out, Glover released his third Childish Gambino record. And it was nothing like the previous two. Glover dropped the hip-hop and went full on into 70’s and 80’s R&B and funk. He sang in an often skyscraping falsetto that had not been showcased before on, well, anything.
At the end of that year, it would have been perfectly reasonable to think “what can’t this guy do?”
After a fairly quiet 2017 which found Glover focusing on his music and the filming of the second season of Atlanta (along with a bit part in Spider-Man: Homecoming), it felt like Glover might have been slowing down.
The second season of Atlanta let out in March, and improbably, if not impossibly, it was better than the first. In some ways a little more straight forward – while also sadder and more pensive – it avoided the dreaded sophomore slump with aplomb. It’s a rare thing for a show to still feel like a discovery when following up its season of origin. Atlanta still does that.
In particular, the episode “Teddy Perkins” will not only go down as the best episode of television this year (I’m calling it now), I am completely certain it will go down as one of the best ever. The show’s essential third wheel played by the always great Lakeith Stansfield, goes out to the country to pick up a piano from an eccentric former pop star of a sort, and weirdness then tragedy ensues. It is nothing short of breathtaking.
Just as the show’s second season finished, Glover hosted and was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. It was easily the best episode of the season. The skits were inspired, and you could feel the presence of Glover elevating the entire enterprise. The two new cuts he played with his band were stellar. The Stevie Wonderish Saturday Night, and the more abrasive, confrontational – while still insanely melodic – This Is America.
That second song, in just 24 hours hence, would become a detonating bomb on our culture.
The video for This Is America is the best 4 minutes and 4 seconds on film I have seen all year. In those remarkable 244 seconds, Glover as Gambino, comments on gun violence, police brutality, societal apathy, the well-earned paranoia of the black male, and probably a dozen other things I’m still catching up to, all while breaking out stellar dance moves across a large warehouse of constantly changing scenes, with scarcely any cutting.
It is grand, relentless, and necessary. When is the last time a music video made this sort of impact? Madonna’s Like A Prayer? Like a million years ago?
The single went to number one on the charts (where it still currently resides) mostly on the steam of a viral level of streaming. Too kinetic for modern radio, yet too crucial to be ignored, it is a complete work of art.
That’s how Glover’s summer began. His ambition knows no bounds though. Last weekend he delivered a droll performance as a young Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story. While the film underperformed at the box office, and the reviews – although leaning positive – are pretty modest, Glover floats above it as if the relative mediocrity cannot grasp him. As if he were smoke.
He has the most emotionally resonant relationship in the film (with his droid, no less), gets all the best lines (not because they are written so well, but because of how he delivers them), and generally just leaps off the screen. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that a Lando movie would be more successful in nearly every way. Or, going one better as noted film critic Matt Zoller-Seitz suggested on Twitter, make Glover Han Solo, and just like Atlanta with Justin Bieber, explain nothing.
Which seems completely logical to me. We live in the Summer of Glover right now. Wondering if there’s anything he can’t do, and not making a single bet against him. Because we know that bet’s for suckers and there’s no way we can cover the vig when he pulls out four aces. One of which, like for Lando himself, seems to forever reside up his sleeve.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.