Donald Glover’s newest video is a sign that his musical vision has finally caught up with his larger artistic goals
Atlanta is the best show on television. Apologies to any of the Westworld or Jersey Shore: Family Reunion heads out there, but this isn’t an opinion—it’s a fact. No show over the last few years has said more, experimented more and accounted for more “good god, what did I just watch?” moments than Donald Glover’s Emmy-winning sitcom.
It’s been that way since the show started. From the earliest parts of Atlanta’s first season, it was clear this would be Glover’s Flu Game (or his Shoe Game, depending on your generational preference): it’s the signature, undeniable trademark of greatness in what is probably going to be a long and undeniably great career.
Meanwhile, the music of Childish Gambino, the artistic front that used to domimate Glover’s creative output, had been put on the back burner. Even “Awaken, My Love!,” the singer/rapper’s heavily successful record written during the filming of Atlanta and released just a month after its first season ended, felt like an afterthought.
The move made perfect sense. Donald Trump has taught us that humans only have a finite amount of energy, so why would Glover want to waste even more artistic effort on music when he was already at his apex? Do you really need a 1998 finals when you have your Flu Game?
Apparently, the answer to that question is yes. “This Is America” isn’t just the best music video Childish Gambino has ever made, it’s a piece of art as impressive and thought-provoking as anything Glover has made up to this point.
The video is jarring. At times, it’s truly horrifying—like, “Teddy Perkins” horrifying. Other times, it’s immensely satirical, and wackily self-aware in a way that only a rapper who makes a TV show about managing a rapper could be. “This Is America” is so many things, but, perhaps most fascinatingly, it’s evidence that Glover’s musical vision has finally caught up with his larger artistic goals.
The parallels between the song/video and Atlanta are instantly identifiable. There’s the inclusion of hilarious, sometimes off-putting surrealism (such as a dude with a red handkerchief scrambling to shuffle away Gambino’s pistol like the world’s most eager office intern).
The video also makes use of intense tonal shifts (re: two seconds before the aforementioned gun intern)—the same kind Glover has turned into a trademark on his television show. These shocking, unexpected transitions from the comedic to the unnerving are apparent as early as the first season’s second episode, where Earn (Glover) witnesses an interaction between two corrections officers and a mentally ill prisoner.
What starts as the introduction of a harmless, toilet-water-drinking character quickly turns into a frightening commentary on mental health and the U.S. prison system, as the two guards snap instantly from joking with the prisoner to senselessly beating him. The scene ends with the man—who again, was drinking from a toilet 30 seconds ago—being dragged off to a holding cell, screaming in horror.
This is the same concept that makes “This Is America” so powerful. Throughout the track and its accompanying visuals, Gambino floats haphazardly between light and dark, reflecting a dual view of black America in the process.
He dances to viral video trends with a group of school children, celebrates with a gospel choir and smokes a joint on top of a car, all while riots, fires and suicides rage on behind him. The lyrics are equally binary, with boasts like “watch me move” leading directly into rhymes about the police shooting of Stephon Clark.
In this way, the track’s goals feel just as Atlanta-ish as any episode of the show to date. Just like Glover’s cultural behemoth of a television show, “This Is America” insists on tough conversations—with both the immediacy of its symbols and the pure entertainment value of its content— in a way that few things are doing at the moment.
The final episode of Atlanta’s second season airs this Thursday. And while it’s a near-certainty that the episode while be meaningful and unforgettable in its own right, the show’s 2018 run could have just as easily ended early Sunday morning, with a four-minute music video and months of unpacking what we all just saw.