Great television has to start somewhere, and Atlanta provides us with a great blueprint.
Think back to the last great show that you watched, and try to remember if you liked the pilot.
For many audiences, the pilot episode is a lost memory or is an episode that we vaguely remember because of its meet-cute or its intense, movie-style events that propelled the story forward. Traditionally, pilots only exist for the television networks to see if a show will have what it takes to engage with an audience and keep them tuning in every week.
Creating a groundbreaking pilot that changes the way we watch a series is a difficult task for anyone. For Donald Glover, this task of creating a pilot and series that avoided the expectations of mainstream television seemed to come easily to him.
The success of his show, Atlanta, comes from how Glover showcases normalcy mixed with the surrealist elements that make the show’s world electrifying.
Atlanta is a masterclass in visual storytelling and cinematic creativity in television. Its flexibility with the narrative and its versatility sets the show apart, and it all started with the pilot.
Nerdstalgic breaks down how the pilot of Atlanta became the best pilot of the past decade through its flashy visuals, gritty worldbuilding, and ability to carefully consider the choices that build on top of each other as the show progresses. Check out his full video here:
Atlanta’s pilot is different from most pilots simply in the way the story is told. Instead of following the format of a simple conflict that is centered around two plots that eventually intertwine that end with a character-centric conclusion, Atlanta executes the structure of a pilot in a way that is stylized for an artistic or experimental purpose rather than aim to be entertaining. There is no forced conclusion at the end, no jokes to complete the act, and no hyper-artificial element that would be accompanied by something like a laugh track. Instead, it has a purpose that extends outside of the pilot. The pilot is simply the guide that allows the series to become what it is.
One of the storytelling elements that the show utilizes is how the characters are introduced and perceived. When the show introduces Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover) and Alfred “Paper Boi” Mile (Brain Tyree Henry), the show relishes in their flaws, which many shows try to shy away from or elevate for the sake of comedy. Atlanta allows the characters to be morally muddled to present a stripped-down approach to its portrayal of simple, everyday life.
Following these characters who are struggling to deal with the social fallout with the decisions they’ve made in the past is a heavy concept to work with, but the show doesn’t overwhelm the audience. Instead, we are invited to watch as people try to find happiness in their relationships with others and with themselves.
The magic of Atlanta could have been very different. In the original pilot script, Glover had his character sitting in the Dean’s office at Princeton University in 2006. The Dean questions Earn about something that he has done while Earn is described as being unable to respond due to his shock. The two-page scene ends with Earn saying, “I woke up.”
The atmospheric and cryptic opening would have launched the series in a totally different direction because it focused on the character’s backstory which would have colored the events that happen throughout the episode to fit Earn’s story. The cold open of Paper Boi arguing with someone who damaged his car and the gunshot at the end of the scene is an active opening that lets the narrative of the episode move in the same direction it wanted to go while letting the audience know what they are in for.
The narrative of the assumed murder could have been picked up in episode 2 or 3, but it is abandoned and left to act as a catalyst for the entire world of the TV show.
Another element that works to build the world within Atlanta is the surreal.
In the pilot episode, there are only two moments of surrealism that are easy to miss. These two moments tease the audience.
Early in the episode, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) seems to be aware of the fact that he is in a TV show when he mentions that he is having serious deja vu. Darius asks where the dog is before turning to discover the dog waiting to be found.
Another moment of surrealism is the man who makes a Nutella sandwich on the bus. Earn and the man have a brief and bizarre discussion before the man exits the bus and walks into the woods with a dog that wasn’t in the rest of the scene. All of these small moments that seem insignificant at the time are the seeds that will grow into Teddy Perkins, Black Justin Bieber, and the invisible car that rams into a group of people. Some of the best moments of the series wouldn’t exist if Glover did not sprinkle the surrealist elements in the pilot.
The cherry on top of this amazing pilot is the episode title. A lot of titles are typically an afterthought. Although a title can give the audience an insight into the creator’s mindset or intentions with the material, there is little to no meaning behind them.
For Atlanta’s pilot, the title is a cheeky pun. "The Big Bang" can be taken two ways. The first being that it alludes to the sound of the gunshot that takes place at the end of the cold open, and secondly, the creation of the world. It’s a clever way to indicate the creation of a new world that is unlike anything else on television.
There is a lot of great detail put into the pilot to make it reflect Glover’s vision for the rest of the series but doesn’t try to advocate that the series should continue. The pilot, on its own, is a 23-minute short film that ended up becoming something more.
All the elements build on top of each other to create the world these characters are struggling to survive, and Glover doesn’t shy away from showcasing it all. The good, the bad, and the ugly are presented to the audience in a way that makes us question our own bizarre and chaotic world.
Do you think there is a better pilot episode than Atlanta’s? Let us know in the comments what makes your favorite pilot the best one out there!