MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, we want to spend a few minutes with a multi-talented performer whose versatility is continuing to astonish. His name is Donald Glover. Fans of the hit NBC sitcom "Community" came to love him as the goofy Troy Barnes.
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DONALD GLOVER: (As Troy Barnes) Class blows. What I need to know about the universe is that I'm at the center of it. Oh, bing, bong sing along.
MARTIN: Then in 2011, Glover hit the stage as his rap alter ego, Childish Gambino.
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GLOVER: (Rapping) Now when they see us in the streets all they want to do is take pics and I'm like OK, yeah, OK. Now when they hear us in the beat all they want to do is make hits, and I'm like OK, yeah, OK.
MARTIN: His rap career was no gimmick. He picked up Grammy nominations for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance. Now Glover is generating yet more acclaim for his latest project, "Atlanta" on the FX cable channel. The series tells the story of a young father trying to support his child and realize his own dreams by managing his cousin, an up and coming rapper. The series, which Donald Glover co-writes, executive produces and in which he stars, is not only getting raves from critics, FX says the series is breaking records for its comic yet often raw take on urban realities.
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GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) I know I have a daughter, and I know she deserves the best. I don't think that I have to compromise what I want out of life to do that, especially if I think it's going to provide for her.
MARTIN: Glover joined us from our studios in Culver City, Calif. And I started by asking him what his team was hoping for with the tone of the series.
GLOVER: We always kind of just talk about, like, the surreal nature of just the human experience, and it's a really strange thing. Like, most of the time, I think people forget that, like, life is hard and also really strange. Like, most things lie in the gray area, but I think because of the Internet and, like, social media, things get cut into zeros and ones really quickly. So we were like let's just play around in the gray areas.
And the thing is about, like, my personal experience I guess being who I am, like, in this body, like, is specific, but also it translates to everybody's weird time being alive.
MARTIN: Do you mean by that being you, being what? Being...
GLOVER: Oh, me being like a black man in my, like, early 30s. Like, it's a very specific thing. Like, there's a million types of other people, but I felt like my specific experience was the best type of experience I could probably, like, write about.
MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because in your role in "Community" and in some of your previous roles, you're - this is not meant to be diminishing or mean - but you're the black friend, right? You're like the black friend guy.
GLOVER: Yeah, yeah. They call it, like, the token. Yeah, like the token black guy.
MARTIN: Yeah. And your character in "Community" was kind of goofy and not much edge.
MARTIN: But here, you're still a very gentle soul, I think, but there's definitely edge to the circumstance. I mean, the circumstances are very recognizable, I think, to a lot of people. I'm interested in kind of how you got that pitch.
GLOVER: I think we kind of realized it was all about tone, and we were like, well, let's make you believe in all this stuff. Like, that's what kind of gives things stakes that that's what makes it, like, funny or, like - like, you really feel like he's, like, stuck in jail when it happened. Like, it's not like, you know, oh, these like - these guys are hilarious. It's like sometimes they're just not hilarious. Sometimes it's really scary or sad or, like, the weirdness of the situation should speak to you at the end of the day, like, that's what makes me stick around - is something that's going to capture the funniness. I felt like my specific circumstance kind of dictated that on this show.
MARTIN: I've seen reviews in places like - well, of course, NPR and then, of course, The New York Times and then even, like, a Christian magazine aimed at millennials.
GLOVER: (Laughter) What?
MARTIN: Yes. They just gave it really rave reviews, and they are all saying something about, like, how it feels different. How does that sound to you? Does that sound right? What do you think people are responding to?
GLOVER: I think they're responding to that it's a feeling and not like an algorithm. I feel a lot of things are being siphoned down now to, like, really speak to certain people. Like, we kind of hacked ourselves in a weird way where we kind of figured out, you know, that, and we wanted to make a punk show which meant it had to give people a feeling and that they can't really siphon and make into something else where it's just like I can't put my finger on that. And - but also like we're letting people just find the show. I think that was a big deal, too, with FX. I didn't want people to feel like we were just, like, slamming it down their face. Like, I really wanted people to feel like, oh, they had ownership because it felt personal to us.
MARTIN: You know, a lot of the ideas, though, that you're playing with here are very uncomfortable. It seems like a lot of black-oriented art, particularly entertainment. It's like the guy with the regular middle-class job is always the clown, like he's always the one who takes the pie in the face.
MARTIN: And I just - I'm interested in your thoughts about that.
GLOVER: I'm less interested in showing what should be and more interested in showing what is, from my perspective. One thing that, like, I hate in TV shows that I think is really whack is when I'm, like, being preached to. It doesn't feel authentic. With my stuff specifically, it's like I'm trying to get you to do the work for yourself a little bit.
I think one thing that people resonated with that was cool, like, we were, like, talking to like friends of ours. People were laughing for different reasons. I'd rather have people kind of wonder why they are laughing or why that made them feel uncomfortable rather than tell them like why they're a bad person or a good person for feeling that way. I would - I think, like, that's kind of what we're going through. Even as like a country kind of - what is really sacred to us, like, you have to figure that out yourself. And the show kind of, I think, changes a lot. It's be - it'll be interesting to see how people feel like and how people relate in different ways because, like, it does kind of grow up pretty fast after the next like two episodes.
MARTIN: OK. Well, you're teasing us now because we haven't seen them yet. So we'll look forward to seeing it. That was Donald Glover talking to us about his new series "Atlanta." It airs Tuesdays on FX. He was nice enough to talk to us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, Calif. Donald Glover, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GLOVER: No, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.