Editor’s note: We heartily congratulate Donald Glover, who took home acting and directing Emmys last night for his hit FX show, Atlanta. We could think of no better time to revisit the Q&A we did with him in advance of the first episode this past fall. It’s a revealing look at a man who is really coming into his own in Hollywood. Enjoy.
Donald Glover wears more than a few hats. As an actor, he’s known as Troy Barnes on the junior college sitcom Community and from movie roles in The Martian and Magic Mike. Under the nom-de-rap Childish Gambino, he’s a Grammy-nominated recording artist. He’s also a stand-up comic and comedy writer who wrote for (and occasionally appeared on) 30 Rock.
Now he’s taking his multi-hyphenate talents home to Atlanta, premiering on FX September 6th with two back-to-back episodes (10/9c). Glover created and directs the show, in which he plays the ambitious wannabe manager of his rising rap star cousin.
His refreshingly honest take on life and show business emerges as he fills us in on the series and shares his thoughts on comedy, roles past and future, diversity in Hollywood, and why he has no regrets.
“We’re going for honesty. The idea was to show people how it felt to be black, and you can’t really write that down. You kind of have to feel it.”
How did Atlanta come about?
I wanted to make something that I would want to watch, and FX gave me the opportunity. ‘You’ll pay for this? That’s really nice of you!’ I feel like I’m making something that couldn’t have gotten made before. We’re kind of making it up as we go. It’s been hard but cool. When I was a kid I wanted to write for The Simpsons, but now I’d much rather make this, something that’s mind-expanding.
What were you going for in terms of the show’s direction, tone and setting?
We’re going for honesty. The idea was to show people how it felt to be black, and you can’t really write that down. You kind of have to feel it. So the tonal aspect was really important to me. This show is about life and life has more questions than answers. It’s something that you’re gonna really like or won’t like. Some people will be like, “I hate this thing. I don’t get him.” That happens a lot. And I think that’s really good. I know we’re going to get placed as a black show, which is fine, but I wanted to make a show about America and I felt like Atlanta was the perfect place for that. Growing up there was a really cool thing, especially in the music scene. It still is.
Our job on the show is to be funny first and foremost. I do not want this to be ‘a very important show,’ a show your teacher tells you to watch. I hate that. Making people laugh is better and harder. But I hope people talk to each other about it because that’s what’s going to change things. Everybody knows what’s wrong and what’s right but adults still do wrong things all the time. It’s important that we talk about why those wrong things happen. They need to change so they don’t keep happening. Comedy is a painless way to touch on all that stuff.
How much of it is based on real experiences?
It’s definitely not based on my life. There’s some experiences that I’ve gone through but I feel they could happen to anybody, universal themes.
You were on Community for five years but didn’t finish the final season. Why?
I had so much fun on it. It wasn’t like I wanted to run away from it. I just like endings. It’s important that things end. I’m glad things end because it forces things to progress.
You’re in Spider-Man Homecoming. What’s your role?
I’m not allowed to say, sworn to secrecy. I had a really great time on that set. It was really fun to be home in Atlanta. If they were shooting in Colorado I probably still would have gone but it being in Atlanta was icing on the cake. This movie’s cast is more diverse.
Are we making good progress in casting diversity in Hollywood?
I’m kind of done with ‘diversity.’ It feels like ‘tolerant’ did 10 years ago. Just allow cool shit to be made. But I understand the game in Hollywood. It works on value, capitalism. I know a lot of black writers, producers and directors who have learned that if you make something cool for no money people pay attention to it so it’s up to us to do it. I hate things like, “That’s pretty good for a black show” or a gay show. That’s wack.
Are you working on any music?
I write songs every day, for myself. I built a studio in my house and I go in there and let my feelings out.
What are you proudest of so far?
That I’m able to make things that I really care about. I know a lot of people don’t have that luxury, and have to make things that are just OK, but I haven’t had to do that, not once and I feel very glad about that.
What goals do you set for yourself?
To make things that are important to me. I’m in the position to make things that I really care about and I’m so fortunate that that’s happening to me. I don’t know if I’m brave or stupid or what, but I never think it’s a bad idea to go for it. I’m a pretty harsh critic of things so if I think it’s good it must be valid on some level. We’re not here forever. Most people on their deathbed are like, “I wish I spent more time with my family and had done what I wanted to do.” I don’t want to have either of those regrets.
Photos: Matthias Clamer/FX