Donald Glover’s critically acclaimed FX show “Atlanta” has burnished an understated approach to comedy and social commentary. Music, an essential element for a show about two cousins working their way through Atlanta’s music scene, has been met with the same quiet consideration. The show’s soundtrack took a more obvious turn in the Season 1 finale Tuesday, but it couldn’t have been more perfect.
The last scene featured OutKast’s “Elevators (Me & You),” a classic track from the rap duo’s 1996 album “ATLiens.” The song - a hypnotic mix of blues, bass and percussion - could be viewed as a metaphor for Glover’s show. Andre and Big Boi trade verses about their early, penniless days performing in clubs throughout the suburbs of Atlanta. The song traces their rise to moderate mainstream success, which brought its share of haters and hangers-on. The hook is a catchy nostalgic reflection: “Me and you /your momma and your cousin, too /rolling down the strip on Vogues / coming up, slamming Cadillac doors.”
“Elevators” is also the centerpiece of an album that established OutKast as a dominant force in hip-hop with a sound that was entirely their own. “When OutKast called themselves ‘ATLiens,’ it was a partial rupture,” music journalist Jeff Weiss wrote in a 2013 Pitchfork retrospective. “They set themselves apart from their city and species – weird storms in the wrong season. But they also identify with the soil and struggle. They are black men in the South, where Confederate ghosts and rebel flags are constant shadows.”
In the “Atlanta” finale, Glover’s character, Earn Marks, tries to find the jacket he lost during a wild night out. In a credit to the show’s genius, we see the evening replayed through Snaps (as in Snapchat videos) of Earn, his cousin Alfred – also known as Paper Boi, the up-and-coming rapper Earn manages – and their delightfully weird friend Darius as they hop from club to car to strip club.
Earn’s efforts to reclaim his lost jacket go predictably south when the trio goes to the home of their Uber driver. It’s a classic “Atlanta” scene – at turns amusing and disturbing, without the heavy-handed messages we’d see on most other shows. But Earn’s day gets better when Alfred gives him a roll of cash – his first substantial cut from managing his cousin’s career – and a friend drops off the key that Earn thought he had left in his jacket pocket.
Earn gives most of the money to Van, the mother of his young daughter, and even though the two have been in a good place, he declines her invitation to stay the night. As Earn dons headphones and walks slowly away from her house, “Elevators” begins to play. Earn walks alongside a street lit up by lights from a nearby shopping center and eventually ends up in front of a storage unit. The music pauses for a few ominous moments as he takes out the key and unlocks the door.
After Earn closes the door and turns on a lamp, “Elevators” starts back up with Andre rapping about being approached at the mall by a purported former classmate who had a lot of misconceptions about his newfound fame. Dre asserts they’re not so different in a few memorable bars, as Earn takes a couple of crisp $100 bills out of his shoe and holds them tightly before turning off the light.
Even before “Atlanta” premiered in September, the show’s official Twitter account paid homage to “Elevators” in a tweet echoing a line from the song.
Isaac Hagy, an editor on the show, suggested using “Elevators” in the finale’s last scene. Given OutKast’s influence on Atlanta hip-hop, Hagy said he had long wanted the show to use a song by the duo. But he said “the show takes such care to skirt expectations that I didn’t want to use it in a way that would come off as cheap.”
As he watched the footage of Earn walking late at night, the bass line of “Elevators” popped into his head.
“The song is very optimistic, but it’s also realist,” Hagy said. “It’s very much about struggle, but (also) about family. It just all ties together what I feel like is at the heart of the show.”
Jen Malone, “Atlanta’s” music supervisor, agreed the song was perfect for the final scene. “It’s just so special because you want Earn to win so badly throughout the whole season because he’s such a great character,” Malone said. “And he does. Not only does he win for himself, he wins for his family.”
Both Hagy and Malone described the music on “Atlanta” as a collaborative effort. It helps that multiple people involved with the show have musical backgrounds. Malone is a former rock publicist. Glover, of course, raps (and occasionally sings) as Childish Gambino. Hagy previously worked with Hiro Murai, a seasoned music video director who helmed the majority of “Atlanta’s” episodes. Other song suggestions came from the show’s writers or music consultant Fam Udeorji.
And there’s a lot of music to go around. For the finale alone, Malone had to get clearances to use music by artists including Atlanta-based newcomer Daye Jack, D.R.A.M., iLoveMakonnen, Erykah Badu and Nelly. Some were for songs used in those Snaps of Earn’s crazy night - one scene found him and his friends barking out Ja Rule’s rough vocals in Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real.”
That level of detail has led to some unexpected musical choices. “Even though the show is about a rapper, it’s not wall -to-wall rap and trap music,” Malone said, citing Bill Withers’ soulful 1971 hit “Grandma’s Hands,” which bookended the second episode, and “Space Song” by Beach House, which plays in the fourth episode.
Above all, Malone said the music in “Atlanta” has to be authentic to the city and its music scene. Technically, any OutKast song could fit the bill. But with “Elevators,” the show, as usual, digs a little deeper.