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'Atlanta,' 'Queen Sugar,' Bring Modern Black Culture To TV

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A new comedy by Community alum, Donald Glover, called Atlanta premieres on FX on Tuesday night. And over on Oprah's network, OWN, Queen Sugar premieres. Both shows reflect the push toward diversity in prestige cable television, with creators, stars and subject matter focused on black people.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Two new series that start on cable tonight depict black culture and modern life, and our TV critic Eric Deggans says they're worth watching. One is a comedy on FX called "Atlanta." The other is a family drama called "Queen Sugar." It's on OWN, Oprah Winfrey's network.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: From the opening moments of "Queen Sugar," the sultry score by neo-soul star Meshell Ndegeocello hints that we're about to see an unconventional story. The first scene shows star Rutina Wesley in the bedroom with her lover, but it's a sexy moment in which he's helping her to get dressed to start her day. It's a sign that even moments of passion get a different kind of treatment in this world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "QUEEN SUGAR")

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Dreams never die, take flight as the world turns. Dreams never die, take flight as the world turns.

DEGGANS: "Queen Sugar" is a more grounded, realistic departure for OWN. Oprah Winfrey's channel's built recent success with the melodrama of reality TV shows and nighttime soap operas aimed at a black audience. Winfrey is an executive producer on "Queen Sugar," and she's teamed up with Ava DuVernay, who directed the mogul actress in the civil rights movie "Selma."

For this project, they're bringing a novel to the small screen. "Queen Sugar" is about a black family in New Orleans struggling with the death of the family patriarch. DuVernay takes her time with the story and humanizes characters that might be empty stereotypes elsewhere.

Actress Rutina Wesley plays Nova, a pro-black activist with a secret white lover. She clashes with Charley, her wealthy sister who dares to hire a caterer for the family's funeral repast and gets an earful from Nova.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "QUEEN SUGAR")

RUTINA WESLEY: (As Nova Bordelon) We don't honor our father by having strangers serve those grieving. We serve comfort food to those who need comfort, and we do it with our own hands. That's how a family (unintelligible). And we certainly don't pay our respects with American Express.

DEGGANS: It's a rare moment of fireworks in a complex drama that plays like a slow burn. In a pioneering move, DuVernay has hired female directors for every single episode. That may be why so many scenes feel fresh and surprising. This is a family drama with soap-opera-style storylines for people who hate soap operas like me. It's also a sign of the magic that can happen when you let black writers, producers, directors and performers tell stories about black people.

That's something that "Queen Sugar" has in common with another wonderful show that debuts tonight, Donald Glover's comedy "Atlanta" on FX. Glover's an alum of the NBC comedy "Community," and on Atlanta, he's the creator, writer, executive producer, director and music supervisor. He also stars as a struggling college dropout begging his cousin to let him manage his career as a rapper.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

DONALD GLOVER: (As Earn) I don't want a handout. I want to manage you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, laughter) Manage - you know where the word manage come from?

GLOVER: (As Earn) Manus, Latin for hand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Probably, but I'm going to say no for the purpose of my argument. Manage come from the word man, and that ain't really your lane.

GLOVER: (As Earn) My lane?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah, Man. I need Malcolm. You're too Martin. You know what they did to him? They killed him.

GLOVER: (As Earn) Didn't they kill Malcolm, too?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) They only say that, but ain't nobody seen the body since the funeral.

GLOVER: (As Earn) That's how funerals work.

DEGGANS: "Atlanta" is a slice-of-life dramatic comedy just like loads of other shows featuring young, white 20-somethings in California or New York. But this is about two young, black men trying to break into Atlanta's rap game. And Glover's character, Earn Marks, is a smart guy who's had some tough breaks, as he tells a guy sitting next to him on the bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

GLOVER: (As Earn) I just keep losing. I mean some people just supposed to lose for balance in the universe. I mean, like, are there just some people on Earth who supposed to be here just to make it easier for the winners?

DEGGANS: Earn and his friends aren't the typical TV vision of what young, black men should be. They use the N-word. They smoke weed. The first episode features a conflict leading to a shooting, and they get arrested. It'll make some people uncomfortable, but it's also authentic and creative. It's smart, and it's funny.

Along with "Queen Sugar," "Atlanta" is a welcome sign that the world of high-quality cable TV is finally tapping into the power that comes from letting people of color tell their own stories. I'm Eric Deggans.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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