Donald Glover Reveals How He’s Hacked The Real Life Matrix
Donald Glover is at the top of his game. The 34-year-old acts, produces, raps, sings, directs, does stand-up, plays instruments, and sometimes DJs. All of those gifts appear to be converging at a career pinnacle for the artist also known to his fans as “Childish Gambino.” In the last year, Glover won two Emmy awards, his first Grammy, as well as two Golden Globes. His 2016 “Awaken, My Love!” contended for “Album Of The Year” Grammy honors last month. Donald is on board to voice “Simba” in the upcoming Lion King remake, and star as “Lando Calrissian” in Solo: A Star Wars Story. He also has an animated second show, Deadpool, in development. Meanwhile, the second season of the award-winning, critically-acclaimed Atlanta premieres Thursday (March 1) on FX.
Glover, who can be more elusive to the press than some of his Hollywood peers spoke at length with The New Yorker during a series of interviews and shadowing. In a feature by Tad Friend (also available in audio), Donald opens up like never before. The piece reveals a creative madman refusing to get comfortable or complacent. At 34, with a host of successful ventures, Glover sleeps on couches in his studio. He shops at Target. He spouts off ideas for Atlanta and other things that could get easily lost in the abyss of everyday life, developed between takes, dogged phone-calls, and on-set conversations. He also faces angst, frustration, and a system that for all of his accolades—still limits his creative freedom.
In a part of the feature, Glover is asked about an abstract reaction to the show’s debut a year ago. Amid a celebratory cast, the show creator told co-star Zazie Beetz that he was “complicated.” Pressed about what that meant exactly, the Stone Mountain, Georgia native says, “I am complicated, though. People expect me to be one thing—‘You’re a musician!’ ‘You’re a comedian!’ ‘You’re a coon!’—and I was just feeling high and pinned down.” Tad Friend describes the superstar, “He feels constantly watched but rarely seen.”
In the piece, Glover and his cast-mates use the term “Trojan-horsing” and “sandcastles.” In the show cast and crew’s estimations, Atlanta had to use the Trojan horse strategy with FX (who sought a Comedy starring Donald and Craig Robinson). All along, the series creators knew that Atlanta was something else. In its first five episodes alone, Atlanta defied form, traditional pacing, and common TV convention. “The hardest part is surprising FX every time. They need that to feel that you’re an authentic Black person,” Donald says. “I surprised them up front by telling them I wanted to make them money.” Today, Atlanta is the 23-year-old network’s most-watched Comedy of all time.
From his Georgia home, Glover describes reality as a code that can be hacked. He unveils the secret to his success in surviving a matrix that extends far beyond Hollywood, entertainment, or even America. “I learn fast—I figured out the algorithm…When people become depressed and kill themselves, it’s because all they see is the algorithm, the loop.” The realization reportedly came to Glover at age 10, during a childhood that endured bullying and marginalization. “I realized, if I want to be good at [Physical Education], I have to be good at basketball. So I went home and shot baskets in our driveway for six hours, until my mother called me in. The next day, I was good enough that you wouldn’t notice I was bad. And I realized my superpower.” Tad Friend describes Glover’s basketball form 24 years later, as witnessed during a break on set. The skills developed, long beyond Gym class survival. Glover says, “It sounds like I’m sucking my own d*ck—‘Oh, he thinks he’s great at everything,’…But what if you had that power?”
Far beyond lay-ups and chest-passes, Glover applies that “superpower” to his flush creative portfolio. It is why he accepted a small role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, when many in his position might scoff before declining. “I learn so much. I learn how Marvel movies work, how to handle guest stars, how to make execs happy when they come on set,” Glover describes. “I gain some of your power. Only now I’m running out of places to learn, at least in America.”
He also applies this life hack to his Atlanta directorial debut, in the middle of Season 1. “I wasn’t worried that I was going to sh*t the bed. I was only worried how people might take it, that I was just coming in as the creator and assuming I could be a director. I don’t look at what they do as easy. I just look at what they do.” A year later, when Glover won an Emmy Award for his direction, the algorithmic hacker began his acceptance speech, “First, I want to thank the great algorithm that put us all here.”
Asked if there are things he is “bad at,” Glover responds to Friend, “To be honest, no. Probably just people. People don’t like to be studied, or bested. I’m fine with it. I don’t really like people that much. People accept me now because I have power, but they still think, ‘Oh, he thinks he’s the golden flower of the Black community, thinks he’s so different.” Donald understands that comparison. “But I am, though! I feel like Jesus. I do feel chosen. My struggle is to use my humanity to create a classic work—but I don’t know if humanity is worth it, or if we’re going to make it. I don’t know if there’s much time left.” That sense of time is paramount to Donald Glover. Having recently vowed to retire his Rap moniker, the creator says, “We probably are at the end of the storytelling age. It’s my job to compress the last bits of information for people before it passes.” Atlanta has presented a new narrative, a refreshing examination of Black life in America—time life or not. He admits the challenges remain.“I’m Black, making a very Black show, and they’re telling me I can’t use the N-word! Only in a world run by white people would that happen.” Atlanta has an executive producer tasked with mediating (or “translating”) the qualities of Black culture in the script to a reluctant network. The New Yorker reports that half of the Atlanta viewership is Black, compared to a reported one-fifth Black audience tuning in to ABC’s Black-Ish.
The feature also uncovers Donald Glover’s Jehovah’s Witness upbringing. Primarily subjected to PBS and slavery documentaries, he snuck The Simpsons at low-volume. It reports on the role of marijuana in Atlanta‘s consciousness. “We do everything high,” Glover said. “The effortless chaos of Atlanta—the moments of enlightenment, followed by an abrupt return to reality—is definitely shaped by weed,” the creator admits. It uncovers some of the tension (often tying into racial pokes) between founding SNL cast member Chevy Chase and Glover on the set of Community.
Gearing up for Thursday’s Season 2 premiere (a volume of episodes that he touts as “classic”), Glover sheds light on his pressure and his current purpose.“A lot of this season is me proving to people that I didn’t get those Emmys just because of Affirmative Action.”
Read “Donald Glover Can’t Save You” by Tad Friend at The New Yorker.
#BonusBeat: This video examines Donald Glover’s Emmy win: