Reservation Dogs and Atlanta. Do These Shows Share the Same Spirit?

Introducing the Shows

Reservation Dogs is a comedy-drama on FX created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi about four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma. Reservation Dogs premiered on August 9, 2021 on FX on Hulu and was renewed for a second season shortly after (Wikipedia, 2022). The show follows four friends – Bear, Elora, Willie Jack and Cheese – in a small Oklahoma town who commit crimes to fund their plan to get to the exotic, mysterious, and faraway land of California (FX Networks, 2022).

Atlanta is a comedy-drama created by and starring Donald Glover on FX about two cousins navigating the Atlanta rap scene. Atlanta premiered on September 6, 2016 and has received critical acclaim, winning five Emmy awards for its first two seasons (Wikipedia, 2022). The show follows Earn and Alfred/”Paper Boi”, two cousins trying to make their way in the competitive Atlanta rap scene while dealing with their everyday lives, relationships, and hustle to survive (FX Networks, 2022).

The Settings

Reservation Dogs is set in a rural Native American reservation in Oklahoma. Specifically, the show takes place in the fictional town of Okmulgee on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation (Cinemablend). The setting depicts the realities of life for Indigenous youth living in a small, poor community. Scenes showcase the sparse landscape, trailer homes, and limited opportunities on the “rez”.

aerial view of the rural landscape in reservation dogs

In contrast, Atlanta is set in the bustling city of Atlanta, Georgia. It follows characters navigating the city’s hip-hop scene and class divides. Locations range from housing projects to mansions to hip nightclubs. While Reservation Dogs portrays rural reservation life, Atlanta focuses on the energy and complexities of a major Southern city (Slashfilm).

The Characters

Reservation Dogs centers around four Indigenous teenagers living on a reservation in rural Oklahoma: Bear Smallhill, Elora Danan Postoak, Willie Jack, and Cheese. The main characters in Atlanta are Earn Marks and Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, two black men in their 20s trying to make it in the rap industry. While Reservation Dogs focuses on a group of friends, Atlanta revolves around just two central characters.

Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese have grown up together on the reservation and share a tight bond, almost like siblings. They spend their days wandering around town, getting into mischief, and dreaming of escaping to California. Atlanta’s Earn and Paper Boi have a more complex relationship as cousins, with Earn trying to act as Paper Boi’s manager despite having no experience.

The Reservation Dogs characters are only in their mid-teens, on the cusp of adulthood but still holding onto their youthful innocence in many ways. Earn and Paper Boi are a bit older and more worn down by life, already battling disillusionment and cynicism. While the Reservation Dogs crew sticks together no matter what, Earn and Paper Boi’s friendship shows strains as they try to navigate the cutthroat music industry.

Despite their age differences, both shows depict their protagonists grappling with issues of identity, heritage, and finding meaning in a world that often feels hopeless. Overall, Reservation Dogs benefits from having an ensemble cast that allows viewers to see Indigenous life on the rez from multiple perspectives. Atlanta’s narrower focus on Earn and Paper Boi provides an intimate character study of two young black men struggling to overcome internal and external challenges.

Themes

Both Reservation Dogs and Atlanta explore similar themes about marginalized communities, such as the daily struggles, joys, and realities of life for young people of color. As one Reddit user pointed out, the shows tackle “classism and racism” through surreal storylines and humor. Friendships are a core focus in each series, showing how loyalty and understanding between friends help the characters survive and find meaning. Relationships are also key, as the characters deal with love, sex, and heartbreak. While the shows take place in different locations, they both provide an authentic glimpse into the lives of young Black and Indigenous people.

the four friends walking down a street on the rez in reservation dogs

Tone

Reservation Dogs balances comedy and drama in its storytelling. The show often mixes lighthearted jokes and antics with poignant explorations of topics like grief, poverty, and coming of age. As described by Uproxx, “the show’s tone embraces surreal, what-the-f*ck elements, which underscore realities for Indigenous communities in the U.S.” (source). However, Reservation Dogs relies more on grounded character drama compared to the avant-garde surrealism of Atlanta.

Atlanta pushes boundaries with a more experimental tone, frequently venturing into the absurd, macabre, or completely unreal. Moments of magic realism and nonlinear narratives give Atlanta a more avant-garde style than Reservation Dogs. As one Redditor put it, Atlanta makes “very similar use of the surreal and supernatural” but carries “a lot more gravitas” (source). While both shows balance comedy and drama through surreal flourishes, Atlanta is more overtly surreal in tone.

Critical Reception

Both Reservation Dogs and Atlanta have received widespread critical acclaim. Reservation Dogs currently has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for its third and final season, with critics praising the show’s authentic portrayal of Indigenous youth and its blend of drama and deadpan humor. The A.V. Club called it “one of the best shows on TV,” while Vulture said it contains “some of the sharpest comedy writing and most beautiful imagery anywhere on television.”

Meanwhile, Atlanta has a 98% Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics have praised the show’s surreal tone, social commentary, and Donald Glover’s auteur vision. The Guardian called it “the most groundbreaking show on TV,” Indiewire said it’s “unlike anything else on television,” and Salon proclaimed it “the best show on TV, period.” Both Reservation Dogs and Atlanta have received Peabody Awards for their innovative storytelling and cultural impact.

Cultural Impact

earn and paper boi inside a hip hop club in atlanta

Both Atlanta and Reservation Dogs spotlight underrepresented perspectives in fresh ways. As noted in an article on SlashFilm, Reservation Dogs shows “how a connection to the surreal can be a strength” for its young Indigenous characters (https://www.slashfilm.com/1085107/how-atlanta-and-reservation-dogs-showcase-peak-tvs-newest-and-coolest-trend/). The show immerses viewers in Indigenous culture, tackling complex issues with humor and heart. Meanwhile, Atlanta offers an authentic look at the Black experience in its city setting. As creator Donald Glover told NPR, the show explores “what it’s like to be Black and alive right now” (https://www.npr.org/2016/09/06/492703201/donald-glover-on-atlanta-what-it-s-like-to-be-black-and-alive-right-now). Both shows give audiences fresh perspectives on communities that are often overlooked or misrepresented in mainstream media.

Ratings and Viewership

Reservation Dogs has relatively lower viewership numbers compared to Atlanta, which can be attributed to the fact that it airs on FX on Hulu rather than mainstream cable or streaming platforms. According to Metacritic, Reservation Dogs averaged around 203,000 live viewers for its first season in 2021. While the ratings improved slightly for season 2 in 2022, the viewership remains under 250,000 per episode.

In contrast, Atlanta has enjoyed much higher viewership as one of FX’s most popular shows. The first season debuted to over 1 million viewers on FX in 2016. While the numbers dropped in subsequent seasons, Atlanta still managed to pull in 500,000-800,000 viewers per episode. Now airing on Hulu as well, Atlanta’s most recent season 4 reached up to 1.2 million viewers across platforms. So Atlanta clearly has wider mainstream appeal and higher viewership than the more niche Reservation Dogs.

Awards

Both Reservation Dogs and Atlanta have received awards and nominations recognizing the excellent writing, acting, and production of the shows. Reservation Dogs, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, won the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best New Scripted Series in 2022 (IMDB). Sterlin Harjo also received the Variety Showrunner Award at the Savannah College of Art and Design TV Festival in 2023, honoring his work on Reservation Dogs (Variety). Atlanta, created by and starring Donald Glover, has received numerous Emmy nominations and wins, including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Glover and Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series. Both shows have been praised for their originality, talented casts, cultural commentary, and comedic moments.

Conclusion

Both Atlanta and Reservation Dogs showcase the lives and struggles of marginalized communities with humor, heart, and humanity. Though set in very different locations, the shows explore similar themes of identity, belonging, and chasing dreams in the face of hardship. Atlanta leans more into surrealism and absurdism, while Reservation Dogs grounds itself in a realist slice-of-life style. Ultimately, they are both unique shows that uplift and give voice to underrepresented perspectives in fresh and revelatory ways.

bear and elora sitting on the hood of a truck overlooking the oklahoma plains

While not exactly similar in tone or style, fans of one show may find nuanced parallels and thoughtful storytelling to appreciate in the other. Though set in different worlds, Atlanta and Reservation Dogs both depict authentic, complex characters trying to find their place. More than surface similarities, the shows share a spirit of highlighting bold, creative voices telling stories we don’t often see on TV.

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