Atlanta Is the Best Show on TV and Hiro Murai Is Its Visual Mastermind

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By the time Hiro Murai appeared at the wooden gate of his Silver Lake Craftsman-style cottage, I had already experienced 15 minutes of disoriented panic in the nearly 90-degree sun. The sequence involved an unanswered doorbell, a growing conviction that I had come to the wrong place, an open door nearby, and a startling encounter with a straw-hatted workman who was tugging a giant stuffed animal on a rope. It was the kind of heightened, almost hallucinatory series of mundane events that so often unravels on Atlanta, the FX series for which Murai serves as a co–executive producer and director.

Murai is Atlanta’s visual mastermind, the invisible eye behind the best show on television right now; its snapshots of the lifestyle of a rising rapper and his slacker manager are both hilarious and unsettling. Over the course of their five-year collaboration, Murai and the show’s creator, Donald Glover, have built up an influential body of work that includes not just Atlanta but also music videos for Glover’s alter ego, Childish Gambino, including this spring’s controversial “This Is America,” which pulled in 85.3 million views on YouTube in a week.

Murai is now enjoying the opportunities that come with such acclaim. (The show has received 16 Emmy nominations, including outstanding comedy series and outstanding director for a comedy series for Murai.) After branching out to executive-produce and direct the Amazon pilot Sea Oak, written by Booker Prize–winning author George Saunders, and directing episodes of series such as Legion, Snowfall, and Barry, the 35-year-old Murai has signed a deal with FX to develop his own TV shows and is fielding potential movie projects. The deluge is a little overwhelming, Murai admits as we sit down at the long yellow picnic table on his back deck. But he says he has absorbed some lessons in chill from Glover. “I remember when Atlanta first happened, I didn’t know what to expect,” Murai recalls. “It felt like it was a lot of responsibility. But one of the best things Donald said to me was ‘I don’t care if this gets canceled. Let’s just do, like, the craziest thing we can do.’ ”
Murai took Glover’s reckless spirit to heart, creating a visual poem that lingers in your memory long after the laughter has faded. Atlanta feels like a singular experience, both in terms of whose story it tells (sensitive, eccentric, poor black characters) and how the show tells it: obliquely, quietly (despite the hip soundtrack), and with pathos. It has a laid-back stoner vibe that lends itself to wordless enjoyment of its visual jokes, yet it’s packed with enough sociopolitical detail to withstand academic deconstruction. The series veers between deadpan realism, existential melancholy, and wild absurdism. On any given week, the writers might concoct, say, an elaborate tableau involving an invisible car (“The Club”) or a mansion inhabited by a ghost-faced recluse (“Teddy Perkins”).

“I like the idea of taking an absurd premise and really trying to deliver it on every level, and I think a lot of this show, it just really feels like a dare sometimes,” says Murai, who has directed two-thirds of the series’ episodes. The invisible car started as a joke in the writers’ room, but he and Glover kept returning to it, wondering, as Murai now puts it: “Can this world have an invisible car and still be a believable, functioning world?” He continues, “The one thing about seeing how elastic the world is, is at a certain point you might pop it and it might not be a believable world anymore. So it’s kind of a game of chicken, you know?”

This experimental attitude impressed Saunders when he and Murai collaborated on the 2017 pilot for the zombie dark comedy Sea Oak (which Amazon did not pick up). “Hiro made it this beautiful creative party for everybody,” he says, going on to describe Murai in terms nothing short of rhapsodic. “I think he’s a great genius, actually,” he says. “In that incredible pressure cooker of being a director, he just completely honored playfulness. When you came in in the morning you could almost see him rubbing his hands together, like: Now what are we going to do?

Glover shared a similar view of Murai in an e-mail. “When we first started hanging, it felt like two school children who are playing with toys at break,” he wrote, “and the game gets better and better as they go on. and u realize the game is just u hanging w/ them.”

Born in Japan, Murai was nine years old when he moved with his family to West Hollywood, after his father—who owned a music-publishing business—decided to relocate. Hiro didn’t speak a lick of English and recalls how forlorn he felt as a new arrival. “I was just walking around school with an English-Japanese dictionary and trying to figure out where the bathroom was.” Murai picked up English by watching cartoons and movies, which he now thinks is “a funny way to become fluent᠁ Your understanding of culture can be very skewed sometimes depending on what you’re taking in!”

Having learned how to be American via pop culture, Murai soon started pumping out his own contributions. First there were some “weird short films” that he shot while in high school. Then, as an undergraduate at U.S.C.’s School of Cinematic Arts in the mid-2000s, he got hooked on making videos for local musicians. “At first, it was whoever needed a video and had like $1,000,” he says, laughing. “It was like speed dating for artists—it’s exciting even when it doesn’t work out.” As his reputation spread, Murai worked with bigger names, from indie rock and art-pop (Death Cab for Cutie, St. Vincent) to the oddball regions of rap and R&B (Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean). Of the latter, he says, “I think we did our part to make hip-hop weird a little bit.”

After the 2013 Grammys, for which Murai created a video installation for Ocean, Glover reached out. The first fruit of their creative relationship was the 25-minute movie Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, which was shot in 2013 at the house where Glover was staying while recording new Childish Gambino tracks.
“He sent me a half-paragraph idea of what he wanted it to be and then at the bottom, the very bottom, it says, ‘And I want it to be shot on film,’ ” recalls Murai. Clapping follows Glover as he floats through the luxurious house and its lush grounds—picking lemons with former child actress Danielle Fishel, trading rhymes with Flying Lotus. With its ambivalent glimpses of celebrity, its diffuse drift of everyday non-events, and its abrupt bursts of surrealism—like the gold tooth that Glover inexplicably pulls out of his nose—Clapping was in many ways a dry run for Atlanta. It also introduced the world to Glover’s persona as a brainy trickster who tosses his art into the world without explanation, as interpreted by Murai.

The response to Clapping—which was dropped online as an infinite loop, with no explanation—was mostly puzzled annoyance. “People who are mad at that short film have every right to be mad, because it was sort of intentionally obtuse and weirdly antagonizing,” Murai says, flashing a cheeky smile. “Working with Donald on that short was the first time where I literally had no idea what it was supposed to be᠁ And really everything we’ve done since, we’ve kind of chased that feeling of ‘I don’t know what it is yet, but this feels good.’ ”

As soon as Glover sold Atlanta, he convinced the network he needed Murai to direct. Nick Grad, FX’s president of original programming, says that it was a leap of faith to hand the budget for a pilot to a TV novice but was swayed by “the level of passion that Donald had for [Murai].” Once the pilot was in front of him, Grad understood: “Oh, my God, I totally see what the visual language of the series and the tone is!”

The pilot was more story-line-driven than they wanted the rest of the show to be, Murai says, “because we couldn’t go into a network and say: ‘We want to make this sort of mumbly meandering show that’s more about feeling than it is about plot, and we’ll set up things and sometimes it won’t be resolved, and it just feels like real life.’ ”

There was, however, one scene in the first episode—which introduces the boyish Earn (Glover), his baby mama Van (Zazie Beetz), his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), whose career as the rapper Paper Boi is taking off, and their eccentric pal Darius (Lakeith Stanfield)—that became a touchstone for the duo. Earn is sitting on a bus with his sleeping daughter when a well-dressed passenger starts making a Nutella sandwich, only to vanish moments later, leaving behind the jar. Murai recalls that FX execs asked, “Are you sure you want to keep this bus scene, because there’s no reason for it in the plot, and it’s weird.” Glover and Murai’s response was “No, no, no, no … this is the stuff we like the most!

Glover points out that Murai and director of photography Christian Sprenger “were instrumental in the visual language” of the show. “We both knew it needed to be a visceral-feeling world. They really took the time to paint it.”

Although the so-called golden age of television has gradually led to increased creative opportunities for women and people of color, it’s still white male creatives who get the most leeway (and money) to take risks. That makes Atlanta an important landmark, depicting as it does experiences that are uniquely African-American but that also break with stereotypes. Earn and the people who surround him are simply their complicated, deeply human selves.

Atlanta has a completely African-American core cast and an entirely black writers’ room. When I asked what it was like for Murai, as an Asian-American man, to sit in the director’s chair, he points out that as an immigrant he is always slightly out of place—which makes him not so different from Atlanta’s characters. “I think every episode is them observing absurd social situations, almost from a third-person perspective. . . They’re on the outside looking in, and that’s how I experience America.”

One of Murai’s hallmarks as a director is the way he de-centers the scene and the screen. Often the most fascinating things are happening on the margins. Earn, Darius, and Alfred regularly play the straight-man roles as minor characters explode or melt down before them. The more famous Paper Boi becomes, the more Alfred—the gentle, long-suffering giant behind the gangsta-rap persona—becomes a magnet for unstable attention from fans and locals, who rob him or take selfies with him.
The pitfalls and contradictions of what Murai calls “crossover African-American celebrity” infused his heavily scrutinized video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Glover dances his way through a massive warehouse, a shit-eating grin affixed to his face as he sporadically guns people down—seemingly a metaphor for the way that we enjoy the style and swagger of hip-hop while blithely ignoring the social realities that turn it into escapist entertainment. Then again, maybe it was a satire of gun culture, or a riff on cultural appropriation.

Murai says he had only two weeks to prepare for the video. “The seed of it was just the initial turn of the song where he shoots the guy, and then the second turn when he shoots the choir. Those were the two things he pitched me, and from that, and from the way he was kind of miming the dance moves, we abstractly started bouncing the ball back and forth.”

Glover acknowledges that this project “was tricky,” but notes, “Hiro’s really good about restraint. That’s one of my favorite things about him᠁ He’s so accurate w/ his touch and tone.” The two men have developed a level of trust that allows them to let some of the details ride. Says Murai, “Every time we start a project I know that there’s going to be moments where I don’t know where it’s going, but I know that something even better is going to develop out of the idea just because of our back-and-forth.”

Although “This Is America” couldn’t be more different stylistically from Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, it provoked some of the same questions: Was this intended as social commentary or a bit of ironic fun? Was Glover trying to tell us something or was he mocking that we look to celebrities for salvation?

Like Glover, Murai prefers to leave things open-ended: “No matter how abstract the conversation gets, I know that he’s always trying to aim for that incongruity or ambiguity.”

In the editing room, the pair often agree to shave away scenes so as not to tip off the viewer to what’s coming, Murai says, “making things slightly more obtuse, or distracting somebody with a joke before something horrible happens!” The ideal outcome, he says, is when the viewer feels that “I understand where these characters are coming from, but at this moment I don’t know how to identify it or categorize it.”

The beauty of television these days is that it is the true home for exactly this kind of genre-blurring, risk-taking, and expectation-defying entertainment. Murai says, “Creatively, TV feels like the Wild West in a way that movies don’t right now᠁ It’s been a real joy seeing how far we can stretch the walls.”

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