The Sky’s The Limit For ‘Atlanta’ Writer Stefani Robinson
“She can probably get any job she wants right now”
Donald Glover says he didn’t realize black people actually live in Marietta, Georgia until recently. After all, Marietta has long had a heavily white majority—though that's rapidly changing.
But while Marietta and the rest of Cobb County is expected to become “majority minority” in about four years, when 25-year-old Atlanta writer Stefani Robinson moved there from Hong Kong at around eight years old, the area wasn’t regularly associated with black people.
“I enjoyed growing up there,” Robinson says now. “It was a very safe area. It was a nice place to grow up—but it was predominately white, so I definitely felt a bit uncomfortable as a person of color [living] there.”
Robinson channels this experience in the writing room for Glover’s hit FX series Atlanta. Currently in its second season, the "Robbin Season," the show focuses on cousins Earn and Alfred (portrayed by Glover and Brian Tyree Henry) as they attempt to escape poverty and break into the music industry, and is acclaimed for its genre-bending approach, which features hyperreal scenes about the black experience in Atlanta.
“I had a completely different upbringing than what you see on the show. I spent most of my time in white spaces,” Robinson says. “Atlanta is very big and broad and it means a lot of different things to different people.”
When Glover was searching for writers for the series, he says he was interested in Robinson’s perspective. “She just had a real point of view which is hard to have when you’re as young as Stefani,” he says. “It’s hard to find people like that. I hired her on the spot.”
Robinson is the only woman on the writing team, but Glover says he tries to make sure she’s not just there to provide a perspective for Van (Zazie Beetz), the only featured female character on Atlanta. (Beetz recently said one of her goals for season two was to see her character developed outside of her relationship to the men on the show.)
“She’s the only woman in the room so I try not to just be like, ‘What do you think Van would think?'” Glover says. “We try to have just honest conversation about perspectives, gendered or not. But she [also] does a really good job of giving the [gendered] perspective.”
Glover says one of his favorite examples of Robinson’s work aired in season one. Robinson wrote an episode, “Juneteenth,” where Earn and Van attend a party for the holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S., hosted by an elitist black woman and her wealthy white husband—who is constantly trying to showcase his love and knowledge of black culture. The episode was inspired by Robinson’s own experience with Juneteenth celebrations in Marietta, which her mom sometimes volunteered for.
“[Juneteenth is] such a massive thing for such a specific group of people,” she says. “I still find it incredibly fascinating.”
So far in season two, Robinson has expertly captured the black salon experience in “Barbershop,” when Alfred spends the entire day just trying to get a haircut by his jack-of-all-trades barber. Before cutting Paper Boi’s hair, the Barber visits his girlfriend, offers Paper Boi reheated Zaxbys, steals lumber from a construction site, lectures his son for skipping school, and commits a hit and run. In the final scene, Alfred revisits the barber shop to get his hair cut by someone new, only to realize it's worth it to deal with his old barber’s antics, because the barber knows just how to cut his hair. Robinson’s portrayal of this is insightful. Black hair is a source of pride, and so having it done correctly is worth a few inconveniences.
Even when she’s not credited with writing a specific episode, Robinson is contributing ideas behind the scenes. An idea for a season two episode (“Helen”) that takes place in Helen, Georgia, a touristy mountain city designed to look like a Bavarian alpine town, was formed when Robinson mentioned attending a yearbook camp there. In the episode, the tension and eventual breakup of Earn and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Van is heightened by the fact that they’re in a predominately white space that is unfamiliar to Earn.
“I never thought that me going to yearbook camp was going to be helpful in any kind of way,” Robinson says.
With the goal of becoming a writer, Robinson left Marietta to attend Emerson College and study screenwriting in Boston. After college, she moved Los Angeles with the hopes of landing a writing gig but took a job as an assistant at a talent agency in the meantime.
Around this time, Glover had created Atlanta and was looking to add a woman to the writing team. Robinson had only been in writers' rooms briefly, including as an intern for Comedy Central for a few months during college, but she submitted an original pilot to FX and it somehow got into Glover’s hands.
“I [had] no experience. I was barely out of college,” Robinson says. “I was just sort of happy that FX and Donald Glover were going to read anything that I’d done.”
Since Atlanta, Robinson has signed a production deal with FX to develop additional shows.
Despite her success, she says she’s still having trouble accepting her new reality. Like many successful women, she says she suffers from imposter syndrome, and often feels like she’s tricking people into thinking she’s talented and experienced.
But Glover says he’s always been “super impressed” with Robinson. In addition to Atlanta, the two were working together on Deadpool before FX cancelled the animated series in March. (“We’re probably legally not allowed to talk about it,” Glover says.)
“I’ll probably always want to work with her,” he continues. “I think she’s in high demand in Hollywood because she has a perspective no one else has and she’s really good at a young age. She can probably get whatever job she wants right now, but what’s cool about her is she focuses on the quality of the project.”
Robinson says she can’t elaborate just yet on what future projects might look like, but she says she’s interested in making art that is “multifaceted” and tells the stories of people who aren’t often represented on screen.
“I’m passionate about telling stories that feel classic but also specific,” she says.
For that, Atlanta has been a great launching pad. The sky's the limit for what's next.