‘Atlanta’ Writer Stephen Glover on Creating a Soulja Boy-Inspired Serial Killer to Honor the ‘Crank Dat’ Era

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t watched “Crank Dat Killer,” Season 4, Episode 6 of “Atlanta.”

In 2006 and 2007, Atlanta was experiencing a renaissance.

A renaissance of snap music, to be specific. The city was already producing hits like Dem Franchise Boyz’s “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It” and D4L’s “Laffy Taffy.” Then, Soulja Boy released his debut single Crank That (Soulja Boy)” just as the concept of YouTube virality was coming into existence, prompting thousands of Atlantans to create their own versions — from “Crank Dat Yank” to “Crank Dat Roosevelt” to a “Super Mario” version — while the rest of the country watched.

In Season 4, Episode 6 of “Atlanta,” headlines are warning Atlantans about the Crank Dat Killer, a serial killer targeting anyone and everyone who made a “Crank Dat” video back in the day. Alfred aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) realizes his old “Crank Dat Jimmy Neutron” dance could get him in trouble. After a phone call with Soulja Boy (played by the rapper himself in a brilliantly placed cameo) he tries to conceal his identity in public, but fails. Only badly disguised celebrities wear logo-less baseball caps, as a mall employee tells him before pointing to the same getup on “Chris Evans.” (It’s just a random white guy in a baseball cap.) Soon, someone else sees that it’s Alfred and begins shooting, then several other passersby pull out their guns and the situation devolves into an action film-like shootout, expertly directed by Hiro Murai.

Meanwhile, Earn (series creator Donald Glover) and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) desperately seek out some newly-dropped and sold-out Nikes and meet Shoe Man (Terence Rosemore), who offers to give them some for free — if they agree to kiss each other and let him watch. After much deliberation, they kiss, but they’re parked outside of the same mall as Alfred and Shoe Man gets shot in the head, rendering the kiss useless. They grab the shoes and run.

“Atlanta” is gearing up for its series finale, which is set to air on FX on Nov. 10. After years spent struggling to reach the top of the music industry — with Season 3 even detouring for a European rap tour — the characters are now back in the city they’re from, working to adjust to the money and notoriety they’ve made for themselves. They’re trying out therapy, investing their salaries and fighting to retain some sense of normalcy. “With all the episodes this year, we’re circling around these themes of death and finality and peace of mind,” says Stephen Glover, who wrote “Crank Dat Killer” (and is Donald’s younger brother).

Glover talked to Variety about securing high-profile cameos, cringy interactions in the rap industry and the absurd prices of exclusive sneakers.

Soulja Boy is an Atlanta legend. Had you been trying to get him on the show for a while?

He’s definitely an Atlanta staple. It wasn’t like we were trying to get him on the show, but I think the idea was so perfect for him. We don’t have the best luck getting high profile people to be on the show. I know that sounds kind of crazy [because Season 3 featured actors like Liam Neeson], but we don’t. But this was one of those things where there’s no backup plan. It’s a funny idea, but you need Soulja Boy. And we wrote the whole episode before he got involved. [If he had said no], getting someone else to play Soulja Boy would have been hilarious — but maybe there’s another snap legend we could have gotten. Maybe Fabo.

How did Soulja react to the offer?

I remember Donald telling me that he got on the phone with Soulja Boy to see if he was interested, he’s talking to him, and he seems pretty lackadaisical. He’s like, “Mmhmm.” He doesn’t seem very interested. And then he’s like, “Wait a second, is this, like, Donald? Oh! Why didn’t you say so? I thought I was talking to somebody else. Yeah, man, I’ll definitely do it!” He was excited. I saw he did an interview on “The Breakfast Club” a couple of months back where he was saying, “I’m an actor now! I got my first role!”

We shot a version on set in Atlanta where he wasn’t there. He just called in on the phone. And then they shot a version at his house. 

For his first few lines of dialogue, we’re only seeing Alfred and hearing Soulja’s voice. I assumed it wasn’t actually Soulja until it switches to the setup in his house.

Like I said, we don’t always get the best luck getting people. In Season 3, we had some crazy cameos where it was like, “Maybe we can!” But we like to keep the idea that we can’t promise anything. That’s just funny to us to. Like the D’Angelo thing. [In the previous episode, Earn spends a week trying to get a meeting with D’Angelo and ultimately fails.] “Oh man, did they get D’Angelo?” Like, no. We can’t get D’Angelo. 

Did you actually try to get him for that episode? Or to get Chris Evans for this one?

We didn’t try to get Chris Evans. We just think he’s funny. The writers’ room has several running jokes about Chris Evans, but we’ve never tried to get him. And it’s funny, one of the producers on “Atlanta” was like, “We might have been able to get D’Angelo.” Someone from his camp reached out, but we didn’t even think it was possible. He’s mysterious and hard to track down anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have worked out. There could have been a chance, but we just assumed.

The mall scenes also introduce us to Roberto (Adrian Mauro), the employee with dreams to become a rapper. It’s set up like he’s going to get to meet Alfred and rap for him — I thought he might be the one to save Alfred when gunfire breaks out. But he makes the crazy decision to start rapping during the shootout, Alfred pushes him through a glass wall, and we never see him again. What is that storyline based on?

I just thought it would be hilarious. The kid tells a story about how Big Sean rapped for Kanye. In rap, there’s become this thing where you meet Jay-Z and he changes your life overnight, or you rap for Drake, and Drake tells you to hop on his tour bus and you go on this magical journey. This idea that all it takes is for you to meet your idol, and it’s all gonna work out. People put all these things onto celebrities. They treat celebrities like they’re a part of their movie; their only purpose is to fulfill your dreams. I just thought it would be funny if this guy had this vision that this is going to happen, and he just picked the worst possible time. 

One time we were at the hospital with my dad, who had cancer, in the middle of the night. We’re rolling him around, trying to find the room he’s supposed to be in, trying to find somebody, and we go up to this help desk. Then there was this lady, some patient, who’s walking away, and then she realizes it’s Donald. We’re like in the middle of talking and she just comes over, like, “Hey, can I take a picture?” Like, we’re doing something! But people are like, “This is my opportunity. My one shot.” Like the “8 Mile” song. 

This is one of several near-death experiences for Alfred throughout “Atlanta.” Why so many different shooters this time? And what was that like to film?

We had such a long time between writing this episode and shooting it. I went back and read it before shooting like, “Man, this episode is insane.” I remember going to Hiro like, “Maybe this was too much?” He was like, “Nah, it’s great.” In Atlanta right now, there’s so many guns. There’s been several shootouts at malls in particular in Atlanta, and lax gun laws. It feels like everybody in Atlanta has a gun. I thought it was funny, this idea people have that guns are gonna make situations better, but here’s a shootout in the mall and it just turns into chaos. 

Alfred having these near-death experiences goes back to how a lot of rappers end up dying in their hometown or killed in some sort of altercation. So the specter of death is always following Alfred. That helps get people into the mindset of what it’s like to be a rapper and be in your home city, and how easy it is for something bad to happen to you. 

The day is saved by Some Guy Named Doug, another aspiring rapper who’s desperate to get Alfred on one of his tracks. But unlike with Roberto, Alfred is actually acquainted with Some Guy Named Doug. Does he represent anyone in particular?

There’s people in music who are really nice people, even if their music’s not good. Really nice guys. And wouldn’t it be funny if we had this great guy, but his music is horrible, so you don’t want to work with him? But you’re forced to have to make this terrible song that you knew was going to be terrible.

There’s also the B-plot where Earn and Darius have to kiss if they want Shoe Man to give them the new Nikes. Walk me through that storyline, because the situation feels completely random, but ends up aligning with some of Earn’s character arc this season.

It’s kind of based on something fucked up, but we thought it was funny — this idea of how hard it is to get exclusive shoes. Here’s this guy who’s like, “It’s very simple. All you have to do is kiss.” Which is creepy and violating and disrespectful. But, like, this is what you’re willing to do to get these shoes? We laugh in the writers’ room about how, as we’ve gotten older, our taste in shoes has changed. Now you’ll wear a pair of loafers, and these shoes are shoes that you would never like wear in high school. No one’s going to give you props for wearing these shoes, even if they are $800. Only other old people are gonna care, but you’re willing to sell your soul for these sneakers. It’s something that the culture and rappers can all relate: What is the price you’re willing to put on a pair of sneakers, and is it worth it?

Me and Jamal [Olori, another “Atlanta” writer] have a ton of Jordans. Jamal has even more than me, and he won’t wear them. He’s waiting on the right moment. I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m like, “Yeah, man, we just gotta wear these shoes. We’re putting these shoes on too high a pedestal.”

That’s basically what Earn tells Darius, and it seems to connect to Episode 2 where Earn goes to therapy and talks about spite and pride, but he does eventually agree to the kiss. Did you consider having him refuse? And at what point did you decide the Shoe Man would get shot during the kiss?

I had at first thought we were just gonna get as close as possible, but when we came back around and were fixing up the script, we were like, “Nah, they definitely should do it, but it should end up being worthless. They didn’t have to do it.” I thought that was the funniest thing.

The speech that Earn gives, he’s talking about sneakers, but it can be extrapolated to a lot of things where he’s like, “We’re above this. Who are we trying to be cool for? You can make your own cool stuff. You’re putting so much effort into these shoes, when you could have put that into yourself.”

But Darius has a good argument too: Why should a kiss have so much meaning? Is it really that much effort?

Exactly. He’s the exact opposite. “We’re not gay. You’re my friend. It doesn’t matter.” We thought it was funny, like who is right? At the end of the day, these shoes are worth a lot of money, and a kiss is nothing.

When everyone meets back up and talks about how their days went, we see a picture of the Crank Dat Killer on the news, and realize he wasn’t the shooter from the mall. Then Alfred casually mentions running into someone he “had beef with in high school” who seemed to still be mad. It’s obvious why Earn and Darius don’t tell Alfred how they got the shoes, but why doesn’t Alfred tell them he was the target of the shootout? 

The whole time, we’re scared of the Crank Dat Killer, then we reveal he wasn’t even being chased by the Crank Dat Killer. It’s someone from Alfred’s past who tried to kill him. It’s coming from everywhere. The ability for Alfred to be killed at any time in his home city is coming, probably, from people he already knew. And you’ve seen a bunch of near-death experiences with him, so in a way, it’s kind of not that big of a deal to him. Even though he went through so much, it’s another day in the life.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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