The standout episode of Atlanta‘s second season—generating considerable discussion across the web—”Teddy Perkins” wouldn’t have been the peculiar, chilling episode it turned out to be without the acquisition of a very specific practical location.
A haunted house tale featuring a bizarro Donald Glover, obscured by whiteface prosthetics, the episode called for an idiosyncratic mansion with enough space to design various visually distinct spaces. Securing the location was production designer Timothy O’Brien—a first-time Emmy nominee this year—who set out on an extensive search, before arriving at a Georgia estate built in 1911. As aged as the space was, O’Brien would have to figure out how to non-destructively, yet substantially sculpt the mansion’s many rooms for the series’ demented visual purposes.
What made O’Brien the ideal artist to shepherd this episode to fruition was his extensive experience in location-based work, experience which has come in handy time and time again on Donald Glover’s location-based series, offering insight on location work’s myriad challenges and how to navigate them.
“If you’re on stage, you can just build whatever you want,” the production designer explains. “But having to go out and find it and then hammer it into what you need is, I think, a considerably more difficult challenge.”
While O’Brien has taken on an extensive assortment of unconventional challenges with Atlanta through two seasons—implementing dream logic, while working with a series of standalone episodes—location work remains a continually challenging factor. In Season 2, “Teddy Perkins” was the defining moment where all of the factors that make Atlanta challenging—the same aspects that make the series fascinating—coalesced.
Going back to your beginnings with Atlanta, what was it that compelled you to take part in this series?
I think it was a great opportunity to finally get to showcase the city and the vibe of the town that I don’t think I’d ever seen, and never felt had been done justice. Getting to dig deeper into the local vibe and flavor was really an exciting thing to be part of.
How has the look and feel of Atlanta informed the series’ DNA, in terms of its aesthetic?
Atlanta’s a very organic city. Everything grows everywhere. It doesn’t matter what it is or where it is; it’s all-consuming, and the city, even when you fly in, looks like it’s rising up out of a jungle. Even the streets here sort of meander around in the same way. It’s not a grid system here like most cities; they twist and turn like branches on a tree.
So, everything here is real organic, and that was really a heavy influence in the look of the show, wanting to showcase that—that it’s always overgrowing. Overgrowth is everywhere, and it’s just part of everything. We approach it visually in an organic way, when we go out looking for locations, in that we read the scripts, and it influences what we’re going out to look for. But then as we look at things and find locations, it starts to then also influence how the story’s going to be told.
It’s kind of like carving a piece of wood. When you carve a piece of wood, you sometimes let the wood grain guide you, and it’s that same organic quality that guides us and how we find things.
Can you dig into the nature of production on Atlanta, with its tendency to be shot on location? What does shooting on location demand from you?
We have a few standing locations that we revisit, but by and large, we’re going to each place once. [When] most people see location-based shows, they refer to them as though they’re easier than doing something on a stage. But I’ve never thought that. We’re out in the world, and what that means is that while we’re finding things that work, we’re also finding things that we have to make work, and influence, to make it look and feel like we need it to look and feel—which, in a lot of instances, can be harder.
What was established early on, in terms of your creative intent heading into Season 2?
Since we had established the overall vibe of the show in Season 1, Season 2 was trying to figure how to do what we had done in Season 1 justice, and pushing for bigger, broader looks. In the scripts, we started getting much more out into the world with some of the episodes. We went to Helen, Georgia for the festival up there. Then in “Teddy Perkins,” where Darius is going on this journey to go find that piano, we were starting to break out of the zone of what felt like inside the perimeter of 285, here in Atlanta. We were starting to break out of that world and go explore a little bit more of the rest of Georgia, but it’s still Atlanta-centric overall.
Has Atlanta’s avant-garde nature, and its tendency to jump around, presented its fair share of challenges?
Absolutely, because we’re not repeating things from one episode to the next. There’s very little overlap and duplication of locations or sets. It’s only for our main characters that we ever really see things a second or third time. But even then, throughout the entirety of the season, maybe only a few times do we ever go to Al’s apartment, or Van’s apartment. This season we didn’t go there that much at all. But getting to do these almost anthological and contained [episodes] gives us a lot of opportunities to try out new things, and take chances—and then move on, and take another chance.
How have you dealt with the series’ surrealism and proclivity for dream logic?
That’s a tricky thing. There’s a lot of creative conversations that happen between myself and Hiro [Murai, director], and Donald [Glover] and Christian [Sprenger, cinematographer]. We don’t always know immediately where we’re going with those things. It’s that influencing of coming across a place that just gives us the vibe that we’re looking for—and that’s a word that we use a lot when we’re looking for stuff. Does it have the vibe? Does it have something that is specific and unique that we’re captured by, and that we know the audience will be captured by as well?
What went into capturing the Germanic festival of Fasnacht for “Helen”? Who was responsible for bringing in the episode’s assortment of unsettling animal costumes and masks?
We hired a specific costume maker just to make the masks. He’s a puppeteer guy, so he already knew the path that we were going, and helped us figure out what these masks would look like—because it was kind of a mash-up of a real festival in Germany, and also just a beer fest in America. They don’t do what they do in Germany here in Helen, Georgia; they just have a big beer festival. So we had to fictionalize a lot of that in a lot of ways.
We needed to find a space to contain everything in, because going up to Helen, there was only so much time. We were limited because of the distance to go up to the location, and there wasn’t a fest hall up there that was usable. So we had to find a different location that was in the complete opposite direction of town and set up the fest hall in that space, but still have it feel like it was part of Helen, Georgia.
The season’s penultimate episode, “FUBU,” takes a look at Earn and Al in their adolescence. What was most challenging in putting the flashback episode together?
Getting to do a little period piece was great, especially because you don’t think of the late ‘90s and early 2000s really as being period. But at this point, they really are. It’s a tricky time period to nail because things have changed, but they haven’t changed heavily. It’s delicate touches that have to be done when you’re going back in people’s more recent memories for a period like that.
This year, you submitted the surreal “Teddy Perkins” episode for Emmys consideration, earning your first nomination. What was the process with that episode?
We scouted a lot of mansions right out the gate, and we were definitely coming up short a lot, because there had to be so much that happened in this one house. We were having trouble finding a house where all of these little vignettes could happen, because there was the foyer and the sitting room, the surveillance room. There were so many places in one space, so that in and of itself was a huge challenge. But then we also realized that we weren’t finding the house that had that vibe and that weight. We realized that the house was going to need to be its own character, in a sense.
We finally came across the house that we used, and we immediately knew that it had a lot going for it, but it also had a lot of complications because of the age of the home. There were four floors that we had to be on, and multiple rooms on every floor; things in some areas were tighter than we would have liked, but we had to figure out if all of those things were going to work.
In going in and dressing the space, we were going to have to do things non-destructively to a house that was built in 1911. It was almost like we only further complicated ourselves by picking that house, because it was such a challenge working in there. But ultimately, we knew that it had the right bones; that we could shift it and make it feel the way we needed it to feel.
This gets back to being a location-based show. People again assume, “Oh, well you just go to a location and you shoot.” But that’s not the case. That house has been used in prior films. It was even used at the end of Driving Miss Daisy, when she goes to the retirement home. For that movie, it was a quaint retirement home facility, and a beautiful house. In our show, it was a creepy haunted house, basically. So that, to me, is a great example of what you can do with a location, with proper guidance.
Memorably, “North of the Border” features a nightmarish sequence involving naked frat boys and Confederate flags. What inspired those visuals?
That episode touched more on polite racism, I guess, where it’s out there, but nobody’s saying anything about it—which is a weird thing. Those guys, they’re so enamored with Paper Boi, but then they’ve got these Confederate flags hanging on the wall and you’re just like, “Well, I don’t know about this situation.”
Those moments are what make the show what it is, I think, and we draw from real-life inspiration as much as possible. We try to keep everything on the show grounded all the time. We don’t want things to be too on the nose; it’s got to be based in something real, things that we’ve seen, things that we’ve all experienced. A lot of these stories feel like they’re coming from actual experiences, so the look of the things needs to also feel like it’s been born out of actual places and actual things we’ve seen, or places we’ve visited, or other real-life references.
Do you have a sense yet of when you’ll recommence production on Atlanta?
We were originally supposed to this fall, but my understanding is because of Donald’s popularity and his tour [as] Childish Gambino, that that has now been pushed to maybe March, we’re hoping. That’s the last I heard.