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Red sweatshirt hood pulled tightly over his head, brown leather jacket wrapped tightly around his torso, fresh whiskey sour sweating in his hand, Donald Glover peels his way through the packed crowd in the upstairs lounge at the Lower East Side bar Pianos to the area where a lifesize panda, peering from behind a giraffe, pig, and monkey in a display window above the stairs, is staring at him.
The previous night, the 27-year-old recorded his first hour-long comedy special, Weirdo, at two sold-out shows at the 500-capacity Union Square Theatre. He flew his family in to watch. His younger brother, Stephen, Tweeted after the performance from the bar: "Watching two women fight over my brother, LOL." Glover didn't go home with either of them—he went home instead with a woman he calls "the Holy Grail," the one he tried and failed to get the entire time he lived in New York, before bolting to Hollywood two years ago.
"Why now?" Glover asks no one in particular, turning his back on the panda—its eerie eyes staring like some sort of harbinger of ill times—and gazing into the mass of bodies writhing in the center of the room, speaking as if to the Holy Grail herself. "What changed that you're making out with me now?"
What changed is that Donald Glover is blowing up.
Donald Glover, the black hipster from Stone Mountain, Georgia, who landed a gig writing for 30 Rock while still an R.A. at NYU. Donald Glover, the former Jehovah's Witness who penned some of Tracy Morgan's most classic lines as idiot savant Tracy Jordan, only to leave his Emmy-winning writing job for California and quickly snag the role of Troy Barnes, the clueless jock, on the NBC show Community. Donald Glover, the asthmatic nerd who remixed Sufjan Stevens's Illinoise album into a dreamy, chill hip-hop record and whose latest rap EP, released under the moniker Childish Gambino, has been downloaded 150,000 times. Download the Childish Gambino EP here. Donald Glover, the guy whose viral videos as the part of Derrick Comedy team have been watched 200 million times and counting.
This week, Glover embarks on the first large-scale mash-up of all of his abilities in the "I Am Donald" tour—a live show for the ADD generation that combines hip-hop, comedy, and viral sketch video. He will tour 23 cities in 33 days, including stops at the Bowery Ballroom on May 10 and Williamsburg Music Hall on May 14—both shows sold out in three hours.
Ten years ago, "I Am Donald" could never have happened. Handlers and brand managers may have allowed a guy who played a lovable character on a popular mainstream network TV show to perform hardcore, dirty-mouth stand-up, and even dirtier emo-rap—but they would have insisted he do it all on a separate stage. But the transparency and immediacy of the Web makes it possible for Glover to avoid cutting his talent into tiny pieces for his different audiences. In a sense, he has spun the TV-personality paradigm on its head—his persona is what people see on the Web, and the TV show is merely an extension.
"Because of Twitter, people don't go to my shows expecting Troy to rap," says Glover, a reference to problems other performers have encountered, like Andy Kaufman facing crowds that only wanted him to be his Latka character from Taxi.
When Glover randomly Tweeted that he wanted to audition for the role of Spider-Man in the Marc Webb reboot of the franchise, the Twitterverse began a campaign to make it so. (See Donald Glover's 10 Favorite Nerd Things.) Even if it was just PC diplomacy, both creator Stan Lee and Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis said they approved. Alas, he didn't audition, and the role went to Andrew Garfield. It was probably for the best—because even though he claims he needs just three hours of sleep a night, Glover is running at breakneck speed, criss-crossing the country fueled by ambition and whiskey and girls, heading toward a moving target that is flashing either "Next Big Thing" or "Next Tragic Hero"—all depending on how the next year plays out.
It's nearly midnight at Pianos. When he made his way through the bar downstairs, he received countless hugs from male fans. Most knew him from the television series, others knew him from the viral videos. A select few know his raps. A lot of people know him from Twitter, which he checks constantly on his iPhone throughout the night.
Glover checks his Twitter again. There are way too many bros under the tight ceiling of Pianos' second floor. He asks Twitter—"In NYC, where should I go right now to drink?"
After getting numerous responses of "My bed," from lady followers, he migrates down the street to Darkroom, where a follower promises "saucy bitches."
Glover leads his family caravan down Ludlow into the blackness that is the Darkroom. His brother comments on how damn cold it is. Glover enters the room and immediately realizes—this is where all the women on the Lower East Side have been hiding. It's a long way from Stone Mountain.