‘Atlanta’ Season 2: Donald Glover’s Profound Portrait of the Black Experience
The second season of Glover’s hit FX series, dubbed ‘Robbin’ Season,’ manages to avoid the sophomore slump—and then some.
“Robbin’ Season. Christmas approaches—e’rybody gotta eat…”
Donald Glover’s Emmy-winning FX hit Atlanta returns as one of cable TV’s most acclaimed shows. The surrealistic dark comedy became the network’s highest-rated comedy after its debut season in fall 2016 and made a critical darling of Glover, who spent the time in-between seasons releasing a P-Funk-inspired soul album, starring as young Lando Calrissian in the forthcoming Star Wars film Solo: A Star Wars Story, making a cameo in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and voicing Simba in Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, hitting theaters in 2019. Atlanta revealed itself to be a smart, quirky series about a collective of borderline-aimless friends, blending striking social commentary with offbeat humor. How could Glover & Co. possibly follow up the show’s charmed inaugural run?
“Robbin’ Season” isn’t concerned with playing it safe. Glover’s unfocused protagonist Earn is slightly more focused on not wasting his life this time around; as the season starts with a rift between his buddies Paper Boi, Earn’s rapper-cousin, and Paper Boi’s oddly wise, smoked-out roommate Darius. Whenever Earn tries to get to the bottom of the rift, Paper Boi and Darius refuse to discuss it. The way the issue is handled is indicative of the show and what makes Atlanta such a unique series: Some things tend to get sorted through at the same lackadaisical pace and “what the fuck” non-logic of the city in which it’s set.
But there’s a sense of dread lurking over the sophomore season of Atlanta. Violence lingers over the characters’ heads constantly. And it’s not inappropriate, given the current cultural climate. Gunplay is present throughout the show’s storylines—a continuation of the almost casual violence that opened things in Season 1—and its offhand familiarity speaks to how numb we’ve all become to guns in our culture. Most significantly, it highlights how cavalier we are about guns being a very real, constant threat in a black person’s day-to-day life.
The fact that shooting and getting shot factors so heavily into the last 30 years of black popular music has been bemoaned by activists and politicians, while the artists have constantly reminded everyone that this music was born in scenarios that play out every day. Guns are passed around as gifts, brandished as threats, and whipped out at a moment’s notice by someone who seemed friendly just moments before. Guns are everywhere, and America seems more than comfortable shrugging off that reality when the people affected by them are brown.
Atlanta’s perspective on race remains as unflinching as ever, but even more pointed; the sharp edges are waiting in every other scene. Earn gets hit with a one-two punch of anti-blackness when he and Van go to an upscale movie theater—the casual kind that politely treats young black people with suspicion and the overt kind that lets them know immediately that they are perceived to be a threat. The lives of black characters are constantly being affected by white folks’ perceptions of them. Earn and Paper Boi hanging out in a trendy, mostly white office space highlights the awkwardness between the purveyors—and often the consumers—of the kind of trap music Paper Boi makes and the world that he reflects. And the series makes it clear that blackness is constantly re-framed depending on who sits on the other side of it. When a character proudly explains his wave technique—how he uses his durag to get his hair just right—it comes back to bite him later when he proudly shows up at a job interview with that same hair.
Against these darker themes, the laid-back stoner humor is thrown into sharp relief. Darius grounds things in a certain druggy evenness—the perfect counter to Earn’s restlessness and Paper Boi’s impetuosity. When Earn quizzically asks, “What flavor is a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto?” Darius responds: “Hot”; later, he explains the hilarious “Florida Man” conspiracy with the sincerity and straightforwardness of a newscaster. There are winning moments throughout the early episodes, including Katt Williams as Uncle Willy (aka “The Alligator Man”) and a new roommate with an unorthodox approach to buying shoes, yet Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius is the show’s heart and its comedic center.
And make no mistake about it: Atlanta Season 2 is funny. The laughs are often as unexpected as they are uncomfortable, and the series delights in pushing you to the edge before dropping an unexpected punchline. When an unfortunate studio engineer earns the wrath of a young rapper, you laugh at the impending beatdown while cringing at what’s about to transpire. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, but director Hiro Murai’s pacing and the show’s nuanced sensibilities manage to nail the tone perfectly.
Glover has stated that the show’s tone can be off-putting, while Stanfield revealed in a recent New Yorker feature that he hated the show’s pacing when he initially watched the first season. But Atlanta’s oddness is its greatest strength. It’s a show that feels as hard-to-define as its characters; what seems easy to explain on the surface gets messy and complicated upon further examination. As determined as Earn seems to be, he’s still not very calculating in setting himself up for a better life. He says early on that he’s worried about wasting his potential, yet he’s still learning exactly what that potential is for.
Atlanta isn’t meandering in its storytelling—it’s a hazy narrative that illustrates the uncertain, often-fuzzy lives its main characters are leading. And that element of danger is always just around the corner—even in a city that works so hard to be liked, and that has such a reputation for reinvention. “Robbin’ Season” has been a constant in The A, and Atlanta won’t let you laugh for too long without forcing you to grapple with that ugliness. And that’s the brilliance of this show: There’s so much to laugh at but underneath it all so much pain.