"Atlanta" returns to FX with its "robbin' season"

Donald Glover's groundbreaking half-hour returns with a darker, barbed and even funnier sophomore run

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 26, 2018 6:59PM (EST)

Lakeith Stanfield and Donald Glover in "Atlanta" (FX/Guy D'Alema)
Lakeith Stanfield and Donald Glover in "Atlanta" (FX/Guy D'Alema)

Given the elevated acclaim for the two most outwardly comedic episodes of FX's "Atlanta," "B.A.N." and "Juneteenth," one could almost forget series creator Donald Glover's driving premise of the show. He always wants people to be a little bit scared while watching his series, he told TV journalists in 2016, because "that's how it kind of feels to be black."

Glover and his brother and fellow executive producer Stephen accomplish that by maintaining a consistent tension throughout every episode, even during the goofiest sequences. This edge of anxiety doesn't necessarily have to be connected to violence; just as often the discomfort has something to do with financial worries, class-related queasiness or racism, whether externally inflicted or internalized.

The black entertainment network parody "B.A.N." and the sideways commentary on pride and identity appropriation on display in "Juneteenth" embraced all of these concepts in their own way while leading with howl-inducing exchanges and scenery.

But season 1 opened with a parking lot confrontation punctuated by gunshot for a reason. The Glovers and director Hiro Murai, another executive producer on the series, construct "Atlanta" around a framework of fear in order remind the audience that every moment of these characters' lives is tenuous.

Never do we forget the half-hour's sense of danger, established yet again in the second season's opening minutes. In an impressive fashion the premiere,  debuting Thursday at 10 p.m,  lulls the viewer in fog of confusion and safety at first, starting a ride-along with two friends casually trash talking each other while playing video games. What comes next explodes out of nowhere, delivering a shock to the system. And this is even before we drop in on Earn and the rest to see where they've landed since last we saw them. (Sixteen months have passed between the first season finale and the debut of season 2, allowing time for Glover to take part in the production of the "Star Wars" film "Solo," in which he's playing a young Lando Calrissian.)

Back in "Atlanta," the struggles endured by Glover's Earn Marks, his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), better known as the rising rap star Paper Boi, their friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Earn's on again, off again love Van (Zazie Beetz) aren't all that different. This is true even as Alfred gains a higher profile in the music industry and Earn, his manager, begins to reap the rewards of his blossoming success. Fame doesn't change the fact that they're still black and poor, and it doesn't do much to mitigate the ways in which that factor installs invisible deadbolts onto doors of opportunity.

"Atlanta" confronts these barriers time and again, and in its new season the writers do so with less stealth and a heightened comedic confidence. These new episodes comprise what the writers have dubbed the "Robbin' Season," referring to an actual time period in the city right before the holidays, when people have more gifts arriving on porches and presumably more cash in their wallets.

In the first three of the comedy's latest episodes this idea plays out in ways tangible and metaphorical — and always, always surrounded by a mist of unreality. Each installment is informed, in some fashion, by somebody getting something lifted off of them. It could be in a deal gone wrong. The perpetrator might be the proprietor of a business, or an adorable white girl riding the coattails of a rapper's fame, or the music industry at large.

Alfred and Earn strive to get a foothold in the music business but must decide whether their desire to maintain their dignity is greater than appeasing and impressing the industry's white male gatekeepers, for example. And in one scene a slack-jawed Alfred realizes that, in a very real way, this translates to engaging in what is basically a private minstrel show.

Everybody experiences robbin' season in some variety. The only change from moment to moment, and episode to episode, is who is getting robbed and who is doing the robbing.

The so-called "Robbin' Season" has the characters confront stranger obstacles, and this gives the writers fresh opportunities to venture into places no other comedy on television can, or is brave enough to attempt. The tone in "Atlanta" flips frequently and without warning, and does this without alienating viewers who are presumed to understand, by this point, that flashes of terror can be ridiculous and infuriating and pants-wetting all at once. That hysterics can be a side-effect of intense amusement as well as a reaction to stress and trauma.

I can't think of another show that finds a way to wring giggles and physical humor out of a character having a gun shoved in his face. Or that ably surfs the line between laughter and furious annoyance at witnessing a depressing truth about how having money doesn't translate to better treatment -- especially for a black man who simply wants to take his girl out on a nice date.

It's also telling that, according to the executive producers, season 2 is influenced by a "Tiny Toons Adventures" movie titled "How I Spent My Vacation." This may only seem peculiar to people unfamiliar with the intentional weirdness of the writers' approach to story in this show. As Donald and Stephen Glover explained in January at industry conference in Pasadena, the concept was to approach each episode as an individual vignette that appears to stand on its own but, when viewed in sequence, hangs together with a cinematic continuity.

And there is a cartoonish craziness to these new episodes that can be mind-boggling even while incorporating honest commentary about the reality of living in today's America.  One season premiere plot involving Earn's eccentric uncle (an inspired cameo by Katt Williams) and an alligator is designed to resemble urban legend, culminating in a denouement that ties a distinct bow on the story with an image incongruous to the show's urban setting. And straightaway, it establishes the kind of undiluted oddity we should expect out of these new half-hours.

That "Tiny Toons" influence isn't merely structural, you see. It's also thematic. Hunger and the threat of being murdered and/or eaten are the threads linking each "How I Spent My Vacation" short, and that's also true here, as "Atlanta" returns – with a tougher hide and a wide smile full of razor-sharp teeth.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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