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Josh Reviews Atlanta Season Two: Robbin’ Season

I was a few years late, but recently I finally caught up with the first season of Donald Glover’s show Atlanta.  It was every bit as fantastic as I’d heard!  (Click here for my full review.)  I didn’t waste any time before moving on to season two, which I enjoyed just as much as season one.

Atlanta Season Two is subtitled Robbin’ Season.  The first episode kicks off with a lengthy sequence of the robbery of a fast-food joint.  This vignette features characters we haven’t met before and won’t see again, but it sets the tone for this thematically rich and endlessly compelling and original season of television.  Darius explains to the audience soon after that robberies increase in the lead-up to the annual holiday season, because “everyone got to eat.”  As the season unfolds, we witness several more literal robberies (Al is ripped off by his long-time drug connect, and in a later episode is held up at gunpoint by three fans on the side of the road; Tracy brazenly steals a pair of shoes from a mall shoe-store; Al’s barber engages in a series of escalating grifts; the gang all get their gear destroyed, and Earn has his laptop stolen, after a college campus performance goes wary).  But more than that, we see many of the show’s characters, particularly Earn, pushed to the brink of desperation by their need to eat, to find a way to keep their heads above water as the world seems to conspire against them.  Atlanta can be a very funny show, but the reason it’s a great show is because of its complexity and depth.

The season started off in a fairly low-key manner, with a series of episodes that were fun and funny and caught us up with the gang in the time that had passed since the end of season one.

Creator and star Donald Glover’s Earn was clearly the main character of season one, but in season two Earn took a step back to let others into the spotlight.  (Earn hardly appeared at all in a three-episode stretch in the middle of the season.)  Al (Paper Boi), played by Brian Tyree Henry, really stepped into focus for me this season.  We got to get to know Al much deeper this year.  We saw his struggle to “keep it real” at the same time as his star is rising.  (We see this most powerfully in “Woods,” in which Al argues with the young woman he is hanging out with over her manipulation of social media to increase her fame; in that same episode, Al’s attempt to walk home like a normal person gets him stuck in an increasingly terrible situation after he’s mugged and gets lost in the woods.)  But at the same time, Al is fearful that his star isn’t rising fast enough.  (He’s repeatedly embarrassed by gigs that feel beneath him, and questions — correctly — whether Earn has the skills to properly manage him.)  Mr. Henry does so much with just his eyes.  Al is not much of a talker, but Mr. Henry is able to convey exactly what Al is thinking and feeling at all times.

My love for Darius, which grew over the course of season one, continued this season.  Lakeith Stanfield has created one of the most remarkably bizarre and wonderful TV characters of all time.  “Teddy Perkins” was an extraordinary showcase for Darius (more on this episode below).  Beyond that, he got so many other great moments this season, both comedic and dramatic.

Not only was I impressed that Donald Glover allowed his character, Earn, to have almost nothing to do in multiple episodes, I was impressed by how the show allowed Earn to become a more complex — and oftentimes unlikable — character this season.  This is a rare way to handle the main character of a show!  In season one, the show mined empathy and humor in our watching Earn fail again and again.  But season two clarified that, most of the time, it was Earn who was his own worst enemy.  Time after time, we see that Earn truly doesn’t seem to have the skills he needs to manage Al; he’s foolish with money (it was painful to watch him blow the $4,000 he got from Darius’ dog-breeding scheme on Tracy’s hair-brained gift card scam in “Money Bag Shawty”); his selfishness and bad behavior completely blows up his relationship with Van in “Helen”; and his pride, combined with his fear and anger at the prospect of getting fired by Al, earns him a beat-down at the hands of Tracy in “North of the Border.”  This is rough stuff to watch!

Van (Zazie Beetz) was probably my favorite character in season one.  I was worried when she didn’t appear at all in the first two episodes of season two, but thankfully she got several wonderful spotlight episodes in “Helen” and “Champagne Papi.”  “Helen” greatly expanded Van’s backstory as we got a number of intriguing hints at her childhood growing up in a German community.  (In an episode in which we see Earn act like a baby and blow up their relationship, I was glad the show also took the time to explore Van’s own baggage and failings, particularly in a fascinating scene in which she and an old friend have it out over how Van “chose black” as a kid.)  That a show that is, on paper at least, about three male friends (Earn, Al, and Darius) could have an episode like “Champagne Papi” that is all about Van and a group of her female friends going to a party is a huge reason why I love this show.  I enjoyed getting to know all of Van’s friends in this episode, and I hope we see more of all of them in the future!

One of the things I most loved about Atlanta season one was the way in which each episode was a complete and unique mini-movie all its own.  As opposed to most TV shows, which settle into a rhythm of certain characters/locations/types of stories/etc., Atlanta was able to completely shift tone and focus from episode to episode.  (In this way, the show reminded me favorably of Aziz Ansari’s wonderful Master of None.)  At first, I wasn’t sure if this would be the case in season two; the season started off in a fairly low-key manner, with a series of episodes that were fun and funny and caught us up with the gang in the time that had passed since the end of season one.  Those were great episodes, but they were fairly straightforwardly told as Atlanta episodes go.  But I shouldn’t have doubted.  Those episodes were important to reintroduce the characters and situations for season two; and with episode four, the series lept deeper than ever into increasingly experimental waters, and I loved every minute.

I already mentioned episode four, “Helen,” above.  Depicting Earn and Van’s weekend getaway, we were suddenly thrown into an alien world of of a German community and their Fastnacht celebration.  (I had to look it up; the show interestingly doesn’t take any time for exposition, it just drops the audience into this situation along with Earn and Van.)  Wow, this was an entirely different environment for an Atlanta episode, and I enjoyed the strong focus on Earn and Van’s relationship (though I wish Earn hadn’t been such an idiot when he flushed the whole thing down the toilet!), and I was intrigued by the bizarre, almost dreamlike ending in which Van is surprised in the alley by a costumed person who seems to melt away.  The show then shifted gears into silly, crazy farce with episode five, “Barbershop,” in which Al is dragged along by his unhinged barber on an increasingly insane series of side-trips.

Then we took another sharp left turn with episode seven, “Teddy Perkins,” the season’s stand-out, most-discussed episode.  I’d heard about this episode, but even so I was unprepared for this fascinating, multi-layered episode in which Darius attempts to buy an old piano and winds up held hostage by a bizarre, unhinged man named Teddy Perkins.  For this episode, Atlanta morphed into a horror film far scarier than anything I’ve seen in a movie theater in years.  Teddy Perkins was played by Donald Glover, completely unrecognizable under grotesque white-face makeup and a completely different voice and physicality.  This was a masterful performance.  (And while Mr. Glover’s work is worthy of much praise, let us not ignore Lakeith Stanfield, who was amazing as Darius, who manages to keep his wits about him in an extraordinarily unpleasant and horrifying situation.)  Much has already been written about this episodes’ complex themes.  Only a few episodes after we hear that Van “chose black” as a kid, we see in Teddy a Michael Jackson parallel who chose white, by changing himself from a black man into someone with a white face.  (In the episode, Teddy — speaking as if the person he was describing was his brother — claims that this was a result of a skin condition, just as Michael Jackson did.)  Teddy also represents aspects of Stevie Wonder (whose music is heard at the end of the episode).  This episode also directly addresses a topic that had been lurking at the edges of the show for a while, that of absent or abusive parental figures, as we see how Teddy has been twisted into worshipping his abusive father.  Wow.  There is so much in this episode to return to and consider.

That was the high point of the season, but it didn’t mean the show would rest on its laurels.  The second half of the season was just as innovative!  “Teddy Perkins” was followed by the Van-and-her-friends-focused “Champagne Papi”, which itself was followed by the Al-focused slow-burn horror of “Woods”.  Both were amazing.  I loved the subtle way in which “Woods” gave us a hint of the backstory of Al’s deceased mom.  We see her straightening up Al’s messy apartment at the beginning, in what starts as a comical sequence but quickly turns heartbreaking as she slowly vanishes and we see Earn texting Al that he’s thinking about him on that day.  My stomach dropped as I realized what was actually going on.  Masterful storytelling.

In a show that surprised me again and again, I was totally unprepared for the season’s penultimate episode, “FUBU,” a full-length flashback to Earn and Al in middle school.  I loved this look at Earn’s no good horrible very bad day, in which his excitement in having a brand new FUBU shirt to wear to school turned into horror when he discovered that 1) another kid was wearing the same shirt and 2) that his (Earn’s) was in fact a fake.  Oh man, this was painful to watch, as the show brutally recreated the tough stuff kids can go through in school.  I adored all the kids in this episode, particularly the two actors who were chosen to play Earn and Al, both of whom were perfect.

Wow, what a season of television!  Other thoughts:

* This season was eleven episodes, one longer than season one’s ten.  I also noticed that many of this season’s episodes ran longer than those in season one.  I was happy to get every extra minute of the show.

* I loved the new character of Tracy (Khris Davis), who was continually an obstacle for Earn (sleeping on Al’s couch when Earn was desperate for a place to stay; crashing the trip to the college campus and wreaking havoc) but was so good natured about everything that I found him very endearing.  (The show also built up empathy for him when we saw how quickly he was dismissed at the job interview he went for.)

* In a show that has not been shy about addressing racism, watching Earn get beaten down again and again in “Money Bag Shawty” when he tried to spend some of his legitimately earned money, was powerful.

* Donald Glover, along with Hiro Murai and Stephen Glover, seem to still be the key creative powerhouses behind this show, but several other writers are credited for scripts this season, and Amy Seimetz directed the two great Van spotlights (“Helen” and “Champagne Papi”).

* I haven’t mentioned the craziness of the season premiere, “Alligator Man” — the compelling performance by guest star Katt Williams as Earn and Al’s Uncle Willy, and that great comedic punchline when the alligator is released from the house only to turn and take a nap in the shade.

* The season finale was hard to watch — I couldn’t focus on anything other than that handgun in Earn’s backpack (which was given to Earn by Uncle Willy in the season premiere).  We’ve seen Earn do some dumb things this season, but forgetting about that gun and bringing it with him into his daughter’s school and then into the airport security line was beyond the pale.  I’m glad Earn was able to get out of that situation (and impressed at his cool under fire in quickly figuring out a way to do so), though sad to see him be so stupid and to apparently not have a second thought about seriously messing up someone else’s life.  I loved Al’s speech to Earn on the plane at the end.  It’s nice to see Al respect what Earn does bring to the table, specifically that Earn legitimately cares for Al and is looking out for him (at the same time as Earn is hoping to achieve wealth and status by hitching his wagon to Al’s star).  I was glad the season ended on that decently uplifting note (even though Earn’s life is still very screwed up; he’s not the manager Al needs or wants, and his relationship with Van is a mess and she’d texted him that she wanted to take their daughter and move back in with her parents).  This is a show with no easy fixes.  I love that.

What a fantastic season of television, and what an incredible show.  I am so happy to have finally had a chance to watch it.  Now I join the rest of you in hoping that season three will be coming before too long…!

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