Atlanta: Robbin’ Season (2018, FX)
Written by Donald Glover, Jamal Olori, Ibra Ake, Taofik Kolade, Stephen Glover, Taofik Kolade, and Stefani Robinson
Directed by Hiro Murai, Amy Seimetz, and Donald Glover
There are shows I forget are amazing because the delay between seasons can be so long and so many other shows and films fill up my brain in between. Louie was one of those shows, The Leftovers was another. Atlanta is the current show that I fail to remember the greatness of. I wasn’t hyper-excited for season two because the first season felt like a distant memory, excellent but hazy. I have to say I enjoyed this second run of episodes immensely, even more so than its first season. Creator and showrunner Donald Glover isn’t even working at the height of his game in my opinion, he’s on the path to getting there, which is exciting because I expect something even better than what we have seen to date. We also shouldn’t ignore director Hiro Murai who set the plate so to speak of how Atlanta looks and feels. The aesthetic of the show feels so dreamlike, hazy blues filtered over the screen. When characters are outside it often has an early morning, dew-drenched misty quality, reminding me of nights where you stay up late and greet the morning. Glover cited Twin Peaks as an influence in the feel of the show, and I would agree that in its best episodes Atlanta finds that particular style.
As for an overarching plot for the season, two threads continually come up, though every episode is not tied to them. The main plot would be Earn and Al’s slow realization that their business partnership is not working out and how this will affect their familial one. There is a tension present in Al about where he wants his rap career to go next. He passionately wants to keep things real, stay tied to where he came from and his natural personality. Rapper Clark County works as a constant foil to Al, a rapper whose songs talk about weed and gang violence, but who lives a sober and relatively safe lifestyle. Al holds a silent disdain for this rival whose manager is a white childhood friend of Earn’s, displaying yet another compromise in Al’s eyes. As the season winds down, Al becomes hungrier for a higher level of fame even imploring Earn to find a Jewish entertainment lawyer because that is what the successful artists have.
Al has one of the best episodes in the season with “Woods,” a story that begins with Al spending time with a lady friend named Sierra. She is fully exploiting social media to her own advantage as a burgeoning musical artist. Sierra also espouses a philosophy of treating yourself like the famous person you want to be which sees Al ending up uncomfortable in a manicurist’s chair. Eventually, he storms out after a heated conversation and ends up embarking on a near-biblical night of doubt and self-realization. “Woods” is an episode that deals with the way people create their own impossible mazes and then struggle to escape them. This is the moment in the season where Al begins to shift priorities which are great for him but marks a downturn for Earn.
The second major plot is Earn’s ill-defined relationship with Van seemingly coming to a close. This is highlighted in the episodes “Money Bag Shawty” and “Helen,” with an epilogue of sorts in “Champagne Papi.” The seeds of discontent in this relationship were already sown in Season 1 so when we see Earn and Van together this season the audience is naturally feeling apprehension about where this is going. In “Money Bag Shawty” the story focuses on Earn’s inadequacies in regards to being seen as auspicious by his community. The refrain throughout is that Earn doesn’t look like the sort of guy who would pay with a $100 bill to both the black and white community. This season has some beautiful reminders of Glover’s roots in comedy (Derek Comedy in particular), and this episode in specific plays like a series of comedic skits dripping in pathos. The culmination is a scene where Earn races Michael Vick outside a strip club after being drained of cash by the increasingly absurd and expensive policies inside. The inclusion of Michael Vick adds a very interesting pin on the whole affair, commenting on where black celebrities can end up when things go wrong. In fact, the entire season’s theme could be about being unable to fit into a single community.
Things indeed hit the fan for Earn and Van in “Helen” which sees the couple taking a weekend trip to Helen, Georgia for a Fasnacht celebration. This is a German holiday that corresponds to Mardi Gras and Lent, which opens up an exploration of Van’s intersectionality as an interracial woman. Earn continues to lick his wounds and pout focusing on himself as an outsider, while Van has a stark conversation with a childhood friend about the race of their chosen partners and what that says about their views on their own identities. This culminates in Van ending the relationship and establishing ground rules for shared custody of their daughter. The character work in Helen is good but what really appealed me was the expansion of the world of Atlanta. One of the interesting things about this city is that is this strange dichotomy of urban and rural, and what “Helen” does is open this world up, even more, introducing this strange little pocket of Europe tucked into the middle of the landscape. I came into the episode knowing nothing about any of this and left with a curiosity to find out if these were inventions of the writers or real places and traditions present in Georgia.
“Champagne Papi” is our last up-close visit with Van this season and is a relatively weak episode from the fact that there is never a clear theme, at least to me. Van and some friends follow up on a social media driven rumor of a party outside of the city hosted by Drake. There are lots of little moments but no through-line that ties it all together really. The one significant connection between the Al and Van storylines is their mutual sense of dissatisfaction with life and the struggle with community expectations. It’s impossible to say if they are happy with where they are at the end of the season, only that they are satisfied with a change happening.
As good as those episodes were they didn’t come close to what stands as my personal favorites in the bunch. “Barbershop” was a surprise comedic highlight that introduced me to comedian Robert Powell as Bibby, Al’s infuriating barber. Bibby is an exaggeratedly hilarious version of a hustler, with so many side gigs floating. He puts Al’s haircut on pause with the promise that it will happen but they need to leave the barbershop to attend to something. My personal favorite moment comes when Bibby promises Al lunch only to end up on the construction site of a house reheating leftover Zaxby’s in a microwave followed by stealing lumber. “Barbershop” was one example of Atlanta stepping away from a serialized storytelling format and instead into cinematic short film territory. You could watch “Barbershop” without ever seeing a single episode of the series and never become lost.
“FUBU” is another episode that stands strongly on its own. This story goes back to middle school and features a young Earn eagerly wearing a FUBU jersey his mother bought him on clearance at Marshalls. Another boy shows up wearing an almost near identical jersey, and this raises suspicion amongst their peers that one of the shirts is bootleg. Everyone anticipates the arrival of a fashion-aware student who will reveal the fraud and lead to their beating. Earn realizes his is the fake and feigns confidence that he will be revealed the victor. He ends up needing help from young Al and what they do leads to some dark consequences for one person. “FUBU” does an excellent job of not just capturing school life in the 1990s, but how urban schools feel in general. It also continues the theme of Earn feeling like an outsider in every community he tries to integrate with. FUBU is a hip-hop influenced fashion brand meaning “For Us, By Us,” referring to the fact that it is owned and operated by black business people. For Earn to be questioned for wearing fake FUBU plays into the ongoing community displacement theme the character has been facing since the first season. Donald Glover has talked extensively about his own sense of not belonging being raised Jehovah’s Witness and leaning more on the geeky side of things than some of his more physical, athletic peers.
All of this leads me to what is arguably the pinnacle of the season, “Teddy Perkins.” This episode is such a powerful statement and punches to the gut about black celebrity. One of my wife’s co-workers, a black woman from Antigua, had her husband delete the episode off their DVR after watching it because of how deeply affecting the content was and how creepy the atmosphere becomes. In “Teddy Perkins,” Al and Earn’s friend Darius has rented a U-Haul van to pick up a piano advertised online. It turns out the piano is in the home of Teddy Perkins, a former child prodigy turned R&B singer. However, Teddy has disfigured himself with skin bleach and plastic surgery, so he no longer looks black, in fact, he resembles a Who from Who-ville at this point. Darius grows increasingly uncomfortable in a story that evokes classic gothic noir films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Sunset Boulevard. No punches are pulled the episode ends on a profoundly upsetting note. Glover appears to be exploring the darkest possible outcome of black celebrity, most notably in how Michael Jackson is remembered by a large chunk of the population. There is a pretty powerful scene mid-way when Darius calls Earn and Al to explain the situation he finds himself trapped in. Mention is made of Sammy Sosa’s skin bleaching which leads to the guys googling an image and laughing it up as they chow down on fast food. Their mocking of Sosa doesn’t feel like a moment of humor we are supposed to join them in, instead of a display of how culture diminishes the profound mental instability that manifests in people of color who their success only possible with the erasure of their identity.
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season had so many more moments to talk about and maybe one day I’ll do a deeper beat by beat review of the season. In the meantime, this stands as a remarkable accomplishment by Donald Glover and creators he has assembled for this series. The bar has been set incredibly high as a result and left me anticipating the surprises to come in season three.