Atlanta is the warped reflection that an absurd country deserves. Created by and starring actor-writer-musician Donald Glover, this FX comedy about black strivers on the edges of Atlanta’s entertainment scene is a rare work that seemed fully formed right out of the gate. Glover plays the show’s hero, wannabe manager Earn Marks, a sharp-witted young man of no means trying to support himself; his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz); and their toddler daughter by managing his cousin, rising rapper and weed dealer Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry). Although Atlanta was part of a flood of auteur-driven shaggy-dog sitcoms that followed Louie, the show’s style, honed by Glover, his writer brother Stephen, and regular series director Hiro Murai, is more deadpan, surreal, and minimalist. It owes plenty to ’80s independent cinema from directors like Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train) and David Lynch but also to the kind of community news that never makes local papers and instead becomes urban legend after enough people repeat and embellish it.
The first season featured a comical guest appearance by a black version of Justin Bieber, a shooting incident outside a nightclub that ended with a man fleeing the scene in an invisible car, and a whole episode that took the form of a broadcast on a nonexistent BET-like channel, complete with a Charlie Rose–style talk show debating racism and transphobia and ads extolling the blunt-wrapping value of Swisher Sweets. There weren’t very many scenes in a given episode, and most of them revolved around an extremely specific conflict that went right up to the edge of explicit social commentary while maintaining plausible deniability. There was a scene where Alfred’s right-hand man, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), got kicked out of a shooting range for firing at a paper target shaped like a dog; you could see it as a comment on the absurdity of people taking offense at that but not at, say, the human targets on the range and on the streets of Atlanta, and on gun culture (firearms are just a part of life on the show and are seen as value-neutral objects even when they’re being used to murder people). There were matter-of-fact depictions of racist characters, including a rich white man obsessed with seeming more “authentically” black than any black person he knew, including his own wife, and a white radio-station exec who casually used the N-word around black people but only ones he considered nonthreatening. There were portrayals of police indifference, hostility, and misconduct toward people of color and observations about America’s widening gap between the rich and everyone else: All the strands came together in the finale, which depicted the casual and obviously unjustified shooting of a Latino man and the revelation that whenever Earn wasn’t sleeping at Van’s or Alfred’s place, he was secretly living in a storage locker. The entire thing was held together by Glover’s mostly reactive comic presence and by a visual representation of Atlanta that stressed red-and-blue police lights; red-clay earth; lush green trees, grass, shrubs, and weed; and an infinite variety of brown skin tones.
Glover once described Atlanta as “Twin Peaks with rappers,” and if that was a reductive formulation, it also seemed like a suitable response to a press corps that desperately needs to categorize anything that doesn’t fit the standard definitions. How was one to label a series that was rooted in the real yet also very clearly the product of intuition and dream logic, especially when one aspect only amplified the other — and the show kept insisting that we treat everything as real, or at least just accept it as whatever happened that week (and not get too hung up on figuring out whether there was a lesson in it)?
Season two has finally arrived, after a long hiatus that permitted Glover to play young Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo spinoff movie. The story lines are harsher and more unsettling than what we saw last time, a change befitting the grim new national context (Obama was still president when Glover shot season one). Everyone’s hustling harder than ever, doing whatever they have to do to survive from week to week and sometimes minute to minute. The stories take place in the run-up to Christmas, dubbed “robbin’ season” here owing to the annual holiday-driven spike in armed robberies. As before, violence erupts out of nowhere or builds slowly through an accumulation of outwardly unremarkable details, as in the opening sequence, in which scenes of a couple of guys hanging out and playing video games build to a close-quarters gunfight in a restaurant that plays as ridiculous until the end, when the blood and screams flip the vibe from slapstick to horror: Earn visits his uncle, who keeps a gold pistol under his bed and a fully grown alligator in a spare bedroom; Alfred hangs out with a teetotaling, weed-averse rapper who turns out to be much more menacing than him, and he struggles to maintain his drug business; Van has to settle for an incrementally less enjoyable date night because whenever Earn tries to spend legally obtained $100 bills businesses won’t accept them, because the staff can’t get their minds around the idea of a quiet, eloquent young black man described by another character as “preppy” having that kind of money to spend.
Few shows are as good at building to dizzying heights of weirdness without clueing you in that anything out of the ordinary is happening. Fewer still have such an astute grasp of how mobile devices and internet connections have allowed everyone of every social class, race, and ethnicity to compulsively document their lives. A telling moment in season one saw a rich childhood friend of Van’s take a picture of her entrée in a restaurant mere moments after an ugly miniature fight. There’s a moment like that here as well: Alfred and Darius try to restock product from a new dealer and are alarmed to hear the telltale “shutter” sound issuing from the dealer’s cell phone: He had just snapped a photo of a drug-dealing rapper who’s on probation holding a huge jar of marijuana buds. “Did you just take a picture of me?” Alfred asks him. “No,” the man replies after a moment. Then he stands up, turns his back, and posts it on Instagram.
*This article appears in the February 19, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.