Atlanta is a show about some black folks living in that city. It isn’t a simulacrum of Georgia’s capital. Or a faux-documentary. It’s not a manifesto on blackness (although virtually every character is black), or a cautionary tale (although some truly terrible shit does happen), or even a comedy, although it is funny, unless the punch line you’re looking for is “life.” If you haven’t seen the first season, the things you need to know are that Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover), a Princeton dropout, is managing his cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), a rapper on the cusp of making it big. Both men are friends with Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), a guy who speaks in paradoxes, and Earn shares a baby with his sometimes-partner, Van (Zazie Beetz). That’s your core context, and all you’ll really need. If the first season was any indicator, everything else is malleable.
Glover and Hiro Murai (Glover’s collaborator and frequent director) make that clear in “Alligator Man,” this season’s opener: The show begins with two young men fucking around with FIFA, lounging and ragging on an acquaintance for wanting to “be somebody so bad,” before casually deciding to rob a drive-through for drugs. That decision is made with little fanfare, just like the beginning of the actual incident; eventually, there’s a shootout, culminating with an unseen casualty. The violence is senseless. But it’s also mundane. The scene simply notes that this is something that happens here: death and the day-to-day coexist seamlessly. We don’t find out what’ll become of the two young men, or the woman who’s covered in blood, but we know that Atlanta has happened to them. That’s probably the only explanation we’ll get.
No matter how you’d thought this season would start, this wasn’t it. In the New Yorker profile that dropped a few days back, Glover said, “A lot of this season is me proving to people that I didn’t get those Emmys just because of affirmative action.” His insistence on proving something is a motif throughout the episode, one that’s even repeated moments later: “I watch Storage Wars, too,” says a storage-unit employee to Earn, whom he catches sleeping in a unit. “This ain’t that.” “That” may as well be any other “black” show on television. (Or whatever you thought you were about to watch.)
From there, “Alligator Man” juggles several narratives: For starters, Earn is still homeless and the jig is up on his storage-unit situation. The revolving door of Al’s place seems like a nebulous possibility. And a large part of securing a spot revolves around keeping Al happy, because now he’s got money. So to that end, Earn accepts a quest: He’s tasked with resolving a dispute with his Uncle Willy (an outstanding Katt Williams). The man has apparently “kidnapped” his partner Yvonne in their bedroom over the disappearance of $50. When Earn asks Willy to resolve the issue, he’s recalcitrant to do it, playing the old-head; and of course that’s when 5-0 shows up, with Darius noting that the vibe’s transitioned from “intense” to “more and more like jail.”
If season one already established Atlanta itself is a character, it looks like we’ll only be underlining that point, making season two another recent entry in black creatives viewing their cities on their own terms, mostly absent from the lens of whiteness. The concrete sprawl pulses. The traffic provides its own soundtrack. As Darius and Earn walk into Willy’s house, the flora behind them alludes to another world (although, for many viewers, it may as well be Area X). The existence of “Florida Man” is taken as a given: As Darius says, “Think of him as an alt-right Johnny Appleseed” working “to prevent black people from coming to and/or registering to vote in Florida.” A man keeps an alligator in his home, with a reputation so ubiquitous that children from around the way have dubbed him “the Alligator Man.” But the through line of this episode — of the entire show, really — is that, within this context, all of these things are reality. To that end, there’s no reason to explain them.
Another thing this episode points to is money — or, specifically, the lack thereof. Or, more specifically, how the systematic repression of generational wealth informs damn near every aspect of the lives of black folks. (At one point, Willy notes that “You find out family is business.”) The episode’s most tangible conflict revolves around the disappearance of $50. Earn’s P.O. payments amount to $375. But we don’t need to be told that Al’s blowing up, or that he’s got money, because we see it in the periphery: He’s bankrolling Willy’s house. He is who people rely on. And after finally confronting Willy for acting out in old-head fashion — after Willy tells Earn, “You tryna tell me about myself. You homeless, Earn. You don’t even have a mirror to look at yourself” — Earn tells his uncle that what he’s really scared of is becoming “someone everybody knew was smart, but ended being a know-it-all fuck up jay that just let shit happen to him.”
The episode ends with Willy releasing his alligator, in a beautiful musical moment scored to the Delfonics’ “Hey Love,” and taking the moment to bail on foot. He leaves Earn with a loaded, golden pistol, noting that he’ll need it in the music business. When Earn delivers the good news to Al, he also finds that Al and Darius have reconciled (with a proffered joint, no less). They’re leaning all over each other, intimate again, and you can’t help but wonder what could’ve possibly ruptured that bond. Earn finally has the chance to ask about staying over, only to find that someone else — a newcomer named Tracy — has taken the spot because “he just got out.” And after ragging on Earn for taking Chekhov’s gun from Willy, for the first time all episode, Al genuinely asks how he’s doing. But Earn laughs it off, and then he’s back on the street, leaving the men inside and ending the episode as we found him, alone, bringing everything full circle.
We’re left with images of male fraternity, and what that looks like when you’re left outside of it. Which leads to my sole issue with this episode, as well as swathes of the first season (with a couple of exceptions): the presence of women in these men’s lives as people that things simply happen to, in lieu of agents of change. Five women have “prominent” speaking roles in this episode: The lady in the opening sequence simply screams, while another processes Earn’s P.O. payments. A third (Tara) has her name flubbed by Earn (“Regina!”), and the fourth, Yvonne, catalyzes the issue that sets off the drama at Willy’s house. Then there’s the little girl who confirms the existence of Willy’s alligator. We don’t see or hear from Van. We hear that “something” happened with Earn’s mom. It’d be nice if, this time around, Atlanta’s women are given the autonomy the script affords its men.
So, there’s room for improvement. We’ve got a minute to get there. But a thing from this premiere that I think is worth noting, the one thing that’ll stick with me the longest, is how often we see black people just quiet and thinking on camera. Watch it again and count. How often have you seen that, really? No music. Just thinking, onscreen. Or talking minutiae between themselves, without a clear punch line to speak of. When Earn and Darius opine on Robbin’ Season, Darius explains that “Christmas approaches, and everybody gotta eat.” The mention is preceded by Earn’s wondering what a Hot Cheeto tastes like. “Hot,” says Darius.
Ultimately, Earn is still homeless, but he ends the episode a little bit changed. He’s still fighting to stay relevant to Al, “who’s kind of a big deal now,” although, as Willy notes, “If you don’t wanna end up like me, get rid of that chip on your shoulder shit. It’s not worth the time.” Earn has no destination to speak of in sight, and no clue how he’s going to get there, and honestly, I can’t help but think of Earn as a lot like Odysseus, navigating Atlanta and whatever wildness comes his way. Only, Glover and company don’t seem much interested in bringing Earn to the end of his journey. Or explaining what that journey looks like. Or if there even is a way out of it. (There isn’t.)
But it’s enough, in this first episode, to show us that these journeys exist. Here’s what one of them looks like.