Atlanta is having one of those miracle seasons that only happens when every artist involved is on the same creative page and operating at the peak of their powers. Since its sophomore season debuted in March, Donald Glover’s FX series has not only delivered on its season-one promise — which was considerable; it was my No. 1 show of 2016 — it has reasserted its independence from any preconceived notions that we might’ve had about what it was. It’s already clear that, like many of the greatest groundbreaking scripted shows — a list that includes everything from The Ernie Kovacs Show and The Twilight Zone through Moonlighting, Frank’s Place, and The Simpsons, The Sopranos and Mad Men, BoJack Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — Atlanta has a knack for giving you what you didn’t know you wanted, evoking surprise, delight, puzzlement, anxiety, and elation in the course of any given episode. Whatever it gives you is different from, yet always equal to or better than, what you wanted or expected, and by this point, we should know better than to want or expect anything in particular. Atlanta is best approached with a blank-slate mind.
This is a series that officially added a thematic thought prompt, “Robbin’ Season,” to its title for season two, kicked off with a robbery of a chicken joint that became a close-quarters, scary-funny gunfight (like something out of a ’90s indie flick), and verbally explained to us that these episodes were set during the run-up to the holidays, when robberies exponentially increase. But as the weeks passed, it became clear that this was a rope-a-dope explanation — that “robbin’” meant more to Atlanta than a felony crime, and evoked more than just the threat of violence (though that has never gone away).
This season is about all the different ways in which people can be robbed: of dignity, of money, of autonomy, of safety, and so on. Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) is the show’s most arresting character — in some ways more of a lead than Earn Marks (Donald Glover), both by dint of his creative power (which drives most of the other events on the series), and Henry’s internalized yet emotionally accessible performance (which radiates fear, pain, and disappointment even when he’s staring blank-faced out of the passenger side window of a car). Alfred is a working-class artist struggling to commit to a promising life even though his day job is more predictable and reliable; he gets figuratively and literally robbed at almost every stage of his journey this season. He’s robbed at gunpoint by a dealer who explains to him that he can make his money back by rapping (which isn’t even true because his career hasn’t taken off the way he hoped it would), and again by his young fans, but he’s also robbed of respect (by employees of a record company who treat him as some kind of exotic beast) and time (by a barber who drags him along on a series of misadventures).
He’s not the only victim, of course. Van Keefer (Zazie Beetz) is robbed of her expectations of a functioning, long-term adult relationship with Earn, the father of her child. Earn robs himself of his potential for contentment by taking Alfred and Van for granted and disappearing into his own intellectualized detachment and superior attitude, even as he is robbed of dignity by people who, in “Money Bag Shawty,” assume that if a young black man has cash to throw around, it must be counterfeit. The instantly legendary sixth episode, “Teddy Perkins,” made Darius the hero of a domestic horror/social satire about artist brothers who had been robbed of happy childhoods by an abusive father. (Neglectful, destructive, and inadequate dads are a common fixture on this series — and Earn, for all his sly charm, isn’t going to win Father of the Year anytime soon.)
But Atlanta is playing with robbery in more benevolent or playful ways, too. It’s robbing us of our expectations of what a TV series should be — specifically a series about African-Americans, American southerners, working-class and poor people, young people, and all those descriptors in combination — by lingering on moments, basking in them, at times stretching them out into gossamer strands in the manner of an atmospheric art-house indie or international art film. It segues from farce to tragedy and back again, a privilege more often afforded to series (and movies) with predominantly white casts. How to even describe this chimera of a show? Though Atlanta is billed as a comedy, a lot of the time it’s comfortable with not being funny at all, or with being alarming or horrifying; other times, it’s less funny ha-ha than funny strange. Portions of it border on the experimental.
It is also taking away our preconceived notions of how an ongoing series should use its core cast. Usually when you’re watching a TV show, you know who the stars are, and who you’re therefore supposed to pay attention to and care about. But that’s not always obvious here. In season one, the show centered on Earn, Van, Darius, and Alfred, often dealing with them in ensemble situations. In season two, the characters have more often been separated from the flock. The conspicuous exception was the ninth episode, “North of the Border,” which put Alfred, Earn, and Darius on a road trip that was so rich in incident that it bordered on busy: There was a narrowly averted stairwell fall at campus pajama party, sparked when the freeloading ex-con Tracy (Khris Davis) shoved a young woman for pouring beer on Alfred; an unsettling trip through a Confederate-worshiping white fraternity where a white frat brother ladled praise on Alfred and naked, hooded pledges danced to D4L’s “Laffy Taffy”; a painful confrontation between Alfred and Earn about Earn’s failure to properly represent him; and Earn’s climactic roadside beatdown by Tracy. But the default this season has been quieter, slower, and subtler. The premiere, “Alligator Man,” spent much of its running time detailing the interaction of Earn, his Uncle Willy (Katt Williams), who allegedly kidnapped his partner Yvonne over a missing $50, and Willy’s pet alligator, who lumbered into daylight in the final scene. The eighth episode, “Woods,” sent Alfred on a trip through the wilderness that doubled as an interior journey into dream logic and symbols, including a dead, decaying, fly-infested deer (among many other things, deer are emblems of grace, love, compassion and — when its antlers fall off — regeneration).
But here, too, appearances deceive. Even as Atlanta seems to be gifting its stars with extended solos (Henry has had several) and two-character plays (such as Vanessa and Earn’s road trip in “Helen,” which presaged their breakup), it toys with our expectations of how time and attention should be distributed on a series, often putting lead characters in situations where they have to react to, care for, or suffer at the hands of others. This means they have to cede screen time to guest stars who become the de facto protagonists of whatever moment they’re sharing with a lead — which means that “Robbin’ Season” also describes a showcase in which guest actors can steal scenes by engraved invitation. And so, both Teddy Perkins (Glover, uncredited and in heavy disguise) and Benny Hope (Derrick Haywood) steal scenes from Darius in “Teddy Perkins.” Katt Williams steals them from Glover in the premiere. Nadine (Gail Bean) and Terry (Danielle Deadwyler) steal them from Van in “Champagne Papi.” Bibby steals them from Alfred in “Barbershop.” And the hermit Wally (Reggie Green) and not-a-girlfriend Sierra (Angela Wildflower) steals them yet again from Al in “Woods.”
The storytelling prolongs moments and embraces surrealism in the manner of Twin Peaks — a series Glover has repeated invoked in interviews, and that asserted its influence most brazenly in “Teddy Perkins” and “Woods” — but more often maintains plausible deniability in the manner of a Sopranos or Mad Men as far as what’s “real” and what isn’t. The show serves up encounters and images that read as dreamlike or figurative, even as it leaves no doubt that yes, indeed, they all actually happened. (Alfred’s encounters with Wally in “Woods,” in particular, often play as if he’s being harassed and undermined by a manifestation of his own flaws and fears.)
If you look at how all of these stories sit alongside each other within the lineup of a season, you realize that it’s splitting the difference between the short story and the novel. As directed by such talented filmmakers as Glover, Hiro Murai, and Amy Seimetz, and as written by Donald Glover, his brother Stephen, Stefani Robinson, Jamal Olori, Taofik Kolade, and Ibra Ake, each installment feels self-contained, detailing a series of elegantly shaped situations and encounters that flirt with blatant metaphor and often end in a moment of realization or denial. Yet at the same time, the story is being driven subtly forward and unified over the course of the season, by recurring thematic elements as well as signposts in the main characters’ development. “Tiny Toons Summer Vacation was broken up into a bunch of episodes, but if you watched them all together they were a movie,” Stephen Glover told Vulture’s Maria Elena Fernandez. “We took that idea. It’s a whole story, but told in a bunch of little parts.” The result is a series that’s growing and evolving before our eyes.