Even in a TV landscape characterized by peak drama and rare authenticity, critics and awards bodies and audiences all seemed to agree that the first season of Atlanta was exceptionally good, for many reasons. One of the show’s most impressive tricks was its insistence on subverting expectations at every available turn, whether those expectations were set by viewers, studio execs, or by Donald Glover himself. “Twin Peaks for rappers” fits neatly into 140 characters, and the conceit (a Princeton dropout, an aging rapper, and a space cadet tumble headlong through the Atlanta rap scene) seemed simple enough, but Atlanta was more ambitious than its creator’s elevator pitch in execution. And way weirder. There was an invisible car. There was a sketch comedy half-hour. Justin Bieber was black. Quavo went all Russell Baze on a dude in the woods using a hunting rifle he named “Percy.”
But you don’t need me to tell you that Atlanta was good and memorable. Now that “Robbin’ Season” (which means more and sounds cooler than “Season 2”) has arrived, the show will speak for itself once more. And we’ll all see what we loved about it in the first place: that Atlanta is still playing straw caterpillar with reality; that the show is still funny but not that kind of funny; that its choices are still thrillingly specific; that its use of guest stars still feels both whimsical and effective.
The problem is that I want to talk only about Katt Williams. We may talk about some other things by accident, but Williams—who is gloriously, hilariously, tragically pressed in the premiere—is the most pressing topic.
I guess we have to talk about where we left the principle characters; Atlanta has been off the air since the Season 1 finale in November 2016. Alfred, known to the internet as Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), dropped a mixtape with a solid street single that his cousin-manager Earn (Glover) pledged to help transform into a full-on rap career. By roll credits, Earn’s only sort of succeeded at growing Paper Boi’s reach. Earn’s only sort of succeeded at a few things: keeping a roof over his head, getting his daughter into a decent school, working things out with his baby mama (Van, played by Zazie Beetz), figuring out what it is he wants out of life. The only thing he’s done successfully for sure is befriend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and thank God, because who among us wouldn’t want a friend like Darius?
If Season 1 ended on a note of fragile optimism, the premiere of “Robbin’ Season” feels defined by a simmering panic, like the anxiety that stampedes back in once a high wears off, like the dread of knowing you’ll have to either make decisions or have them made for you soon. The season premiere opens with Earn getting forced out of the storage unit he had been living in, and it’s three full minutes before any other familiar characters are shown. There’s a detached cold open that follows two new young men around the twist of a boring, gray winter day that suddenly turns violent. They play FIFA, they talk music, they decide that they’re hungry, they go to Mrs. Winner’s—a fictive version of the real chicken and biscuits spot, and one that doubles as a drug front. They rob the place, it turns bloody, it sets the tone: This is still Atlanta, but the stakes are irretrievably higher than they were two years ago. Disaster strikes elsewhere when Alfred, on house arrest, sends Earn over to his Uncle Willy’s after having received a call from Uncle Willy’s girlfriend, Yvonne, who said that Willy had “kidnapped” her. As it turns out, Uncle Willy is Katt Williams.
And he looks good, but, crucially, not great. At least as bad as when he retired from stand-up six years ago on KOMO 4 Seattle News dressed in a Kurt Cobain tee and ski goggles, and on purpose. Since his mid-2000s success, Williams’s fall from grace has been exceedingly long and noisy; in 2016 alone he was arrested four times for everything from “criminal damage to property” to sucker-punching a seventh-grader during a friendly pickup soccer game. He’s back to doing stand-up now, though. He released a Netflix special in mid-January, Great America, where he talks into a golden microphone about racial tension and Trumpism, but also about the ways in which life—and he has lived a life—changed him.
It makes sense that someone like Williams would wash up on an absurdist show preoccupied with personal transition, but it’s still a surprise when he presses his face up against the screen door, and remarkable that his inclusion works so seamlessly. And so well.
To the extent that time is real in Atlanta, it’s mid-afternoon by the time we meet Willy, and he is still wearing a bathrobe. Think of him as a much older Money Mike; the pimping is mostly dead and the alligator shoes are just house slippers now, although he does still have the alligator. A full-grown Caiman. Really.
The best of Williams’s performance coincides with the cops showing up, responding to a domestic disturbance call. “We not domestic, we ain’t eem married,” he explains with great annoyance. You really do forget that nobody willfully misreads things or demands more than their due respect quite like Katt Williams does. His act—which is also, historically speaking, his public face—is that he’s short, and it’s funny in a sometimes-sad way. He is desperate, but acidic; paranoid and uncool, but composed at the same time. Williams is perfect as Uncle Willy because Williams is Uncle Willy. Either might ask, with a crazed look in their eye and a cigarette hanging out of their mouth, what is youuuuuuu doin’ here.
Williams gets a big moment near the end of the episode, and it’s up to you whether it counts as redemption, given the decade he’s had. To set it up: After Willy needles the idea that Paper Boi has outgrown Earn’s usefulness, Earn does something he hasn’t since the third episode of the first season, almost two and a half years in real time. He says how he feels. “What I’m scared of is being you. You know, somebody everybody knew was smart but ended up being a know-it-all, fuck-up Jay that just lets shit happen to him.” Life has plainly not worked out for Willy; there are cracks in the ceiling above their heads, and Fulton County PD is at the front door.
“Damn,” Williams says, and for what it’s worth, I also said “damn.” It’s one of those moments that bridges Atlanta’s surreality and the physical world. Willy/Williams becomes, unambiguously, what Earn/Glover has to grow beyond, and it’s striking, dispossessing. “If you don’t wanna end up like me,” Williams says, “get rid of that chip-on-your-shoulder shit. It’s not worth the time.”
He busts out the back door to skitter off into the sunset after that. Willy’s exit doesn’t magically solve his nephew’s insecurity. This is Atlanta as it ever was: reliably human, and reserved in its commentary on that humanity.