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The Familiar Unpredictability of ‘Atlanta’ Season 2

Donald Glover’s remarkable FX series routinely breaks the unspoken rules of television, but it has established its own consistent rhythm

FX/Ringer illustration

It’s been almost three weeks since Atlanta spent any substantive time on Earn Marks (Donald Glover), the aspiring rap manager who’s ostensibly the show’s protagonist. It’s been almost a month since the entire cast of what is ostensibly an ensemble was gathered in a single location. And it’s been just as long since the show has directly checked in with the burgeoning career of Earn’s cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), on whose trajectory the livelihoods of virtually every other character rest.

Atlanta routinely breaks the unspoken rules that govern TV plotting, structure, and characterization. But now that Atlanta is no longer introducing itself, these digressions read less like disarming twists and turns than part of a deliberate narrative strategy. “Robbin’ Season” is just past its halfway point, meaning that its overall shape is beginning to come into focus. As it turns out, that shape looks a lot like the first season’s: a relatively straightforward set of initial stories—emphasis on the “relatively”—followed by a liftoff into the conceptual, the ultra-specific, or some combination of the two. Atlanta is a show so averse to repeating itself that even a vague echo of its past is worth examining; it’s also a show more frequently analyzed in moments, scenes, and other component parts than as a coherent whole. Appreciated from a bird’s-eye view, though, Atlanta’s superstructure displays as much mastery of pacing as the clockwork suspense of “Teddy Perkins.Atlanta refuses to choose between the grounded beats of a sitcom and the high-flying surrealism of an absurdist sketch show. Instead, it leapfrogs one over the other. Defying convention makes Atlanta what it is, but Glover and his collaborators know their wildest experiments can’t succeed without expert timing and just the right amount of context.

Atlanta’s first season was a study in delayed resolution, setting up conflicts only to either ignore them or address them much more obliquely than viewers anticipated. The pilot ends on a cliffhanger, with Earn and Paper Boi arrested after a shooting in a parking lot. Apart from a subsequent episode following Earn’s night in jail, though, what Atlanta seemed to be setting up as an overarching issue earned barely a mention for the rest of the season. On any other show, the assumption would be that subsequent episodes would answer the questions raised by the first few. But just because Atlanta’s fault lines aren’t addressed head-on doesn’t mean they’re forgotten. The theme of omnipresent, arbitrary violence recurred countless more times throughout the season after the shooting first embodied it.

The first three episodes of Atlanta “Robbin’ Season” once again laid out plenty of concrete stakes for the core cast. In the premiere, Earn openly admits to his and Al’s eccentric, washed-up Uncle Willy (Katt Williams)—the titular “Alligator Man”—that he’s afraid of Alfred leaving him, an insecurity that’s amplified by rival rapper Clark County (RJ Walker) introducing Paper Boi to his own, much better-connected representative. The arrival of Tracy (Khris Davis), Alfred’s ex-con friend and now roommate, threatens to disrupt the personal dynamics of the group as well as the professional ones. Alfred continues to struggle with the ramifications of fame, which now include much larger, fork-in-the-road decisions about what kind of alliances to make with which corporate entities, if he wants to make any at all. But like the phantom shooting, the growing distance between Al and Earn hasn’t come up since “Money Bag Shawty,” when Clark County and Paper Boi spend a botched studio session talking sponsorship deals. We just see it in Earn’s demotion to the backseat for a trip to the drive-through, or his need to rub in his partner’s face that his work pays her bills.

Atlanta takes the same patient, oblique approach to its protagonists’ internal lives as their external ones. Earn is a fundamentally reactive character with an expressive, embittered passivity—what Willy calls “that chip-on-your-shoulder shit.” He’s only let his mask slip a handful of times, always early in a season. In “Go for Broke,” the series’ third episode, Earn outright explains to Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his child, that he sees the music industry as a long-term bet: struggle now, be able to provide for their daughter in perpetuity later. That ambition underlies Earn’s subsequent encounters with racebent pop stars and weaselly club promoters alike, anchoring even Atlanta’s most out-there bits in precise observation. This year, Earn’s coming from a less optimistic, more fearful place, a state of mind that’s only explicitly laid out in “Alligator Man,” but drives the rest of the perceptibly darker tone of “Robbin’ Season.” “What I’m scared of is being you,” he snaps at Willy. “Somebody everybody knew was smart, but ended up being a know-it-all, fuck-up Jay that just lets shit happen to him.” Earn hasn’t elaborated on this complex since; he also doesn’t have to. It’s a short line from the person who says that to the peevish, callous jerk Van breaks up with in “Helen.”

There’s a similar dynamic at work with Atlanta’s other primary players. Way back in “The Streisand Effect,” Paper Boi vents his frustrations to an overzealous fan more interested in online fame than artistic expression. “I scare people at ATMs, boy,” he blurts out. “I have to rap. That’s what rap is: making the most of a bad situation.” With just two lines, Atlanta says everything it needs to about Alfred’s outlook on the rap game in general and his career in specific. The outburst takes barely 10 seconds of screen time, yet it’s vital to the eventual impact of “B.A.N.” and “Barbershop,” Alfred’s two solo adventures to date. They’re very different episodes, but they share a common origin in Alfred’s bone-deep exasperation with onlookers who see rap as either more or less than it actually is. Alfred doesn’t want to justify himself to a condescending talk-show host, or tell his barber’s truant son to stay in school. He just wants to rap, and hopefully get a haircut.

Lately, Atlanta has sprinkled in a few glimpses of a more traditional kind of continuity. That shooting does have consequences after all, landing Paper Boi on house arrest and Earn on probation; the dog Darius and Earn bred in “The Streisand Effect” paid off with a fistful of cash in “Sportin’ Waves.” But it’s mostly stuck to extremely loose, almost imperceptible links between self-contained episodes that function more like one-act plays. “Teddy Perkins,” in which Darius barely survives a near-fatal encounter with a Michael Jackson–like reclusive superstar, inevitably loops back to Alfred and his continued reckoning with the price of success. “Helen” takes the seemingly solid relationship on display in “Money Bag Shawty,” just the episode prior, and dives under the hood to reveal the power imbalances that ultimately spell its end.

One of Atlanta’s many accomplishments is that no matter how outlandish its latest twist, whether Donald Glover in prosthetic whiteface or a laughing wolf-demon that steals iPhones, the show never feels strange for strange’s sake. That sensation feels rooted in the writers’ ability to precede its big swings with more life-size moments, then make a natural transition from one mode to the other. Just as sequencing is all important on an album, even stand-alone episodes can benefit from ideal placement relative to one another. Fittingly, then, this midseason stretch of “Robbin’ Season”—“Helen,” then “Barbershop,” then “Teddy Perkins”—has closely mirrored the inflection point of Season 1, when the show took a sharp turn away from Earn’s perspective and linear storytelling alike. Two is admittedly a small sample size. Still, Atlanta’s long-game decisions reward consideration as much as its intricately constructed episodes. Atlanta looks just as good from a distance as it does up close.