On Thursday night, we’ll bid adieu to the second season of Atlanta, an 11-episode run that gave us everything from careful ruminations on family to iconic alligator-related content to the weirdest use of D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” ever recorded on film. In honor of Robbin’ Season, the staff of The Ringer handed out awards to the best, worst, and most haunting aspects of the show.
Best Performance: Brian Tyree Henry
Amanda Dobbins: There are dozens of scenes to choose from, but let’s do this one: Alfred, five minutes removed from a terrifying and possibly hallucinatory journey through the woods, is in a convenience store applying a cold beverage to his face. A fan approaches, asking if he’s really Paper Boi; it’s exactly the kind of fan encounter that Al has spent two seasons trying to avoid. But on this day, given the circumstances and the personal revelations, he acknowledges the kid, and even offers a picture, talking him through the selfie with an arm around his shoulder. The frame closes in, and we watch Al’s face shift in and out of character—Al, Paper Boi, Al, Paper Boi—as he poses for photos. Like many scenes on Atlanta, it’s a metaphor; like most everything on Atlanta, it works because of Brian Tyree Henry. On a show that is insistently experimental, Henry’s performance, equal parts charisma and resignation, is the constant: He can make any unexpected bottle episode work and any long-forgotten plot matter. His Alfred is both the straight man and, with all respect to Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius, the funniest character on the show. (The thought of Al flipping his smock like a magician’s cape will sustain me through the next several months of dull prestige TV.) Atlanta will rightfully be remembered as both a reinvention of the television half-hour and a turning point in Donald Glover’s career—but I’d love to look back on it one day as the launchpad for Brian Tyree Henry’s long and varied career. Give him an Emmy (and a Tony) already.
Biggest Gut Punch: “Woods”
Micah Peters: For brief moments, it’s difficult to say whether things in Atlanta are facing forward or back, moving upward or sideways. The show stretches to show us something impossible, and even delightful, before snapping painfully back to reality. But you don’t need me to explain this any further. You know what a gut punch is.
You also know that the most devastating gut punch to happen this season (disregarding the end of “FUBU,” which was more than a little spiteful) came early on in “Woods.” Alfred groans himself awake on the couch to the sound of someone shuffling around the kitchen, bagging empty beer cans and giving him an earful about the state of his apartment. The place is a mess. No one should live like this. Thank God Alfred’s … aunt (?) let herself in to save her nephew from himself? At least she looks like an aunt; we’ve never met her before.
It’s only after Alfred’s phone buzzes and the woman is no longer there that we remember that we’ve heard about her before. “The Woods” takes place on the anniversary of Alfred’s mother’s death, and the scene creates the dull ache of grief that lingers until the end of the episode. Later on, Alfred goes to Krystal and eats a burger while watching the sunset on a parking block. When he took a bite of the burger and closed his eyes to absorb a brief, rare, fleeting moment of respite? I felt that.
Best Song: “YooHoo” by Clark County
T.C. Kane: For a show about a rapper’s climb through the music industry, Atlanta gives us very few glimpses of the actual music guiding that ascent. In Season 1, we heard Paper Boi’s breakout self-titled single, as well as references to “Muckin” (a portmanteau of “massaging” and “fucking,” of which Alfred is quite proud) and “Illuminati Sex” from his Postal mixtape—that was it. “Robbin’ Season” has been even less forthcoming about what Al has been up to in the studio: All we know is that a new Paper Boi single has gone gold thanks to a suburban mom’s horrified reaction to its lyrics about fentanyl, tree sap, and Colin Kaepernick. In that void, however, Paper Boi’s counterpoint, fictional rapper Clark County, has mercifully stepped in with an absolute slapper:
Honorable mention to the song Clark was recording in “Money Bag Shawty” before his engineer messed up—I really want to know what was coming after “I just bought a dinosaur like Nicholas Cage”—but this Yoo-hoo ad shows why Clark County is getting money at a rate that Paper Boi can only dream of. It’s genius marketing, from the punctuative use of the the Yoo-hoo jingle, to the bottle-as-triangle instrumentation. Earn’s jealous grumble over it is the best summation of it: “Man … shit is good.”
Most Terrifying Sell-out: Clark County
Victor Luckerson: Throughout Season 2 of Atlanta, Alfred is struggling with his desire to value his music as art and his need to treat it as an exploitable business. His friendly rival, Clark County, has no such internal conflict. This guy will happily shuck and jive in the Spotify offices, slap his name on a Fast and Furious soundtrack, and make a junk food ad that goes way harder than real-life hip-hop junk food ads.
No harm in all that; if you’re not hustling on Atlanta, you’re liable to get fired. But when you couple Clark County’s opportunism with his tendency toward violence—in “Money Bag Shawty,” he has a member of his entourage beat up a studio engineer for a computer glitch—you get a character whose core amorality feels extremely dangerous. Everything this guy does seems to be abstracted from his own identity. It’s not really him recording a goofy Yoo-hoo commercial, or whipping on a sound guy’s legs for almost no reason. His cheerful persona is the perfect vehicle for amassing more power, which he seems to wield without thought for its consequences. That’s a scary combination, and I feel like Alfred (who plans to sign with Clark County’s manager after dumping Earn) may eventually regret entering his orbit.
Best Cameo: Katt Williams
Alison Herman: Atlanta knows how to cast a good cameo, be it Migos, Michael Vick, or the specter of Drake. Not since Craig and Monique from “Juneteenth,” however, has the show exported as much heavy lifting as it did to Katt Williams in “Alligator Man,” the second-season premiere. Other cameos may be flashier or more surprising, though Williams’s appearance from behind a dusty screen door inspired plenty of delighted yelps at an improvised Ringer screening. But Williams’s character, a washed-up music manager turned eccentric old man who essentially embodies all of Earn’s worst fears, gets to deliver the mission statement of the season, a brief-yet-effective announcement of the themes that the next 10 episodes obliquely circled. The music industry is tough, he tells Earn. So is dealing with family—and neither is forgiving of what Willy memorably calls “that chip-on-your-shoulder shit.” Packaged as it is with renegade alligators and a magical-realist police encounter, Willy’s speech doesn’t feel like a sermon. It does, however, forecast the break between Earn and Al that culminated with “North of the Border,” a separation catalyzed by Earn’s passivity and insufficient grit. Uncle Willy isn’t just an entertaining glimpse into the Marks-Miles family dynamic. He’s a prophetic figure, and one Earn pays the price for not heeding when he had the chance.
Worst Meal: Teddy Perkins’s Ostrich Egg
Miles Surrey: I will remember “Teddy Perkins” for a long time—not only for Atlanta’s incisive commentary on celebrity, the haunting halls of Teddy’s estate, Lakeith Stanfield’s understated, empathetic performance, and Donald Glover’s horrifying turn in whiteface, but because of the ostrich egg. Or as Teddy puts it, an “owl’s casket.”
The meal defies hyperbole. It’s disgusting on a level that makes me want to swear off egg-based products for the rest of my life. It also serves as an excellent tone-setter for the gothic horror show that subsequently follows Darius, who’s just trying to pick up a damn piano he found online.
Atlanta has embraced myriad tones in two seasons—slapstick comedy, Lynchian surrealism, romantic drama, whatever you want to call Katt Williams and his pet alligator—but nothing felt as pronounced or assured as “Teddy Perkins.” I was sold once the character began sopping up the runny albumen with his fingers. I since haven’t touched an omelette.
Worst Barber/Best Purveyor of Leftovers/Most Lasting Impression: Bibby
8. When Paper Boi found out that Bibby started a company called “Klear Cable, with a K,” and when Bibby said to Paper Boi, “Clever, right?” Paperboi just looked at him like this:
7. The fact that Bibby has a woman saved in his phone as:
6. When Bibby went to pick up a couple of pieces of lumber—lumber he was blatantly stealing, by the way—and Paper Boi yelled, “You better pick up four!”
5. When Bibby said he’d buy Paper Boi Zaxby’s, but what he really meant was he’d give Paper Boi his leftovers. “I mean, I did eat the chicken wings … and the sauce … and a part of the bread—but them chicken tenders right there are all you!”
4. When Paper Boi threw out the Zaxby’s and Bibby did this:
3. When Bibby gave Paper Boi a really good haircut.
2. When Bibby asked to be paid for said haircut, even after holding Paper Boi hostage for an entire day and nearly getting him arrested multiple times.
1. When Bibby clutched his pearls, so to speak, after Paper Boi went to another barber’s chair at the end of the episode:
I’ve thought about that reaction every day since “Barbershop” aired. Bibby is the most entertaining one-episode character on TV this year. He is a ray of ridiculous light in the middle of the darkness that has been “Atlanta Robbin’ Season.”
Most Painfully Real Relationship Talk: Earn and Van in “Helen”
Donnie Kwak: In a show so frequently described as surreal, my favorite moments in Atlanta are most often the realest ones. And it gets no realer than the conversation between Earn and Van in the fourth episode, which, ironically, takes place in the most surreal of settings: the costumed Germanic festival called Fastnacht. It’s an annual tradition for Van, but it’s Earn’s first time, and he’s making it clear he doesn’t want to be there—generally being, as Van says, “a fucking baby.”
Earn’s tiresome petulance eventually forces Van into a “where are we right now” discussion, the kind that never seem to end well. It culminates in this devastating exchange:
Her: I want to be in a committed relationship where I’m valued as a human being and not as an accessory that you can fuck.
Him: That’s a good answer. [Long pause.] Um. [Pause.] I don’t know what I want. I...I know this arrangement works for me. [Shrug.]
The seconds of silence that followed hit me harder than anything else I saw in Season 2. And they called “Teddy Perkins” unsettling?
Best Non-Sequitur That Makes a Ton of Sense in Retrospect: Florida Man
Lindsay Zoladz: One of the most enduring mysteries of Atlanta is whether Darius is the most deluded person in the room or the wisest. The mystery continued to deepen in “Alligator Man.” When Earn tells Darius (in a conversation punctuated by Death Grips playing at ear-splitting volume) that his parents are visiting his dying uncle in Florida, Darius offers a word of caution: “Tell them to watch out for Florida Man.” Earn’s face goes full question mark. Cut to a classic out-of-nowhere Atlanta montage, complete with campy reenactments straight out of SVU: Tampa. (“Florida Man shoots unarmed black teenager. Florida Man beats a flamingo to death. Florida Man found eating another man’s face.”) It’s all a state government conspiracy, Darius claims. Why? “To prevent black people from coming to and/or registering to vote in Florida!”
Maybe Planet Darius is the sanest place in the United States.
Best Episode: “FUBU”
Sean Fennessey: The penultimate episode of the season hits on two key elements of adolescence: the anxiety of style and the quiet desire not to be found out. In the case of Earn, they come in the form of a FUBU knockoff, the kind of illusory status symbol that can lead to shame, alienation, and isolation. “Wearing the wrong thing” is an acute form of teen woe, the earliest symptom of lifelong imposter syndrome. We’ve come to know Earn as a reluctant collaborator, a hustler with miserablist tendencies. Are they rooted in separation from his peers? “FUBU,” which was written by executive producer Stephen Glover, seems to insinuate as much. The episode itself is one-part flashback, one-part bottle episode. One of the key storytelling choices of Season 2 has been the relative absence of Earn. This episode is all about him, 15 years in the past. It shows us his relationship to his mother, his understanding of cousin Alfred’s sneaky deviousness, and the toll of bullying. Is it a master thesis on young life? No. Atlanta has trained us to understand that looking for that much meaning in any one thing is a fool’s errand. But its flashes of experience make for something deep, not so much real as identifiably unreal.