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The ‘Atlanta’ Season Finale Delivers Yet Another Surprise

On a show that resists convention, we finally get some closure

FX/Ringer illustration

The first season finale of Atlanta pointedly resisted finality. Protagonist Earn Marks (Donald Glover) whiled away a morning searching for a lost jacket, witnessed some police violence, and found the key to his storage unit–temporary residence with a friend and not his lost clothing item, rendering the title object of “The Jacket” hilariously, nihilistically moot. Only in the episode’s final minutes did anything resembling a larger plot development go down: Earn took a call inviting his cousin and managee Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) on tour as his rap persona Paper Boi. Except when we next saw Al and Earn, the tour hadn’t come to pass, presumably because the shooting from the series premiere landed Al on house arrest. So much for a big payoff.

The finale of Atlanta “Robbin’ Season,” on the other hand, resembles—at least for Atlanta—a conventional TV conclusion. “Crabs in a Barrel” has some superficial similarities with “The Jacket,” including a session on the designated toke-break couch outside Al’s apartment. This time, though, Al really does level up, as befits the renewed commitment to his career that culminates his season-long arc. And this season of Atlanta does, in fact, have developed arcs, most of which came to a head in an episode that’s every bit the momentous occasion “The Jacket” was not.

At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Glover and his brother Stephen, who also wrote “Crabs in a Barrel,” explained that Atlanta “Robbin’ Season” would be more serialized than its predecessor, a bracingly confident first season that wasn’t afraid to make midseason detours like “Value” and “B.A.N.” They also made the announcement by comparing “Robbin’ Season” to the ’90s relic Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation, which in retrospect was a way of saying: Yes, Atlanta’s follow-up would be relatively plot-heavy, but only on its own idiosyncratic, eclectic terms.

While “Robbin’ Season” was still unfolding, it was often difficult to tell just how Atlanta’s sophomore season was more linear than its debut. Glover himself, at least in character as the adult version of Earn, was effectively absent from five of its 11 episodes. Echoing last season, a straightforward opening run of episodes was followed by a series of dreamlike interludes: a Sisyphean visit to the barbershop, a horrific meditation on the relationship between suffering and art, a flashback that ended with a gut punch. The show addressed conflicts set up early in the season—Al’s anxiety about the impact of success; the growing rift between Earn and his loved ones, including Al and his sometime love interest Vanessa—only obliquely, through misadventures like Al’s harrowing vision quest in “Woods.”

But then came “North of the Border,” a half hour that revisited the themes laid out in “Alligator Man,” the first chapter of “Robbin’ Season.” In that first episode, during a heart-to-heart with his Uncle Willy (Katt Williams), a onetime manager turned eccentric old man living off of Alfred’s largesse, Earn confessed he’s afraid of Al leaving him. Sure enough, after a college show gone awry, Al informs Earn he’s considering doing just that. Earn’s rival is the manager of Clark County (RJ Walker), the Lil Yachty–like sellout who keeps popping up on the margins of Alfred’s career like a Yoo-hoo-shilling ghost.

“North of the Border” could have served as a de facto finale, but instead, “Crabs in a Barrel” escalates the crescendo, delivering a climax not just to the personal-professional bond between Earn and Al, but also Earn’s relationship with Van, Al’s frenmity with Clark County, and even the ever-mysterious outlook Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) has on life. It’s the episode that clicks “Robbin’ Season” into place as a complete, satisfying story—and proves Atlanta can tell one alongside, and within, its digressive sprawl.

As becomes apparent in the opening minutes, the split between Al and Earn isn’t final; like many breakups, including some on the show, it’s happening in slow motion. Al has signed on to open for Clark County on his European tour, where he’s likely to finalize the divorce. Until then, Earn is left to care for his daughter (remember how Earn has a kid?), secure a passport for Darius, and shop entertainment lawyers for Al, who would strongly prefer a “Jewish dude” as his rep. The scenes with Van and their daughter, Lottie, confirm that Van and Earn have made their peace as coparents after a nasty separation of their own, putting a button on the plot that runs through “Helen” and “Champagne Papi.” They also set down real stakes for Earn, a character who’s sometimes hard to root for because he so rarely demonstrates expertise, initiative, or even basic desires: Lottie is advanced enough to qualify for a selective private school, meaning there’s more on the line than just Earn’s dignity. There’s the future of his child, who’s been conspicuously absent up until this point in “Robbin’ Season,” minus a pointed shot or two of an empty car seat. She has a chance to make good on all the promise Van and Earn have not.

To that end, Earn wins Al’s approval by finally demonstrating some of the drive he’s failed to show in negotiations with bookers, brands, and club managers. “Learning requires failure,” Darius patiently tells Earn in the offices of a passport renewal office that specializes in procrastinating rappers. He’s using the exact same tone of voice he did in the final scene of “Teddy Perkins” when expounding on the ties between art and pain, another subtle callback. “Alfred just wants to make sure you aren’t failing in his life. Y’all both black, so y’all can’t both afford to fail.”

With that, and Lottie, on his mind, Earn finds the animal instinct he needs to draw on when the moment comes. At the airport security line, Earn discovers the gun Willy handed him way back in the premiere—a literal Chekhov’s gun—still in his backpack. Somehow, the gun ends up with Clark County’s manager, and it’s he who ends up getting detained. We don’t see the how of Earn’s sleight of hand, but all we really need to know is the why.

Whatever Earn did, Al saw it, moving him to deliver the parting address of the season. On a show that’s practically allergic to direct statements of thought or feeling, it’s a call to attention, though Al never raises his voice above a low rumble. “Niggas do not care about us, man,” he explains. “Niggas gonna do whatever they gotta do to survive because they ain’t got no choice. We ain’t got no choice either. You’re family, Earn. You the only one that knows what I’m about. You give a fuck. I need that.” And then they’re off, with a sociopathic superstar in tow. (Earn planted the gun in Clark County’s bag, not his manager’s. He’s not the only one with an iron sense of self-preservation.)

Earn’s game-time decision actually answers some of the foundational questions laid out in the first episode of “Robbin’ Season”: Does he have what it takes to make it in the music business? Can he break the cycle that’s kept him depressed and despondent as long as we’ve known him? So does Al’s speech: Is family a handicap to stardom, or is it exactly what he needs to preserve himself within it? What parts of being “real” does he have to leave behind, and what parts does he need to cling to for dear life? We haven’t been trained to expect answers from Atlanta, yet this finale—which, considering the delay before “Robbin’ Season” and Glover’s packed schedule, could be the last Atlanta episode for years, or possibly ever—delivers them regardless. With “Crabs in a Barrel,” the most surprising show on television gave us one more burst of novelty: closure.