Atlanta Isn’t Afraid to Be Art

The second season of Donald Glover’s FX series settles on you like an uneasy dream.

Donald Glover and Lakeith Stanfield in Atlanta.
Donald Glover and Lakeith Stanfield in Atlanta. FX

In the opening minutes of the new season of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, a woman stands, shrieking and bleeding from the head, in a fast food parking lot. The camera pulls up, up, up into an aerial view and spies on the city, on a basketball court of washed-out red and blue, on a swimming pool covered with a film of leaves, on the backlit rectangles of gas station pumps by night, on police cars flickering in a parking lot. Later, a white man in line at a movie theater threateningly pulls his blazer back to reveal a holstered gun. Michael Vick appears in a crowd, challenging all comers to a footrace. A man holds up a gold-plated gun and his friends laugh. These are just some of the hallucinatory images from the second season of the series, which settles upon you like an uneasy dream: You don’t always know quite how you got there, or how you left, but what you saw is as indelible as the chubby, grinning alligator that struts out a front door into the sunlight in an early episode.*

Atlanta is a mood, a downbeat trance punctuated by absurdities and lunatic visions. Donald Glover, the star, creator, writer, producer, and sometimes director of the show, is saving all his easy charm for Star Wars. Atlanta is art that announces itself as art, instead of, like so much TV, slinking into the gallery through the doorway marked “entertainment.” Atlanta has an entirely black cast, black writers, and an audience that is 50 percent black; Glover has said with the show he wants to express the perpetual PTSD of being black in America. In the words of Jordan Peele, the show is “elevated black [people] shit.” It is also simply elevated. There is very little of the structural hand-holding or the de rigueur warmth of most television shows, where the lead character may be virtuous or unpleasant but is reliably doing something. Atlanta is a show where two of its main characters can have a fight, but instead of milking it for drama, no one will even tell you what it’s about.

Atlanta’s first season had a recognizable set-up—a rapper and the men around him trying to make it—but little interest in doing the recognizable thing with that premise. At the start of the show, Glover’s Earn Marks, a Princeton dropout with no place to live, convinced his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), a newly successful rapper, to let him be his manager. Alfred lives with Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), a conspiracy theorist who toggles between spaciness and eerie clarity, and most reliably supplies Atlanta with audible laughs.
In Season 2, Earn is making some money, but it’s not doing him much good. One windfall he has to spend in a hurry, the other he can’t spend even though he wants to. He still needs a place to sleep. Mostly, he watches. In the first episode he snaps at his Uncle Willy (an electric Katt Williams) that he doesn’t want to be like him, someone “everybody knows is smart but just lets shit happen to him.” But in his very first scene in the new season, Earn lets someone walk off with a box of his stuff.

There are moments of action—the new run of episodes is subtitled Robbin’ Season, which refers to the period before Christmas when “everybody’s got to eat” and robberies spike—but Atlanta is about stasis, how things don’t change, or how they can’t change, or how changes don’t really make a difference. It’s a racing mind behind an unmoving face. The strange, claustrophobic energy of the show comes from the conflict between the heat of its purpose—the ambitious, searching attempt to be singular, to change what TV is, how black people are seen, how black stories are told—and the exhaustion, the depression, the blunted-out affect of its cooled-out protagonists. The show is icy hot, when you touch it, you can’t quite tell what temperature it is.

Everywhere the protagonists go, there they are, mired in the bullshit and racism and rude social media etiquette of others, stoned and hyper-observant. Paper Boi’s quest to find a drug dealer now that he’s a little famous is a 21st-century comedy of manners, filmed with a trace of mournfulness that keeps you from laughing. Alfred visits his music label, where young white people offer them gluten-free treats and are so idiotically high tech they can’t play a CD—it feels like satire, but it’s just reality. Alfred is supposed to perform amid cubicles, but after saying one half-hearted “All my real n—-s put your hands up” to the white workforce, he stops, unable to enthusiastically sell a version of himself that’s anathema to the self that got him famous in the first place.

At the label, Earn and Alfred meet another, younger rapper, an energetic and ambitious man who knows how to play the game, to put on a show, to get the endorsements, to do product placement for Yoo-hoo. Later, Alfred and Darius visit his studio. He’s welcoming and totally unlike them, a teetotaler, a perfectionist, a workaholic, both impressive and terrifying. “I would never lay a hand on you,” he reassures the white sound engineer who keeps screwing up the session, “but I’m not the only person who has hands.” He’s a typical prestige TV protagonist, the kind of intense and talented figure who passionately wants something so bad he’ll do anything to have it, and compared with Alfred and Darius, he’s cartoonishly amped up, not quite real. Confronted with him, Alfred and Darius politely pack up their weed and alcohol and slip out.

Correction, March 1, 2018: This piece originally misstated that a crocodile appeared in an early episode of this season. It’s an alligator.