Atlanta debuted in the fall of 2016 with all the confidence, vision, and specificity of “Paper Boi,” the regional hit that inspired Princeton dropout Earnest “Earn” Marks (creator Donald Glover) to ask his cousin—the song’s eponymous MC, Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry)—if he needed a manager. What followed was at turns uproarious and poignant, surreal and too real, a wild stew of tones and styles united under a single voice with the lofty aim to, as Glover told the TV press ahead of the premiere, “show people how it felt to be black.” It was also a show that went on an episode-long satirical detour into the programming of a fictional BET surrogate (commercials and all) and punctuated the next episode with a special-effects gag. It became FX’s top-rated comedy and a critical darling, remaining in the cultural conversation—even as it took a production break so Glover could play Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story—thanks to a series of award-show wins. Atlanta’s maiden voyage was the type that prompted a question fitting for its musical subject matter: How do you follow that up?
With just a little more waiting. After spending its first 10 episodes introducing a richly written, fully embodied quartet of main characters, Atlanta keeps Earn, Alfred, Alfred’s stoner-sage sidekick Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and Earn’s off-again/on-again/forever-the-mother-of-his-child love interest Van (Zazie Beetz) off the screen for the extended prologue of what’s been dubbed Robbin’ Season. (Van isn’t even around until episode three.) Patience is required by and rewarded in the three episodes screened for critics: Some stage-setting is necessary to illustrate changes in the characters lives, but it also fits with the moseying pace and under-the-influence tenor Glover and director Hiro Murai struck in the first season. This is the type of show that can kick off an entire episode of the second season with the payoff from a shaggy-dog story from the first.
An undisclosed amount of time has passed since the events of the first season, enough for the weather to change and for storage-facility management to catch on to Earn’s makeshift living situation. It’s “robbin’ season,” as Darius declares—a pre-Christmas period of widespread theft whose meteorological and human frostiness sets the mood for the new episodes. Relationships chill, money matters (even more than it did in the first season), and cold-blooded reptiles abound. When a transaction as simple as a movie-ticket purchase goes sour (and racist), Earn appeals for sympathy from the middle-aged white guy who’s next at the counter. The customer makes no eye contact with Earn, doesn’t speak a word—he merely lifts his jacket, and reveals a hip-mounted pistol. So much for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.
Against this backdrop, Atlanta adopts an elevated level of narrative rigor, a whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-episodes ambition that successfully dodged the pretension of the prestige-TV “10-hour movie” the moment Glover likened it to a Tiny Toon Adventures VHS. There’s continuity here: Alfred and Earn’s arrests in the pilot episode factor into the new episodes; a gold-plated gun introduced in the premiere can’t help but feel like it’s bound to go off at a later date. When Alfred and Darius spend an episode in search of a new supplier, or Earn struggles to spend a $100 bill while out on a date with Van, the story beats make themselves apparent in ways that sacrifice some of the winningly woozy way that first-season Atlanta bobbed and weaved through its stories. Those qualities are more readily found in vignettes like the one that sends Paper Boi and his manager into the well-appointed offices of a pseudo-Spotify streaming service, a compressed gantlet of culture-clash humor that contributes several new highlights to Henry’s portfolio of silent, withering looks.
It’s also where Alfred first crosses paths with Clark County (RJ Walker), a fellow MC with bigger hits and some lucrative endorsements to his name. In terms of generating the conflicts necessary to carry Robbin’ Season through its longer story arcs, Clark County presents an intriguing prospect: Both an example and a rival for Alfred, with a well-connected manager who could wind up giving Earn his own professional adversary. Music-business drama faded in and out of the mix throughout Atlanta’s first season, but if season two is to present a more serialized version of the show, Alfred’s upward trajectory is a wise focus. It’s already prompting scenes of rewarding soul searching for Glover and Henry, and setting up absurd encounters with strangers and acquaintances all grasping at their piece of Paper Boi, in person and online. The complications it introduces to his character’s recording career (and the drug-dealing that subsidizes it) are fuel for Henry, who burrows further into one of the best performances on television to mine deeper layers of bewilderment, irritation, and envy.
Within the hallucinatory fog Glover and Murai have fostered—in which, on a dime, dream flips into reality flips into nightmare, and back again—so much of the comedy and the drama is in what the characters have stumbled into, or what they can’t extract themselves from. The show excels at articulating and giving voices to these forces, be they as trivial as the unseen strip-club DJ who taunts Earn in uncannily specific terms, or as nefariously systemic as a cashier suspicious of a young black man paying with a $100 bill. The characters spend a lot of time observing: spying a crime scene across the street, watching white-collar millennials huddle around a rapper who’s performing on a conference-room table, witnessing an alligator crawl out of a house to the tranquil strains of “Hey Love” by The Delfonics. We watch them being watched, too, as in a bitterly funny sequence when the attention of the entire streaming service appears to be on Earn, before he turns around and the cacophony of the workday resumes.
None of which is to say that Atlanta is about people who (to paraphrase Earn in the season premiere) just let shit happen to them. The first season made its mark partially in inaction, and the second season pushes itself forward by pushing its characters to seize the opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be given to them. Narrative drive begets character drive. “Christmas approaches, and everybody gotta eat,” Darius says in the scene that gives Robbin’ Season its subtitle. “Or be eaten,” Earn replies, staring into a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
That bag also contains proof that Glover and company haven’t given up on the meandering charm that made their show such a freshman-year sensation.
Earn: What flavor is a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto?
Earn: [Beat.] I am tasting hot.
Robbin’ Season may be the coldest time of year, but Atlanta still has a heat all its own.