Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
LaKeith Stanfield and Donald Glover

Earn, Al, and Darius aim for better as Atlanta heralds the start of Robbin' Season

LaKeith Stanfield and Donald Glover
Photo: Guy D'Alema (FX)

In the run-up to the second season of Atlanta, Donald Glover’s comments to the press have revealed two interesting themes about his approach. The first is that Glover wants the quasi-anthologized Robbin’ Season to be better than the show’s first batch of episodes, and the second is that his writers’ room spent a lot of time talking about Tiny Toon Adventures.

While it’s natural for Glover to want to top himself, the notion of Robbin’ Season being better conjures the question of what “better” means for a show that prided itself on transforming into something slightly different from one episode to the next. Does “better” mean more episodes like the experimental, sketch-based “B.A.N.”, for which Glover became the first African-American to win an Emmy for directing a comedy? More exercises in limited perspective, like “Value”? Is a better Atlanta broader or narrower? Is it more like Acme Acres or Wackyland?

Part of the answer lies in that unexpected allusion to Tiny Toons, which is specific to 1992’s feature-length How I Spent My Vacation. Obviously there aren’t a ton of parallels between Earn’s travails in the world of southern hip hop and the goings-on at Acme University, but Glover said he and his team were inspired by the structure of Vacation, which makes a messy braid out of four disparate, character-focused stories. If this were any other show, the comments about feature-length cohesion would be reminiscent of the ever-exhausting “We approached our television show as if it were a movie” bullshit. But a show like Atlanta could probably benefit from a more focused approach, and here comes Robbin’ Season with its implicit promise to infuse the show with a sense of time as distinctive as its sense of place.

Of course, it’ll at least a few episodes until we start to see the fruits of that effort. The most surprising thing about “Alligator Man”—save for the shoot-’em-up cold open, which we’ll get to later—is how unsurprising it is. With a few small, subtle tweaks, this premiere could easily be dropped into the middle of season one without much impact. Overall, not much has changed for Earn and the gang. Earn is back to being homeless after the manager of the self-storage tells him he can no longer store himself there. He’s still managing Paper Boi, though his influence on and proximity to his cousin are just as mutable as they were in season one. Biggie and Puff they ain’t.

Speaking of Paper Boi, Alfred is kind of a big deal now. But he’s just slightly more “kind of a big deal” than he was when his first hit mixtape dropped, in part because of the street-cred boost that comes with a house arrest bracelet. But he’s making good money, apparently without his dangerous side hustle. He’s got a new lady friend named Tara (not Regina) who’s at least steady enough that Al flashes “Fuck is you doing?” eyes when Earn mistakes her for someone else. Whatever fame he’s achieved, he doesn’t appear to have gone to his head yet, and if he’s stopped pushing weight on the side, he’s probably not far from starting back. Darius, still the character most likely to be revealed as a collective hallucination, is beefing with Alfred for reasons neither of them care to discuss. (He’s also perfected his iced slider recipe, if anyone’s interested.)

It’s Darius, ever the visionary, who informs us of the time of year. It’s robbin’ season, defined as the months before Christmas when retail music goes from Sleigh Bells to actual sleigh bells and rampant commercialism either excites people or reminds them how awful it is to be poor. Robberies spike all over the city, Darius says. Perhaps it’s because that’s the time of year when the divisions between rich and poor seem most stark, or maybe it just increases the odds of success for crimes of opportunity. Either way, everybody’s getting jacked, including the manager of a Mrs. Winner’s Chicken location that doubles as a weed dispensary if you know what to order at the drive-thru. The apparently stand-alone vignette that opens “Alligator Man” is more jarring and starkly violent than anything the show has done before, including the police shooting in “The Jacket.” It’s another reminder that as casual as this narrative world seems, there are life and death stakes, especially for characters who dance around criminality the way these characters do. (Arguably the way all black people do inasmuch as blackness itself is criminalized.)

The bulk of “Alligator Man” reinforces the idea that no matter how comfortable Earn, Alfred, and Darius are, or how close they are to achieving their hip hop dreams, they’re never far removed from a situation that could bring everything crashing down. This time, the situation is a phone call Alfred receives from a woman named Yvonne, who claims she’s been kidnapped by Al and Earn’s Uncle Willie (Katt Williams). He delegates the matter to Earn, who is reluctant to get involved, but understands that cleaning up messes like this is part of the job if you want to be an artist’s manager. Earn heads to the scene of the purported crime with help from Darius, who’s also kind enough to give Earn a lift to his parole officer so he can deal with the petty drug charge still hanging over his head.

As it turns out, Yvonne hasn’t been kidnapped, but Uncle Willie is holding her captive until she’s willing to confess to stealing 50 bucks from him. The core of the conflict is pretty simple, but the potential consequences are steep. None of these people want to see the police coming under the best of circumstances, but certainly not in this situation, when there are drugs in the house, not to mention a rumored live alligator. What begins as a fairly typical slice of magically realistic Atlanta life turns unexpectedly poignant when Earn lashes out at Uncle Willie, in part because of some ancient bad blood between Willie and his mother. But what really ignites Earn’s rage is Willie’s too-close-to-home comments about the state of Earn’s relationship with Alfred as Paper Boi, which isn’t the first time in Marks family history that a music business partnership has gone sour. Is Earn really helping to guide and shape Al’s career, or is he a glorified errand boy?

It seems closer to the latter, considering Earn spends most of the episode searching for a place to sleep while Alfred doesn’t have a care in the world save for the ankle bracelet and the responsibility of becoming everybody’s “rich and famous” relative. Earn is in an even less comfortable position than he started in last season, when he and Van were awkwardly cohabitating. (Van is nowhere to be seen in “Alligator Man,” but Earn must have a pretty good reason for not calling her, if only his sense of pride.) In better news, between Willie’s swift exit and the fact that he freed Coach the Alligator to facilitate it, there’s definitely space to crash at Willie’s house.

Stray observations

  • Katt Williams is really excellent here, and is a perfect casting choice for a show that could easily fall into the guest star trap in its buzzy second season.
  • I’ve been to that Mrs. Winner’s, which is all of nine minutes from my house. I’m tempted to go over there and order a “number 17” just to see what happens. It’s worth the trip even if I only leave with a two-piece.
  • Also: Mrs. Winner’s corporate was cool with this whole thing? I guess when you’re Mrs. Winner’s you can’t be super picky about your product placement opportunities, but still. Between this and all the Kirkland products on Baskets, FX is fast becoming a fairy godmother for underrepresented brands.
  • The Coach reveal is an amazing use of The Delfonics’ “Hey Love,” which served as the title track for an endlessly promoted ‘80s quiet-storm compilation set. The commercial’s ubiquity was a running gag in House Party, the remake of which will be written by Atlanta producers Stephen Glover and Jamal Olori. Full circle, or something.
  • I liked the stuff about “Florida Man,” but between him and the Alligator Man, there might have been one too many local legends.
  • There are a bunch of classic Darius lines, but if I had to choose: “This nigga got a full-grown caiman in here surrounded by chicken carcasses. Shit’s like an Azalea Banks Snapchat.”
  • The self-storage manager after Earn insists they have to auction his stuff: “Yeah, I watch Storage Wars too. This ain’t that.”
  • How I Spent My Vacation can be streamed on Hulu, if anyone’s curious.