Near the start of the Season 2 opener of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, we learn that Earn Marks — our central protagonist played by Glover, the Princeton-educated young man who’s managing the career of his burgeoning-rap-star cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles — is homeless, spending his nights sleeping in a storage container. For any other character on any other TV show, Earn’s situation would represent deep failure — a normal show would spend a good part of its season dramatizing how Earn arrived at this place, and how pained he is by it. But instead, Atlanta — whose new season begins Thursday on FX — dispatches with Earn’s dilemma within the first half of the premiere and moves confidently on to a startlingly great subplot about an alligator loose in the environs of Atlanta. It’s an animal under the minimal care of an angry, slightly addled man played with superb subtlety by the classically unsubtle comedian Katt Williams.
This is just one example of the way Atlanta continues to be unlike anything else on television. Glover and his close collaborators — writer Stephen Glover and director Hiro Murai — construct this show in a series of individual set pieces. One scene doesn’t always clearly connect to the one preceding it, but neither they (as creators) nor we (as audience) are perturbed about that: Each scene is so good, so absorbing, that these jumps become smooth.
In each of the three episodes made available for review, there is at least one long scene that places you in a context you are unlikely to have been in before. There’s the moment, for example, when Earn and Brian Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi put in an appearance at a Spotify-ish online music company. The idea is for Paper Boi to promote his music, glad-hand the executives — you know, extend his brand. Instead, well, I’m not going to spoil it. In another episode, Earn and his girl Van (Zazie Beets) just want to go out for a nice date, but they’re constantly confronted with instances of racism that lead them to decide to — nope, I’m not going to spoil that either. A big part of the joy of watching Atlanta is having your expectations overturned.
This season, Atlanta has a subtitle: Robbin’ Season. As in a line uttered by the spacey Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), “It’s robbin’ season: Christmas approaches, and everybody gotta eat.” The show gives us examples of the way black citizens are exposed to extremes of behavior that most white citizens never even imagine happening to them. In interviews to promote the new episodes, Glover has been adamant that he doesn’t want Atlanta to be a show filled with “teachable moments”; he doesn’t want it to “tackle important issues”; you’ll never see a “very special episode” of Atlanta. Nevertheless, Atlanta is putting black lives onscreen in a way they’ve never been before. That artistic achievement is in itself educational; it is indeed very special. The fact that the show also makes you laugh hard and gasp in shocked surprise is what makes it almost constantly amazing.
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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