Author: Cameron Fairchild
Atlanta is a show that eludes simple definition. From the moment in the pilot where the show’s nominal protagonist, Earn, is interrupted by a man on a bus offering him a Nutella sandwich, the show’s initial premise—about a young, smart, but inexperienced man trying to help his rapper cousin break into the Atlanta music scene—was quickly thrown out the window. While the show does return semi-regularly to its guiding narrative, it manages to just as regularly avoid that premise, creating entirely new worlds and characters within the span of a single episode. Take for instance the episode “B.A.N.,” which eschews any real sense of time or place to instead deliver a series of riffs on the nature of television and commercialized entertainment. Entire episodes leave Earn out; “B.A.N.” leaves out every member of its regular cast (Zazie Beetz, Lakeith Stanfield, and series co-creator Donald Glover) except for Earn’s cousin Alfred (Bryan Tyree Henry). This might suggest a lack of cohesion—Atlanta has been criticized for lacking a centralizing force, and has stymied and fascinated critics trying to parse exactly what the show is getting at.
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season, at first, seemed even more dedicated to evading that centralizing narrative. Glover went on record comparing the season, which frequently splits up its main cast in individual, single-character focused episodes, to the vignette-heavy 90s TV movie Tiny Toons Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation, a film that similarly divides its characters. However, Robbin’ Season masterfully weaved those individual stories into a larger thematic narrative about the active search for “reality” and the attempt to avoid the “fake.” By largely removing its characters from each other, Atlanta looks not only at individual personalities, but how they perceive each other and the world. In “Teddy Perkins,” Darius pursues a novelty piano to the home of the titular character, a terrifying, psychologically damaged man who hides behind an eerie, stark-white mask. Darius, who already has one foot outside of time and space, being the character most likely to appear from seemingly nowhere, endures a bizarre, absurd, and legitimately dangerous adventure for an almost arbitrary reward, highlighting the kind of danger and misfortune that precedes and informs success, which itself feels fleeting once it’s attained. By overcoming a man in a mask, Darius attempts to arrive at his end goal, only for the piano to be repossessed by the police. Was it worth it? Similarly, Alfred, aka Paper Boi, frequently finds himself at a crossroads between accepting his fame and wanting to stay grounded; in “Woods” he comes to accept that a certain amount of artifice necessarily accompanies his position as an up-and-coming musician, and, like Darius, must deal with harrowing circumstances to come to an epiphany that he may or may not fully enjoy the ramifications of. Finally, in “FUBU,” a younger version of Earn deals with the possibility that his FUBU shirt is a knock-off, competing with a fellow student with a similar shirt. The real and the fake are never revealed. Artifice and reality are frequently conflated in this way, as the reality of the bizarre world Atlanta’s characters inhabit continually reveals that the reality of the world is couched in a willful construction, one that is either created by us or for us. The students at Earn’s middle school eventually accept his shirt as the real one; Alfred learns to lean in to his growing fame; Darius loses the piano he sees as rightfully his. Darius, Alfred, and Earn survive their juxtaposed journeys to arrive at some kind of solution, but that solution is either externally or internally respondent to the constructs of law enforcement, fame, and legitimacy, respectively.
Robbin’ Season also features an arguably stronger focus on Alfred’s, and by extension Earn’s, careers, bringing the two’s relationship to the forefront of its final three episodes, “North of the Border,” “FUBU,” and “Crabs in a Barrel.” This unofficial trilogy examines how Alfred, with his latent charisma and laid-back nature, has always helped the more self-conscious and self-defeating Earn, whether by standing up to middle school bullies for him or allowing his motivated but inexperienced cousin to manage his career. Earn and Alfred are brought to the breaking point by the finale’s end, until Earn makes a final desperate move to shift blame from himself, and his cousin, to another man unaffiliated with the two. Alfred witnesses Earn’s act of both selflessness and self-preservation, and finally relents, telling Earn he “knows what I’m about.” Through deception, Earn’s legitimacy is proven to Alfred. It’s a brilliant end for the season, weaving artifice and truth together one final time in an emotionally satisfying way that also firmly reunites the show’s most resonant dynamic.
Robbin’ Season was an excellent season of television, at with only eleven 30-minute episodes making it up, is more than a worthwhile investment. The Glover brothers’ sophomore season was an even more robust, inventive, and challenging project than the already incredibly ambitious first season. By focusing even less on an overarching story, the season instead felt—thrillingly—like a season of related instances, leaving the audience to decide what to make of the pieces. Are Atlanta’s most surreal elements mere reflections of individual characters’ perceptions? Can Atlanta be trusted? I think, ultimately, the answer is always going to be yes and no: reality is constructed by subjective and fallible beings. Only through artifice, whether accepting it or pushing through it, can we arrive at truth. Eventually, like Alfred, Earn, and Darius, we’re going to have to learn that.
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