When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, some voters dreaded the upcoming holiday season. Politics was already a taboo dinner subject. But after the divisive election, the thought of talking health care with family seemed traumatizing. Since Atlanta‘s first season wrapped only a few weeks prior, creator and star Donald Glover considered broaching the subject during its return, billed Robbin’ Season. Instead, he stokes controversy with other pop culture figures and places the onus back on the viewer to take a stance.
During Atlanta‘s first season, Alfred Miles, who raps as Paper Boi, reckons with how an alleged shooting makes him more “authentic” by hip-hop standards. Actor-artist Austin Crute portrays Justin Bieber, suggesting that people might not have been as quick to accept “Sorry” if he, too, was black. Police act more violent than any character with an actual rap sheet, like in the cartoon Coconut Crunch-O’s commercial. The first three episodes of Robbin’ Season confront us yet again with our ideas of heroes and villains. But this time the evidence feels more damning because of who we might recognize from real life.
By now people want to hang out with Paper Boi, in real life and in Atlanta. A white weed dealer tries to put him on to his acoustic covers artist girlfriend in Robbin’ Season. For the record: Neither Donald Glover nor Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Alfred, think you’d want to hang out with Paper Boi in real life. (“They think he’s accessible. But you should probably not get that comfortable,” Henry said to The New York Times.)
As of right now, though, the people in his immediate surroundings are far more controversial. Two teens who steal from a weed operation at Mrs. Winner’s to kick off Robbin’ Season, a moment foreshadowed by Tay-K’s “The Race.” Earn and Alfred’s uncle, played by Katt Williams, runs away from cops responding to a kidnapping call from a woman who had stayed over. Two episodes later, Earn exits a strip club to see retired NFL player Michael Vick outside, taking bets from anyone who thinks they can outrun him.
Tay-K is both a “violent fugitive” by US Marshals Service standards and a testament to how a disproportionate number of death row inmates are black. (He released “The Race” when he removed an ankle monitor and tried to flee.) Star comic Williams can be a comforting presence on the big screen. But those in metro Atlanta especially will remember how in 2016, two Georgia counties banned him as a woman sued him for assault. In 2007, Vick, then the highest-paid NFL player as Atlanta Falcons quarterback, was arrested for running an illegal dogfighting ring. The recently retired Vick has since been a Humane Society spokesman for years, though the nonprofit still maintains and answers to a list of frequently asked questions, including, “Why didn’t you choose a different celebrity to connect with urban communities?”
Donald Glover has compared Tay-K to Old West outlaw Jesse James. “I’m going to try to get you an Emmy for this,” he told Williams, according to Atlanta director Hiro Murai. Perhaps when he thanked “all the black folks in Atlanta,” he thought of Vick, who once hoped to retire as a Falcon. But Robbin’ Season doesn’t relay Glover’s personal views about these people. It presents them without context, as if to spark debate about America’s racial tensions and criminal justice system. Uncomfortable discussions that won’t likely arrive at a logical conclusion. Between today’s mass and social media, we try to retreat to a feedback loop of stories and opinions we’re already inclined to believe. Glover’s Robbin’ Season won’t let us get away with that.