Atlanta is back for a second season. I reviewed the early episodes overall here, and I have thoughts on the premiere coming up just a soon as I beat a flamingo to death…
Donald Glover dubbed this second year of the show Atlanta: Robbin’ Season, and “Alligator Man” takes no time at all bringing that subtitle to life. We open the season in what would feel like a completely different show if we weren’t already used to Atlanta‘s chameleon qualities: two unknown friends holding up a fast food joint, then getting into a shootout with the restaurant’s rifle-toting manager, and abandoning a girlfriend who gets hit in the crossfire while sitting in their back seat.
The sequence is rough and raw (I now want to see Hiro Murai direct a full-on heist movie), and narratively has nothing to do with the rest of the episode, other than a moment where Darius and Earn go past the crime scene and Darius explains that robbin’ season comes because, “Christmas approaches, and everybody gotta eat.” But if Earn isn’t prepared to turn to a life of violent crime — even in an episode that involves him inheriting his Uncle Willy’s handgun — there’s a desperation to him throughout “Alligator Man” that doesn’t feel that far removed from what Darius describes. Earn’s gotta eat, and he has to do some ridiculous things to make that happen.
Season one ended with Earn content with the decision to move into the storage locker rather than continuing to leech off of Van or Al, but he loses his sketchy housing in the first post-credits scene, and much of “Alligator Man” involves him trying to stay in his exasperated cousin’s good graces long enough to get permission to sleep on his couch. Things are tense between all the guys — the premiere’s funniest early moment is Donald Glover’s silent apology face when Al glares at both him and Darius — and as Earn will admit to Uncle Willy later, Al no longer needs him, so this family business arrangement has become terrifyingly one-sided for him.
It’s that awkward power dynamic that sends Earn to deal with Willy and his girlfriend Yvonne, whose argument over a missing $50 eventually pulls in the cops, the neighbors, and Willy’s pet alligator, who for a moment seems like a huge threat as it swaggers out of the house to the tune of “Hey Love” by The Delfonics, before taking an abrupt nap on the front lawn. Like much of Earn’s life, the whole sequence feels maddeningly just out of control, as several times he’s on the verge of making peace between the squabbling lovers before Yvonne finally loses her patience with Willy and tells the cops that he kidnapped her, and also simultaneously funny and sad. Katt Williams is barely recognizable as Willy, and playing the role entirely straight: the scene where Willy gives Earn the gun and warns his nephew to get the chip off his shoulder before Earn winds up like him is as frank and real as anything the show has done to date. But then a few moments later, the gator is swanning about and Willy is a fugitive in a robe and socks, because this show can do both.
And like a lot of season one’s best installments, the whole thing turns out to be the universe elaborately punking Earn, who returns from this mission to discover that Al’s couch has already been promised to his ex-con pal Tracy, played by Khris Davis. All that effort, and Earn still has no place to stay. That’s his life.
Even with Willy’s exotic pet, “Alligator Man” was a fairly down to earth return to action for the series, which is smart. The invisible cars and other absurd touches work only because the show lays down such a good foundation of reality. If something crazy happens later in the season, it’ll have more of an impact because things started small. And if the whole year is in this vein, that works, too.
Some other thoughts:
* The episode’s comic highlight is Darius’ belief that all the “Florida Man” headlines he reads refer to the same guy, followed by a montage of that guy living out a bunch of those strange but unfortunately real scenarios. Darius thoughts travel a very different route from anybody else’s, but you can usually see the logic he’s using to arrive at his destination.
* Atlanta remains sharp in depicting the various Catch-22s about the criminal justice system, particularly for someone as poor as Earn, who here has to negotiate payment plan to cover the $375 he owes for the anti-drug classes he has to take after getting busted with half a joint.
* I love a great traditional opening credits sequence, but shows like this and Mr. Robot have great fun finding new ways and places to insert their main title each week, this time with Murai going to one of his God’s eye view pans across the city in the wake of the opening robbery.
What did everybody else think?