‘Atlanta’ Season Two Was Even Better Than The First


Atlanta season two (aka Atlanta: Robbin’ Season) has come to an end. A review of the final, and thoughts on season two as a whole, coming up just as soon as I go over the boxers…

Well, I’ll be damned. They did it.

At the start of season two, I expressed surprise that Donald Glover and friends seemed to be making a more conventional TV show, even as I assumed things would go nuts shortly after we got past the three episodes I had already seen. Things did eventually get nuts in spots — Teddy Perkins waves hello from an upstairs window — but on the whole, the Glovers, Hiro Murai, and everyone else involved in this remarkable program did exactly what they seemed to be doing at the start: following a basic narrative about Earn and Al’s partnership from beginning to end.

Season one wasn’t without ongoing arcs, too, but they often felt incidental — like the writers’ room was having fun pitching fake commercials for “B.A.N.” when the vice-principal kept wandering in to say, “Guys, we have to remember Earn’s character arc!” — and rarely the most compelling part of the show. The magic of season two — which somehow surpassed all my expectations, and wound up even more satisfying than that debut season — was that the basic narrative work was just as interesting as the experiments and that the latter inevitably turned out to be servicing the former.

Okay, maybe “Teddy Perkins” mostly didn’t (though even there, Al had a hard time at the drive-through), but in hindsight, pretty much every episode this year ties into the way Alfred’s fortunes keep rising even as Earn’s life is unraveling due to his carelessness. “Barbershop” is a rollicking farce, and “Woods” morphs into a white-knuckle thriller towards the end, but both are in very different ways about Alfred coming to grips with how Paper Boi’s fame has made him a magnet for trouble and is something he has to factor into every choice he makes going forward. “Helen” and “Champagne Papi” show Van falling away from Earn, which comes back upon him in the finale when Lottie’s teacher suggests one of the best (and cheapest) things her mom and dad can do to nurture her clear gifts would be to raise her in a happy two-parent home. “North of the Border seems to foreshadow the end of the cousins’ partnership, right before “FUBU” takes us back to the ’90s to show us that the dynamic between them has always been the same. It’s virtually all of a piece, even if you could watch “FUBU” or “Helen” without knowing anything about the series and come away satisfied by the artistry on display in each of these short stories being used to build this bigger story.

Which brings us to “Crabs in a Barrel,” where Earn spends most of the time waiting for the ax to fall on him. It’s not long after the disastrous college trip, as he still has cuts on his face from where Tracy beat him up, and though Al hasn’t frozen him out, Earn assumes it’s only a matter of time, a theory Darius gently confirms at the Orthodox Jewish passport office.

The passport scene links up with Al’s earlier insistence that Earn hire him a Jewish entertainment lawyer, and with the conversation between the cousins that brings the season to an end. Earn wants Al to have a black attorney, but Al points out that the guy’s clients are all way beneath him, just as both cousins agree that Paper Boi should be headlining the European tour with Clark County, but for the fact that Clark has Luke as a manager and Al has only Earn. The passport clerk, walking on eggshells after Earn asks how he might compare his cousin to a black attorney, suggests that the system is rigged in favor of those already privileged enough to have the right connections, which Luke clearly has and Earn does not. And on the plane, Al explains, “N—as do not care about us, man. N—as gonna do whatever they gotta do to survive, ’cause they ain’t got no choice.” It’s a ruthless, unfair business, as part of a ruthless, unfair world, and Al will do whatever he can to pull him and his through it, even if it leaves other good people behind in his wake. In Atlanta, it’s always robbin’ season, and someone’s always gotta eat. Or, as the series’ wise poet Darius puts it at the passport office, “Y’all both black, so y’all can’t afford to fail.”

And it’s here that even a seemingly self-contained tale like “Alligator Man” can boomerang back into the action. The gun Uncle Willie gave Earn near the end of the premiere winds up back in his backpack after the guys pack up the apartment before heading out on tour, and in the midst of a logistical headache of a day — meeting the lawyer, bribing the movers to work faster, going to Lottie’s school, getting Darius an expensive same-day passport renewal (another example of the world working differently for people who have money, even ones who get their money the way Darius does) — he simply forgets to get rid of it before going to the airport. The world slows down as Earn sees it in his bag as he prepares to be screened by the TSA. His life could take a very bad turn after this, and things are already bad enough (he tells Darius his whole world is falling apart) that he might never recover from this. And since he can’t afford to fail, he finds a ruthless way not to, stashing the gun in Clark County’s bag while no one but Al is looking, which would have the bonus of knocking Paper Boi’s rival off the tour.

To the cousins’ surprise, Clark is the one who makes it onto the airplane, having either blamed Luke for the gun, or simply not said anything when Luke covered for his biggest client. This proves Al’s point about the ruthlessness of people from their world, but also the other point he makes in that speech — calling back to what their moms told them in “FUBU” — about how important it is to have Earn there to watch his back, and vice versa.

“You my family, Earn,” he says. “You the only one that knows what I’m about. You give a fuck. I need that.”

It’s not the validation of his genius Earn might have hoped for earlier in the season, and perhaps will now have to wait for Lottie to earn one day herself. But nor is it the handout he told Darius he didn’t want. He does provide value to the partnership, even if he makes a lot of mistakes and has a lot to learn. Being who they are, coming where they come from, and having so little margin for error before falling back there (or worse), Earn and Al both have a lot of growing up to do in a hurry, and come to terms — as Earn does during that long, agonizing moment in the TSA line — that sometimes they’ll have to do terrible things to other people to avoid having terrible things done to them. The Earn we see earlier in the episode seems to have finally found his own humility and realized he has a lot he can be doing better; the Earn at the end will have an opportunity to actually fix things.

All of it builds and builds across 11 weeks until it seems like Earn is going to take a big fall from which he can’t recover. Instead, things largely work out (though Luke might have a different view of that). The conversation on the plane between the cousins is both deeply moving and an incredible relief after everything we’ve seen over the course of the season.

That’s the power of serialized television, even the semi-serialized kind that Atlanta practices. And that’s why even though “Crabs in a Barrel” by itself wouldn’t be in my top three episodes of this season (that would probably be “Teddy Perkins,” “Barbershop,” and either “Helen” or “Woods”), I don’t have to think of it just as 30 minutes of television, but as the culmination of an entire season of it — and why, as a result, I’m having an awfully hard time deciding whether it’s the most impressive thing Hiro Murai directed Donald Glover in this week (with a script by Stephen Glover), or if it’s the video for “This Is America.”

Hell of a week for Glover. Hell of a year. And Solo‘s not even out yet. His career is going to so many great places that, earlier this season, I feared we might be in for another long hiatus, if not Glover outright saying that he was ready to move on. But this finale doesn’t feel like a story that anyone’s finished telling yet. I hope more comes soon, and I can’t wait to see whatever crazy, sad, funny thing it might be.

Some other thoughts:

* Though the finale’s mostly dramatic, it did have an excellent punchline, with Tracy turning up at the apartment looking to spend the night with his date, completely oblivious to the fact that its occupants have moved out and gone to Europe for the next few months.

* For that matter, Darius not only playing chess with himself, but laughing at his “opponent” for his dumb moves, was a thing of tiny comic beauty.

* Nice to see the outside couch is still there, particularly as change has swirled around the three guys and Van this season. I’d like to think the show will periodically return there in later years, or return to that lot to show that the couch is gone, because nothing lasts forever.

* More full circle: Earn blows right past the airport credit card salesmen, who are doing the job he was so desperate to leave back in the series’ first episode.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.