‘Atlanta’ Season Two Was Even Better Than The First

FX

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.”

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