In its remarkable debut season, Donald Glover’s Atlanta often felt like an anthology show that happened to feature the same characters every week. There were hints of continuing stories — Glover’s Earn trying to live up to his name and make enough money to stop being technically homeless, Earn’s cousin Alfred (aka Paper Boi) trying to make it big in the local hip-hop scene, the push-pull of Earn’s relationship with Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his child — but arcs vanished for weeks at a time. The tone of the comedy varied so much from episode to episode, or even scene to scene — at times raw and honest (Earn, Alfred, and Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius watching cops shoot a man), at others utterly surreal (the payoff to a running gag about an invisible car) — that none of it should have fit together.
Yet Glover and his collaborators (including brother Stephen on the writing staff and Hiro Murai leading the team of directors) had such a clear command of what the show was — and of the many things it could be — that the mismatched parts made sense as just one more surprise from a show that kept delighting with them. One week, Paper Boi might wind up in a celebrity basketball game with Justin Bieber (played, without other characters remarking on it, by a black actor); the next could be a Van spotlight that starts out as understated character drama and morphs into farce about her trying to beat a drug test; and the next could have Paper Boi as the guest on a fake talk show, replete with fake commercials and other odd sketch comedy bits. All of it, somehow, was clearly Atlanta.
For the second season — delayed a while by Glover’s stint as young Lando Calrissian, it debuts Thursday at 10 on FX — Glover and friends seem to have hit on a new way to surprise the audience: by making Atlanta, at least for a while, into a more conventional TV show.
The three episodes given to critics are by far the most consistent in terms of story and tone of any comparable stretch from season one. After a prologue justifying the new season’s official title of Atlanta: Robbin’ Season — a violent time of year in town where, as Darius explains, “Christmas approaches, and everybody gotta eat” — we settle in with Earn and the others for a collection of stories about being careful what you wish for.
Alfred has finally achieved a taste of success and fame, but it’s the exact wrong amount: he’s recognized everywhere as Paper Boi, which pushes his most misanthropic instincts to the limit (many of these episode’s biggest laughs come from the many expressions of sheer disgust Brian Tyree Henry can put on display), while also interfering with the weed business that remains his primary source of income. Still, Earn is making enough money as Paper Boi’s manager that he’s not quite as desperate as he was in the first season — remember the sheer horror of the episode where the waitress kept upselling him while he was on a date with Van and only had $62 to his name? — but still demonstrates a remarkable gift for making bad decisions with the cash he has on hand.
There are still absurdist touches in the margins, like Darius becoming convinced that all the “Florida Man” headlines he sees on the internet refer to the same guy. And there are still some audacious shifts in tone, like a largely dramatic cameo from an unrecognizable Katt Williams in the season premiere. But it all feels more of a piece, and a bit more down to earth, than the first season.
Considering how much of the excitement of season one was driven by its wild unpredictability, that Glover has dialed that back a fair amount(*) should feel profoundly disappointing. It doesn’t, though.
(*) I write all this fully aware that Glover might just be trolling us all with these early installments, and that the fourth episode could involve Darius smoking up with alien invaders.
The creative team has a firm grasp on what makes the three guys (and, when she appears, Van) tick, on the world through which they all move, on the uneasy intersections of white and black culture (one episode opens with a vlog by a blonde mom offended by Paper Boi’s lyrics), and on the way that each actor can generate laughs through what seems like the bare minimum of effort. Because of that, it doesn’t much matter that everything is a bit more human-scale and coherent than a year and a half ago. And in some cases, the creative team has simply gotten better at making the show, so things that would have felt disparate last season instead just make sense together now.
Atlanta can be great because you never expect what it might do next. But that’s far from the only reason it’s great, as the start of season two so potently demonstrates.