Donald “Just A Threat” Glover recently released a surprise album, but that hasn’t quelled the excitement for Atlanta‘s long-awaited third and fourth seasons. In addition to being a great depiction of the music industry, the show’s filled with uncomfortably funny moments that crash into harsh depictions of reality. This subversive approach often leans into surreal scenes that viewers can rattle off by memory. Atlanta is an alternate universe where an alligator struts out of a house to The Delfonics, a Black “Justin Bieber” exists, and a celebrity runs over people in an invisible car. It’s a place where a character harvests diaper urine for a drug test after fielding pressure to prove her “Value” as a woman. It’s fired off an unexplained cutaway (now known as The Tobias GIF) of a kid wearing whiteface. The show brings its tumultuous absurdity to a frequent simmer, and most of all, Atlanta is never afraid to mine difficult truths for dark humor.
A dazzling series, Glover’s brainchild confronts the world’s harshness by finding humor in it. From the very first episode, the show knew exactly how to interweave the surreal within the real. And it tried to warn us, repeatedly, of what was to come in terms of those blurred lines between reality and the absurd, which somehow helps the show feel more authentic and hyper-real. It’d be impossible to adequately pay tribute to all examples of this brilliant (and frequently blatant) toeing of that line, but some notable instances do invite discussion.
Take Nutella sandwich man, for example, who introduced us to the Atlanta version of surreal-reality right out of the gate. We didn’t know what was coming when we first met Ahmad White (and didn’t even know his name). Through Ahmad, the show told us to question what we see before confirming that, in fact, sh*t is real. At first, yes, it only seemed trippy when Donald Glover’s Earn encountered Ahmad, who evaporated in a dreamlike way, though his sandwich lingered in the bus as evidence of his presence. However, Ahmad re-surfaced (as a probable snake-oil salesman with a revealing 1-800 number) weeks later in the groundbreaking “B.A.N.” episode while popping into a commercial to declare, “You may know me from your dreams.”
This moment gives pause, as if to further blur the lines between dreams and waking life, but Atlanta viewers learned that surreal sh*t is merely a part of life for Earn, Paper Boi, and Darius. On any given day, the trio might bear witness to a disturbingly casual instance of jail-based violence against the mentally ill, or worse (as we’ll discuss soon). Well, the rest of the experimental “B.A.N” kept rolling with the concept, with a faux-talk show spiraling into fake commercials laced with razor-sharp commentary. It culminated with a taped segment (about a man who’s undergoing a “full racial transition”) that oozed shades of Rachel Dolezal from our own world. Like many Atlanta episodes, this one was largely devoid of plot but still managed to push the show forth into new territory.
The Seinfeld-esque abandonment of plot works well in Atlanta, but this will never be a show about nothing. It’s often really about trying to tread water — a substantial quest, especially when it comes to Glover’s Earn. After all, “Jacket” wasn’t simply about the superficial chase for an unspectacular item of clothing but revealed a sad truth about Earn’s desperation. The jacket, we learn, might contain the key to his living quarters — a storage unit — a brutal underscoring that that mirrors our fear of homelessness and hunger. One surreal image after another plagued this episode, including a real doozy.
I’m not talking about the cows, man, although the cows were definitely a thing. As Earn troubled over his situation, folks did assemble for a certain fast-food chain’s Free Chicken Sandwich Day. But that’s not even the most insane thing coming down this path. Rather, we watched SWAT team members act utterly oblivious after riddling a man to death with bullets for no apparent reason. And they could. not. believe. that Earn would want to check the man’s jacket pocket (the nerve!) after they’d coldly taken him out. In the aftermath, the trio couldn’t even muster up shock at what they witnessed, which Paper Boi offhandedly labels as “crazy” but Darius admits, was kind of “cool.”
Their weary reaction to a messed-up situation is perhaps the best way that they could process the brutality they had witnessed. Yet as we often see during Atlanta, the guys witness these things all the time. Their muted reactions point toward reality, and that’s part of the genius of Atlanta. It manages to throw down loads of harsh truths without the characters breaking out trumpets about them. These people know the toughness of life, where there’s no room for dreams or make-believe. That’s why labeling Season 2 as “Robbin’ Season” (after the pre-holiday time in real-life Atlanta where folks increasingly turn to crime) made perfect sense. The show’s sophomore year rightfully stands as one of the best seasons of TV from the past decade. There are so many genuine nuggets of humor cloaked in scary truths, all tiredly regarded by the characters, that the results can take one’s breath away.
Consider also how “Robbin’ Season” began, with the “Alligator Man” episode, wherein Katt Williams embodies Earn’s Uncle Willy to pile surreal touches upon a fictionalized embodiment of the Florida Man meme. The shot of the alligator strutting out of the home both boils down and mythologizes a real-life construction, which is already, in and of itself, a hyper-surreal version of humanity. Is Florida Man or Alligator Man more bizarre? It’s unclear, and that’s to Atlanta‘s credit. The show manages to nimbly glide between the real and the dream-and-nightmare-like, while suggesting commentary upon objective reality. Again, Earn and Darius are still not too shocked by what transpires.
The show’s so adept at making these turns that the second season’s final half felt almost natural with its jarring nature. By the time the “North Of The Border” episode rolled around, the Atlanta audience had been prepared to absorb the stark juxtaposition of what happened in the racist frat house. So when Earn, Darius, and Paper Boi found themselves sitting in front of a Confederate flag (an unquestionably horrible development) in front of a bunch of naked, kneeling frat pledges (an undeniably hilarious one), we knew this scenario was a joke, but one that’s grounded in reality. The sheer absurdity of this situation is underscored by the fraternity president waxing rhapsodic about his love for Southern rap, as Atlanta continued to pull no punches.
Part of the preparation for this straight-up bonkers display took place with “Teddy Perkins.” Through that painstakingly carved, gothic-horror-filled bottle episode — which was as majestic in its execution (with a haunting performance by Donald Glover in prosthetic whiteface) as it was tragic — the show fully committed to its mission. And like much of what transpires in Atlanta, it was an unsettling episode, chock full of sensually grotesque, layered humor, and Glover’s portrayal of a Michael Jackson-esque figure was counterbalanced by the laid-back Lakeith Stanfield gently guiding us through the eeriest moments.
The Atlanta audience, while waiting for more of the show, is now much like Darius during his encounter with Teddy Perkins. We, through these characters, have seen a lot of sh*t, and we damn well realize that more awful things will unfold. These things are often potentially deadly, and they might not seem real, especially when laced with surreal visuals, but Atlanta isn’t about to let us forget about reality. Season three, when it arrives, faces an almost insurmountable task of measuring up to what the show’s accomplished already, but whatever happens, it’s sure to be bleakly funny as hell.
The first two seasons of FX’s ‘Atlanta’ can be streamed on Hulu.