TV

The Second Season Of ‘Atlanta’ Has Been A Chilling Tour Of Broken-Down Heroes

FX

What if Robbin’ Season was a red herring?

Wait, I’ll come back to that.

One of the most exciting and unexpected TV moments we’ll see all year is the screen door of a dingy Atlanta house opening to reveal Katt Williams. The reveal set the stage for an Atlanta season that’s been an adventure where we never see what’s coming next. Williams’ performance as the Alligator Man is a remarkably layered turn for the comedian with a turbulent career. But the moment that defines the episode — and the season of the genre-disrupting FX show — is Donald Glover standing in front of Williams, deriding him for being a star who threw it all away. In that moment, Glover and Williams stop playing roles. They’re themselves, bare and vulnerable in front of the camera. We see Glover face-to-face with the worst case scenario of his future: an infinitely talented comedian who had the world and let drugs and cynicism ruin it all.

I didn’t understand until this past week that the treatment of Williams would be the beginning of a theme that runs across the entire second season of Atlanta. That’s because every episode this season so far has been about tearing down our heroes and revealing the darkness that hides inside of all of them — beginning with Katt Williams and ending with the cryptic, bizarre Teddy Perkins. Look:

“Alligator Man” contains aforementioned confrontation between Earn and Katt Williams, including hints at Williams’ history of drug use and domestic violence. It doesn’t pull any punches and forces him to face his demons as a character and a celebrity.

“Sportin’ Waves:” The second episode dismantles the notion of what it means to be a successful rapper in 2018, from the obnoxious start-up meetings to the faux-Tiny Desk performance in an office that doesn’t give a damn, all the way through the rest of the show with Paper Boi trying to restart his weed business with the trappings (no pun intended) of fame standing in his way.

The final scene of “Money Bag Shawty” sees Michael Vick racing people outside of the strip club. Vick, of course, became an Atlanta icon for the way he tore through the NFL while redefining the quarterback position. Vick was a walking urban legend, doing things on the field we didn’t think was possible. For Black America, he represented a reframing of the discussion around the whitewashed position of NFL quarterback. He was a video game god and a freak of nature. Then, it fell apart thanks to a dogfighting scandal that almost ruined his career. And now we find him racing random people for money outside of strip joints. It’s the epitome of a fall from grace: brief, painful, and hilarious.

“Helen”: Earn. The protagonist turns out to be an asshole. He’s petty, manipulative and insecure. Atlanta has left him without much in the way of redeemable qualities as a boyfriend.

“Barbershop:” There isn’t a more revered black hero in neighborhoods than the barber. The episode takes the mythology of the barber as hairline savior and community and complicates it. Bibby, a newly-minted iconic character, is a barber who’s also a two-timer, a schemer, and a liar. He’s not the hood hero we grew up with. He’s just a guy. Who lets us all down.

Which all leads to “Teddy Perkins.” Atlanta‘s most recent episode is a horrific acid trip that brings the idea of destroyed heroes to a grizzly conclusion. The episode features a convergence of broken down heroes. Perkins, most obviously, is a nod to Michael Jackson, who was tortured by his upbringing and his talent. The Jackson reference is made blatant visually with the makeup, mansion, and high-pitched voice but only surfaces in the margins of the dialogue, and his name is never mentioned. Throughout the episode, we hear about the torment that comes with artistic prominence. Perkins is consumed by his demons in the same way Jackson was, down to the way he was abused by his father. The father-figure is another hero that gets torn down. The show namechecks people like Joe Jackson and “Marvin Gaye’s father” as role models for their children but they were abusive and, in Gaye’s case, deadly. It’s a cycle of abuse that, yes, may be partially credited for creating beautiful art, but at what cost? That question is at the center of the episode.

I’m not going to try to pretend that I have a clear understanding of everything that happened by the end of “Teddy Perkins” but I do see the discussion of pain and hidden failure tied to artistic success. When we watch a man whose body is completely covered in bandages — now we’re unclear who is actually Teddy Perkins — murder his captor and commit suicide, we see the toll that hidden demons take on even the most gifted. It reminds me of this 2015 New Yorker article on Jackson:

This is what makes us obsess over the horror of Michael Jackson. We must know whether he is an angel or beast…But maybe that version of him is simply too fanciful, too naïve for us, mired as we are in the muck of our human struggle. Maybe we cannot or will not accept the existence of the kind of unblemished love he claimed to represent. We have a deep and consuming desire to capture the divine and somehow align it with our human selves. Jackson was a vehicle for something divine, and so, perhaps, we find it pleasing to tether him more firmly to our world, by proving that he is exactly as shoddy and vulgar as we all are.

That’s the duality present in every episode of Atlanta this season. The veil is pulled back on every angel only to reveal a beast. And these torn-down heroes aren’t just regular heroes. They’re black heroes. Pillars and mainstays of the black community, but the fall comes for us all, even if it was there the whole time.

Which brings me back to “Robbin’ Season.” Each episode has a very clear moment of robbery, from Paper Boi getting his stash stolen to Earn using counterfeit bills, to the attempted framed home invasion in “Teddy Perkins.” But there’s a deeper robbery going on. We’re being robbed of our heroes. Glover has hinted that all of the episodes, though standing alone, will come together at the end of the season, but maybe they already have. Maybe we are seeing that there’s trauma underneath every success story, hiding in plain sight like Glover in his Perkins mask.

There’s not much hope in this reading of Atlanta‘s second season, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s the point of the season premiere cold open that ended in a shootout and seemingly pointless bloodshed. Maybe, in the end, all we’re left with is confusion, loss and pain. No matter how famous and successful we become.

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