After an incredible first season, the FX critical darling “Atlanta” is still hard to describe. It’s not enough to call it a coming-of-age story about chasing fame, success and the American dream in the Southern hip hop scene. With Donald Glover’s unconventional brand of comedy and Hiro Murai’s meticulous direction, each of the show’s 10 episodes showcases a surrealist vision of the Georgian capital through the eyes of Earnest “Earn” Marks, his cousin and on-the-rise rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry, “Vice Principals”) and Paper Boi’s trusted sidekick, Darius (Keith Stanfield, “Short Term 12”).
But even then, “Atlanta” is a program so strange and mystifying that perhaps Glover calling it “Twin Peaks with rappers” is the closest concrete description of the show. That four-word synopsis is illustrated especially in the show’s season finale, “The Jacket,” which manages to make the most mundane of situations seem compelling and thought-provoking.
After a crazy night out with Paper Boi and Darius, Earn wakes up in a trashed mansion and searches for his missing blue bomber jacket. We’ve seen Earn wake up in an unfamiliar environment before, both in the teaser trailer for the show and in the penultimate episode “Juneteenth.” But while this visual motif represents his aimlessness, it also shows Earn’s lack of a place to call home. Where does Earn actually live? Is he just constantly couch-surfing? He isn’t allowed to stay at his parents’ house, and he occasionally crashes at his on-and-off again girlfriend Van’s (Zazie Beetz, “Easy”) place in order to co-parent their baby daughter.
Following D.R.A.M.’s hit jingle “Broccoli” during the episode’s title sequence, Earn wanders on a quest to find the jacket and attempts to retrace his steps, checking Paper Boi’s Snapchat story and a nearby strip club for clues. The majority of the episode’s humor comes during these sequences, with Earn watching his drunk self on Snapchat and awkwardly describing who might have the jacket to a stripper seeking a guest appearance in a Paper Boi music video.
He seeks help from Paper Boi and Darius at their outdoor couch spot, a sly visual reference to their first meeting in the pilot episode. During their conversation, Darius drops some of his typically unexpected words of wisdom: “If we spent the time we spend thinking about not spending money and spent that time on spending money, then it’d be time well spent.”
It’s a line that’s not only hilarious and well-delivered, but also serves as another reminder of the show’s offbeat asides and how captivating Darius is as a supporting character. Right before that statement, though, Darius makes an odd comment about how Black people’s number one problem is that they don’t know how to have fun. “I really disagree with that being Black people’s number one problem,” Earn replies with a flabbergasted look on his face.
Later, Earn makes a phone call to his Uber driver from the previous night during a three-minute long take that incorporates a variety of intriguing aesthetic choices: telephoto lens, soft focus and most importantly, dynamic sound design. The sound aspect of the scene might not be crucial or even necessary, but Paper Boi and Darius’ off-screen dialogue maintains an authenticity that most other TV shows and even films ignore.
Fortunately, Earn is able to get his jacket, but Paper Boi and Darius need to drive him to a specific destination. They arrive in an all too-quiet neighborhood until a SWAT team suddenly appears to intercept them and a shootout occurs in a disquieting sequence, both for its violence and its casual attitude toward that violence. But even in its most affecting moments, “Atlanta” ’s dark humor is still present, as Earn uncomfortably attempts to retrieve the jacket from the shooting victim.
Seeing Earn in dark spirits, Paper Boi offers him his five percent of their income in a subtly sweet scene between the two. Things continue to look up for Earn as his friend retrieves and returns the jacket to him, but as it turns, what Earn really needed was a mysterious key inside the jacket’s pocket. After another brief but beautifully intimate sequence, this time with Van, Earn walks to an unknown location to the beat of OutKast’s “Elevators (Me & You),” a fantastic music choice that matches both the atmospheric mood and recurring theme of fame in “Atlanta.” In the final minutes, Earn opens up a dimly lit storage space with the mystery key and lies on a couch, staring at the two $100 bills in his hands. He may not have a place to call home, but this is the closest Earn has come to having some form of financial and emotional stability.
That particular moment, punctuated by Big Boi and André 3000’s lyrics, is small yet pivotal in Earn’s journey to making something out of his life, whether it’s taking care of his child, being a manager for a hip hop artist or finding meaning in the dreamlike metropolis that is Atlanta. “The Jacket” may not have been a very climactic finale and it leaves many questions unanswered, but “Atlanta” remains one of this year’s most remarkable TV shows and that’s as best as I can describe it.