“Robbin’ Season,” as “Atlanta”’s resident stoner/philosopher Darius (Lakeith Stanfield, “Get Out”) explains, is the period of time before the Christmas holidays. It is one of rampant commercialism and, apparently, one of equally rampant thievery.
This type of explicit exposition is a rarity in Donald Glover’s “Atlanta.” The show prefers to make its commentary in a more impressionistic manner, presenting a series of vignettes that reflect the mundane absurdities of daily life in the titular city where Glover was raised. The show’s episodes, ranging from just 25-30 minutes each, have an uncanny ability to draw viewers into the world they create before ending just as quickly.
The harrowing opening scene of the season shows two teenagers executing the robbery of a fast food restaurant, as well as how an unexpected development sends the operation awry. It sets the tone of what Glover describes as the “nightmare” of season two as opposed to the “dream” of season one. There is a palpable tension present in the Atlanta air.
The show’s main characters haven’t progressed much from the conclusion of season one. Earn (Donald Glover, “Spider Man: Homecoming”) is kicked out of his “home” in a storage facility. His cousin, Paper Boi (Bryan Henry, “Vice Principals”), remains under house arrest, which does grant him some notoriety, helping his popularity. There is an unresolved conflict between Paper Boi and Darius, which is never explained. Episode one features a memorable cameo from Katt Williams as well as a prime reptilian example of the show’s ability to turn from hyperrealism to surrealism in the space of a single cut.
Despite the continuing bleakness, the show derives humor in the small absurdities that litter the characters’ lives and reinforces the central idea of being robbed. At the start of episode two (“Sporting Waves”), Paper Boi is held at gunpoint during a rendezvous with his long-time dealer (Marcus Samuel, “Murder Choose Me”). As he walks away sporting his signature scowl after giving up his money and car keys, his dealer repeatedly offers his sincere apologies while continuing to point a gun at him. The framing of the rather courteous robbery suggests that it is not borne out of an inherent penchant for crime, but rather an unexplained necessity. “I’ll pay you back,” the dealer promises at the end.
A visit to a music technology startup offers a different perspective to the idea of being robbed. Set in an overwhelmingly racially homogenous environment, Earn and Paper Boi’s interactions with the company’s staff are increasingly uncomfortable to watch. Paper Boi grows increasingly exasperated as he is forced to repeat inane variations of a radio show introduction, finally storming off after “performing” in front of a crowd who clearly have no interest in him or his music.
In the same episode, Earn and Paper Boi meet another young rapper, Clark County (R.J. Walker, “Hand of God”), who embraces his role for the company, performing enthusiastically for a room of employees (referencing a profoundly uncomfortable video featuring rapper Bobby Shmurda dancing at Epic Records). His appearance later in the episode in a cheesy commercial recalls one of Paper Boi’s principal conflicts, one between commercial success and authenticity.
The genius of “Atlanta” lies in its astute observation of the sheer weirdness of the characters’ seemingly ordinary daily lives. On the surface, the characters don’t do much and live thoroughly unglamorous lives. Dialogue is minimal, a lot of time is spent lounging on couches and prospects for the main characters are overwhelmingly bleak. Yet the depiction of how the characters move and interact through their environment as well as the detrimental effects of poverty provides plenty of material to reflect upon after you finish laughing.