Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta spent much of its Season 1 narrative charting the slow pursuit of happiness, through the conduit of rap. In its second season, a slight shift affords its lead character, Earn (Glover), rare possession of physical money. He ends up, of course, at the strip club, where his cousin—the increasingly recognized and ever skeptical rapper Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry)—gets philosophical. “Money is an idea, man,” Paper Boi tells Earn, his career manager. The irony is that money, in a strip club setting, is far from theoretical. Currency gets thrown, exchanges hands, and transforms into an escape route for women. Earn’s cash is good there, but elsewhere, the value of his money is questioned, literally—no one will accept that the hundred-dollar bill he tries to use is real, even though, Earn reasons, it’s “legal U.S. tender.”
So where does access to money get you, if the perception of you remains stagnant? Or as Paper Boi and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) put it, if you’re “just another nigga”? That’s a thesis driving the first three episodes of Atlanta’s subtly political Season 2. The series has revealed itself to be less about rap aspirations and more about the tedious routine of progression that often only begets setbacks. Donald Glover and his team chose an appropriate theme to explore, among other topics, the meaning of ownership in a racist, capitalist society: “Robbin’ Season.”
“Christmas approaches, and everybody’s gotta eat,” Darius sums up in the premiere, setting up the season’s thematic backdrop. (For this purpose, the show is retitled Atlanta Robbin’ Season.) Everyone in the city, including Earn’s crew, wants to advance in the most efficient manner, to gain access to money even if through grimy means. It’s a classic DMX scheme: “Rob and I steal, not ’cause I want to, ’cause I have to.”
Each episode—beginning with the excellent premiere, “Alligator Man,” which kicks off with the robbery of a fast-food joint—involves a theft of some sort, not just physical but institutional. There’s a sense that as these young black men go about trying to make their friend Paper Boi popular (or whatever success looks like to them), at a thrilling yet painstaking pace, there’s a crime-like societal setup in place. They’re having things stripped from them in the process, whether it’s their culture, stature, or actual possessions, i.e. Paper Boi getting jacked by a longtime associate.
Earn’s ongoing mission to sustain himself and his daughter while making his cousin famous includes a visit to a suspicious white-run startup that helps market black rappers through its platform. As usual, Paper Boi feels uncomfortable, like an experiment, yet they’re both compelled to participate in the performance to a point. A fascinating character, Paper Boi is excessively capable of adapting to what’s placed in front of him, yet perpetually close to being swallowed up by his circumstances.
Everyone is trying, from Earn and Paper Boi, down to guests like Paper Boi’s freeloading gift-card scammer friend with a Bruh Man vibe who’s fresh from prison and needs a job. Atlanta still has plenty to say, in its barebones way, about the fragmentation of dreams, a point exemplified in Episode 1, which features a surreal moment with an alligator (yes, that’s correct) and a great guest appearance from comedian Katt Williams, who plays Earn’s Uncle Willy. The cameo doubles as meta commentary on what people are supposed to do in life, which is, to say, go somewhere that’s not nowhere.
“What I’m scared of is being you,” Earn tells his uncle. There’s another applicable DMX line for his relative’s regression: “I’ve got a lotta dreams, but I’m not really chasin’ mine.” The episode also plays off the canny, conspiratorial internet joke about the alt-right “Florida Man” whose job is to keep black people from registering to vote in Florida, according to Darius. It’s a relief that Atlanta is still funny (as in, producing actual laughter). It is a comedy, but also a tragedy about false appearances.
As with Season 1, Glover and his team find ways to attack hypocrisy and talk about racism, through a slightly more direct lens, which gives the series a solemn 2018 feel. Earn and the mother of his child, Van (Zazie Beetz), experience a series of blatant prejudice moments in one episode. The show’s visual storytelling remains distinguished, because Atlanta prefers you focus on the moments between and really feel the impact of time, using environment as a roaming character. In a New Yorker profile published this week, the show’s lead director Hiro Murai described how even the city of Atlanta represents survival. “Atlanta is Wild West-y—every corner of the city is trying to get by under its own rules,” Murai said. “There’s no single narrative. At the outer edges, the overgrown parking lots and project blocks, the city is a few yards away from apocalypse, and if you slow down it could engulf you.”