‘Atlanta’ season 2 turned up the weird factor. But it still captured the day-to-day of black life.
Season two of FX’s Atlanta wrapped Thursday night with Al, a.k.a. rising-rapper Paper Boi, and his manager-slash-cousin, Earn, seated in the same aisle of an airplane soon departing to Europe. They’re both headed overseas because Al’s set to be the opening act on an international tour. But the moment isn’t triumphant; instead, they’re refusing to look at each other, as they discuss the fate of their business relationship, which has been slowly unraveling all season.
Al has been considering leveling up to a more experienced manager after his cousin’s tendency to cut corners has landed them in a series of situations both hilarious and alarming. But in a surprising twist, Al decides to stick with Earn because he knows they’re both hungry for success — both of their livelihoods are on the line.
“Niggas gonna do whatever they got to do to survive because they ain’t got no choice,” Al, played by Brian Tyree Henry, says to Earn, played by series creator, writer and star Donald Glover. “We ain’t got no choice either. You my family Earn. You’re the only one who knows what I’m about.”
The poignant quote drives home the show’s second-season theme of black survival by any means necessary. With its sophomore installment, subtitled Robbin’ Season, Atlanta explores the lead stars’ various existential crises in a detailed and intuitive way — and all the while, the show never loses sight of the fact that race remains an ever-present obstacle in their path.
For instance, in the season finale, Van and Earn — who, by this point, have broken up — are called into a parent-teacher conference for their daughter, Lottie. Her teacher informs them that their daughter is gifted and suggests placing her in a private school because, as the teacher puts it, “this school is awful.”
They now have to weigh two options to make a decision about Lottie’s future: Will they keep their black daughter in a failing school system or scrape the money together to place her in a setting that will be predominately white, where she may face no shortage of micro-aggressions? Without explicitly spelling out any of these factors, it’s clear that Van and Earn, while not on the same page romantically, are very much clear on the challenges of raising a black child in America.
The show also explores the difficulties of racial discrimination in much smaller, slyer ways. In episode three, “Money Bag Shawty,” after receiving a hefty check from Paper Boi’s single going gold, Earn takes Van out to an upscale movie theater. When he tries to pay using a $100 bill, the cashier doesn’t allow him to do so. He then watches a white man do exactly the same thing with success.
By the end of that same night, the couple winds up at a strip club, a very integral part of Atlanta’s nightlife, and the only place that Earn can spend his cash windfall. Of course, at the club, the bartender tells Earn he has to exchange his Benjamins for Washingtons, put down a 20 percent fee and also exchange a minimum of $200 — so he ends up feeling exploited. As the old Kanye once said in “All Falls Down,” “Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe.”
In the season’s second episode, “Sportin’ Waves,” Atlanta pokes fun at music tech culture, as Earn and Al go to a streaming service’s office for a meet-and-greet and to play Paper Boi’s music. During the eerie visit, Earn is hyper-aware of his blackness, since tech culture — like in real life — is overwhelmingly white. At one point, when Earn’s watching Al record an audio segment, the entire office seems to be watching Earn — just a cluster of white people observing him until he turns around, and they all resume their business.
Later, he spots another rapper standing on a table and rapping to a room full of white employees, a reference to rapper Bobby Shmurda, who did the same thing at Epic Records in 2014. It’s a small moment loaded with big meaning: With hip-hop becoming more and more mainstream, who is really profiting from the culture’s success? Who are these black artists performing for, really?
But it isn’t just anonymous white faces that are making life difficult for the main characters. Robbin’ Season is flush with memorable supporting players who significantly turn up the weird factor. Many of them only featured in single episodes, but that doesn’t mean their appearances are disposable.
The strangest episode in the series thus far, hands down, is this season’s instantly iconic “Teddy Perkins.” Free-spirited Darius, who is played by Lakeith Stanfield, is excited to scoop up a piano that he found via an internet listing. It turns out the piano once belonged to fictional famous musician Benny Hope, who’s essentially being held hostage by his deranged and damaged brother, Teddy Perkins. Immediately as Darius arrives at the dark mansion to claim the piano, he encounters the squeaky-voiced and pale-skinned Teddy Perkins, played, in an uncredited role and under plenty of makeup, by Glover. The Get Out vibes are undeniable.
Unlike the Oscar-winning Jordan Peele film, in which Stanfield plays a supporting character trapped in a sort of purgatory, Darius does in fact make it out — but not before he gets a tour of Teddy and Benny’s childhoods. Teddy repeatedly praises his overbearing father, who pushed the brothers to perfection, effectively destroying their lives. With his biography and bleached skin, Teddy Perkins can’t help but recall Michael Jackson — a towering figure in black culture whose story Atlanta reinterprets almost like it’s a myth.
The episode before “Teddy Perkins,” we meet another memorable character: Bibby the barber. In that installment, Al’s fast-talking barber starts cutting his hair, but stops halfway through to deal with some personal business. He brings Al along with him, though, promising that he’ll finish the haircut as soon as he tends to his own affairs. Instead, he just leads Al around town.
First is a stop to see Bibby’s son, whose hair the barber trims first. Then, they pull up to a random house that’s under construction, where Bibby offers Al some leftover chicken taken from a microwave and to steal some lumber at the job site. They eventually end up in a car accident. What’s supposed to be a simple day of grooming and self-care for Al turns into a day of aggravation, because of his barber’s socio-economic issues.
Not every one-off character was given the same thought-out treatment, though. Tammi, a standout from the “Champagne Papi” episode, doesn’t get to shape the plot in the same way as, say, Teddy Perkins or Bibby. The episode follows Van and three of her friends, including Tammi, as they attend a New Years Eve party at Drake’s nearby mansion. Van wanders off from her friends to search for Drizzy, hoping to snap a photo with the rapper (who, it turns out, is on tour and not even at the party). Tammi, meanwhile, notices Devyon Johnson, a fictional famous black actor, who has a white girlfriend. During the party, Tammi angrily confronts the white woman for dating him.
Tammi’s character ends up relying on common tropes about “the angry and desperate black woman.” Unfortunately, not enough time is spent showing who Tammi is outside of the scene and why she feels the way she does. The episode does nothing to further explore black women’s views on interracial dating; it was a rare misstep for the show, a moment when its understanding of race felt narrow.
On the whole, though, Robbin’ Season was a masterclass in brilliant TV storytelling. It offers an expansive and lived-in sense of how colorful the black experience really is. Giving a multifaceted view of blackness isn’t something that Glover’s just doing on TV, either. His recent video for “This Is America,” the new protest song released under his Childish Gambino musical moniker, sparked plenty of conversation recently.
The video, as you’ve surely heard by now, is a social commentary on the hysteria black people experience in America, due to policing and gun violence. In the clip, directed by regular Atlanta lensman and collaborator Hiro Murai, Glover dances around a giant warehouse, looking jubilant before he guns down various people: a man he shoots in the back of the head, a choir he sprays with bullets. The viewer has very little time to recover from each tragedy shown.
But in real life, this is exactly the way it goes. Often black Americans have to digest these kinds of images without having much opportunity to process them, which psychologists are saying is triggering constant PSTD.
If black people aren’t faced with a viral video or news article of someone being shot, there’s a story about a black person being arrested or interrogated for nonviolent reasons, or seemingly no reason at all, in a Waffle House, Starbucks or for napping in a dorm common room.
And this makes Atlanta’s theme of Robbin’ Season even more timely and parallel to reality. On the show, Al is robbed of his time by his barber, or Earn and Van being robbed of a good time because of discrimination. It applies even to new characters, like Teddy Perkins, who was robbed of his childhood, or Tammi, who feels robbed of being loved and valued because of society’s perception of black women.
For non-black viewers, Robbin’ Season provides a glimpse into African-American life. But for black viewers, Glover and his collaborators are reminding us that black people live inside an endless loop of systemic racism that’s present in every area of life.