This week, “Atlanta” (10 p.m. Eastern Thursdays, FX) began its second season of being about nothing and everything. The episode “Alligator Man” opens with two ATL youths lounging around when one mentions that they can purchase drugs at a local drive-thru restaurant if they ask for the “No. 17.” We assume they are heading there to buy said drugs, only to find they are robbing the place at gunpoint. But the employee working the window is armed, too. Bullets fly, ending with a teen girl – unseen until that point — emerging from the backseat of the youths’ car, screaming. Cue the opening titles.
We eventually catch up with our hero, Earn (Donald Glover, also the series’ creator), who – as we learned in Season 1’s “It doesn’t get lower than this” closing image – is spending nights in his storage garage. It does get worse, though, as his friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) informs Earn that he’s going to be kicked out of the garage; apparently he hadn’t even been keeping up with those payments.
Known for dropping observant statements out of the blue, Darius later notes that winter in Atlanta is “robbin’ season” (that’s the subtitle of Season 2) when he and Darius see a body under a police tarp in a nearby parking lot while they are filling up with gas.
We learn nothing about that victim, nor do we catch up with the boys from the episode’s opening. The show never stops for a moment to explain what we’ve seen, to give context to the images, or to have characters shoot the breeze about the issues. It merely wades up to its neck in them, and invites viewers to pick the text they want the show to be “about.” “Atlanta” essentially is told from Darius’ “just another day in the ATL” POV, but at home, we view it all through Earn’s lens.
The events aren’t truly random; they are part of Glover’s “Atlanta” mélange: It’s about being desperately poor, it’s about drugs, it’s about guns, it’s about police violence. To be fair, it’s a big city, and there are nice parts; I have middle-class friends who live in Atlanta. But “Atlanta” only shows us the drug-riddled, gun-riddled, police-violence-riddled, scary portion. And it probably exaggerates for effect. But I’m not positive about that.
At its heart, “Atlanta” is about Earn, but as great a character as he was in Season 1 – doing right by his child and baby mama, screwing up his own life – there was a big contradiction at his core. That’s addressed in “Alligator Man,” inadvertently by Earn himself: He describes his uncle (who keeps a gator in his house) as someone who has wasted his life despite being smart; he fears ending up like him. Later, this genuinely crazy uncle gives Earn good advice: “If you don’t want to end up like me, get rid of that ‘chip on your shoulder’ s—. It’s not worth the time.”
Even though he’s the only sane person on the show (or, alternatively: the only person who notices Atlanta is insane), Earn is the toughest character to figure out. He’s dead broke, and he has certainly been screwed over by drug laws — being caught with a tiny amount of weed is essentially a $375 fine when one adds up the mandatory drug-counseling fees. (I love the way Glover gives a sardonic “No” in response to a government worker’s question of whether he has the money.) But he’s healthy and smart, so isn’t it partially a choice to remain dead broke?
Earn wants to get into the music business, but rather than making ends meet with pre-career work, he does odd (in both senses of the word) jobs for his rapper cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) — although even those don’t seem to pay well.
“Alligator Man” shows us the difficulty of specific choices for a good man: With police outside, the uncle (Alfred’s father) asks Earn to smuggle away his handgun if he wants to help him (and therefore help Alfred). While the legal hammer-blow from being caught with an unregistered (and inexplicably gold-plated) gun doesn’t fall in this episode, it will hang over Earn’s head in the next one.
For now, Earn and his predicament are laughed at by Alfred, Darius and Alfred’s recently out-of-prison friend Tracy – whom Earn had never met before, but who is staying at Alfred’s place, even though Darius isn’t sure if it’d be OK for Earn to stay there. Darius doesn’t broach the subject with either of the roommates, because they seem to be feuding, although they both say they “don’t want to talk about it.”
And so Earn is back on the streets, and this time we don’t know if he even has a storage garage to go to. Sometimes (rightly) categorized as a comedy for absurdist elements such as the housebound alligator, this show about Hotlanta can turn cold, and not just because the temperature drops during “robbin’ season.”
Glover got out, and is now wealthy and telling these gritty/real/funny stories about his hometown. But it’s hard to see how Earn will escape – and it’s hard to imagine when “Atlanta” will move in a narrative direction, rather than wallowing. But that’s not a criticism; the lack of a positive direction is entirely the point of the show, at least for now.
Season 2 premiere: