Thank God, ‘Atlanta’ is back

April 13, 2018

Normally, reviewing TV shows is frustrating. With any season of a show that’s 13 episodes or fewer, each installment is only going to be a piece of a single, larger narrative. I wouldn’t review just the first half of a movie or the first three chapters of a novel, so how can I judge a season of a show without watching all 10-13 episodes?

But this neurotic thought-process can’t be applied to Donald Glover’s “Atlanta.” It’s been 18 months since the first season of “Atlanta,” but if it’s any consolation, it’s been worth the wait. The show is as surreal, depressing and funny as ever, and Glover’s approach to storytelling is the biggest revolution to the medium since Walter White stepped out of that RV. “Atlanta” is an uncompromising triumph and certainly worth your time.

The twist throughout the first season of “Atlanta” was that it broke an essential rule of storytelling: None of the plot threads in a given episode have a resolution. Challenges and conflict were introduced at the start of the episode (as they are on every show), but each installment concluded with the same problems intact—or in the case of the most depressing episodes, the problems would actually expand. That same static structure is applied to characters as well. How can there be development or anything resembling a “character arc” if these people can’t resolve any of the issues they’re facing?

Ironically, what sets “Atlanta” apart from all other TV makes it feel so much more like real life.
This same anti-resolution mentality has been applied to the second season, so while “Robbin Season” doesn’t feel quite as groundbreaking, it’s still just as unique and (un)satisfying.

This repetitive nature works in “Atlanta’s” favor, considering that it only adds to the surreal vibe of the show. After all, “Atlanta” takes place in a heightened and surreal version of our reality where invisible cars exist and Justin Bieber is black kid, and making the second season feel like a rehash of the first adds to the weirdness. Each installment of the first season of “Atlanta” deftly dealt with a very specific topic, from cultural appropriation to mass incarceration to how weird it would be to play basketball against the Biebes. Every episode in season one felt like a miniature revolution, while each episode in season two takes on a similar topic from a different angle—Glover and his team aren’t afraid to venture into the same thematic territory twice, and the tapestry of the show is better for it. And when none of these characters can objectively move forward, it makes sense that they would face the same experiences again.

Take one of my favorite episodes of the second season thus far: “Helen.” We follow protagonists Van and Earn as they enter a weird and surreal setting, in this case an odd faux-German festival. But it soon becomes clear that the weird setting is just a backdrop to examine the dynamics of Earn and Van’s relationship. It clearly resembles the penultimate episode of season one, “Juneteenth,” in which we follow Van and Earn as they enter another weird and surreal setting (a “Juneteenth” party put on by a white guy who has taken on black culture as his latest hobby), and the episode ends up being about Earn and Van’s relationship. Both episodes absolutely work, they feel entirely different, and nothing is resolved in either.

The third episode of season two, “Money Bag Shawty,” is yet another inversion of a season one episode: just as in season one, episode three, Earn struggled to take Van out on a date because money gets in the way ( he’s broke), Earn struggles to take Van out on a date because money gets in the way in “Money Bag Shawty” (only this time, it’s because he keeps trying to pay with a $100 bill). The concepts behind these episodes are directly related, but because the writers choose not to resolve the conflicts at play, they don’t come across as analogous.

This unconventional success can be attributed to two main sources: the direction and the strength of the characters. This show has a very specific visual language, which can mainly be credited to Glover’s longtime music video director, Hiro Murai. Murai loves these low-to-the-ground and right-angle shots that come across as both beautiful and harsh. Director of photography Christian Sprenger describes the show as “stylized realism,” and that is honestly the perfect term. The cinematography might not be as obvious as what’s on display on “Mr. Robot” or “Legion,” but it’s quietly brilliant, conveying the pain and isolation felt by everyone on screen. There’s also an admirable consistency—Murai doesn’t direct every episode, but every guest director flawlessly speaks the visual language he’s established.

Donald Glover’s performance deserves special attention as well, because his instant likeability masks the complexity (and potential fractures) in Earn’s psyche. It’s crazy that a season and a half into this show we don’t really know what motivates and drives the apparent protagonist. Furthermore, it’s becoming increasingly clear just how dysfunctional Earn truly is.

Between his flaws as Paper Boi’s manager and his blatant issues as a partner to Vanessa, Glover’s performance makes you root for and sympathize with a character who may not deserve much sympathy (but again, it’s certainly up for debate, because we know so little about this character). Take his actions in “Money Bag Shawty”—not only does Earn’s stubbornness about paying with a hundred ruin his date night, but it’s also obvious that someone as strapped for cash as Earn should have put that money in the bank.

I would be remiss to not mention Glover’s performance in episode six, “Teddy Perkins.” It’s one of the few installments of season two that feels distinct from the first season, and Glover’s performance is insane. It’s the best episode of season season—and potentially the one of the best episodes of television ever—but I didn’t spend more time on it because the majority of this review was written before it aired, and I’d also never want to spoil it for anyone. “Teddy Perkins” is the show firing on all cylinders, equal parts bizzare, sad and real.

Of the six episodes that have aired so far in “Robbin Season,” there’s only been one dud. “Barbershop” (episode five) put the spotlight on Paper Boi, to mixed effect. It’s still great when the show highlights its side characters (that Van episode from season one is genuinely perfect), but here the “no-resolution” rule meant that we spent an excruciating half hour waiting for Alfred to finish his haircut. It’s fine, and kind of funny, but not everything in “Atlanta” is perfect.

What more can I say? I’ve heard it described as “Twin Peaks with rappers,” which means I really have to watch “Twin Peaks.” It’s easily the best comedy on today (sorry, “ The Good Place”)—if you can bear to call “Atlanta” a comedy. Yes, I may hate writing about TV, but I do love this show.

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