‘Atlanta’ Season 2 Premiere Is Vibrant and Wonderfully Weird

The era of peak TV is bringing with it a new reckoning with the country’s less glamorized corners. Race, opportunity and culture clash are being seriously explored in episodic programming in a way never seen before. Donald Glover‘s “Atlanta,” ventures into the contemporary African American experience with style, verve and a sense of the surreal. The new season, entitled “Robbin’ Season,” premieres with a stylish blend of authenticity, dark humor and a sense for the absurd. The characters are living lives onscreen full of life’s universal strangeness and a powerful insight into how marginalized communities struggle day by day. This could easily be mistaken for a documentary, yet as drama it is never less than resonant.

Picking up from the last season, Princeton dropout Earn Marks (Donald Glover) is facing homelessness while living under the shadow of parole. His aspiring hip-hop artist cousin Alfred “Papa Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) now has more resources and a house which is continuously occupied by buddies getting out of prison, leaving little room for Earn to crash. Earn’s friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) remains loyal and continues to offer his serene, zen-like observations about the happenings around himself and Earn. Alfred soon gives Earn an important task: To go and resolve a dispute between Earn’s uncle Willie (Katt Williams) and his partner, who is accusing Willie of kidnapping her over $50 stolen dollars. When Earn gets to Willie’s place he’s essentially barricaded himself, with a live alligator.

This new season of “Atlanta” is both a continuation of the first season’s narrative but also an interesting expansion of its world. Little about the season opener has much to do with the music business, now it’s all about survival and the tithes that bind. The opening scene itself is a startling, visceral departure as two characters go to a fried chicken restaurant, place and order and then burst out of their car, masked and armed to rob the place. The store manager emerges with an AK-47 and a vicious gun battle ensues. But it isn’t a gratuitous action scene. It is instead a violent expression of the socio-economic conditions in this show’s world. What makes “Atlanta” immersive is its sense of place and environment. Like other recent shows tackling American despair, this series has a keen visual sense with its evocative cinematography and dreamlike camerawork. Donald Glover and his team are evoking lives in this series with a poetic lens that combines sentimentality with grit. Even the opening heist scene is not so much exhilarating as ultimately tragic.

This is a show that also stands out because of its cinematic craft. There is a sense of the surreal, not in a fantastical way, but in a style that captures how corners of the country live in conditions that can get outlandish. There is great, dark humor in the writing as Darius explains to Earn the urban legend of “Florida Man,” a persona who randomly shoots unarmed black men, eats others alive naked and beats flamingos to death with his bare hands. Why and how could such a person exist? To intimidate black people into not voting is Darius’s answer. When the police arrive at Willie’s front door the neighbors warn there’s a crocodile inside, and soon enough the beast makes a cheerful appearance. But never do these scenes ring false, they are true and almost inevitable within the socio-economic conditions the characters live in.

Lives being lived is what makes “Atlanta” so immersive to watch. In the season premiere there are no plot twists or sudden, jarring action scenes. We care for Earn because he’s the regular guy trying to better himself yet life has its methods for getting in the way. The performances are key here because they have to make us feel as if we could bump into these people tomorrow. Glover is restrained and doubtful as Earn, while the show stealer here is Katt Williams as Willie, firing his lines with grit and witty precision. A showdown between him and cops knocking at the door is so good you wouldn’t mind if it played on for a bit longer.

If the season premiere is any indicator, “Atlanta” is returning for another round with the same human insights and scorching authenticity of the first, award-winning season. Even if the political landscape in this country has become incredibly divisive, on television drama is becoming refreshingly vibrant and inclusive.

Atlanta” Season 2 premieres March 1 at 10 p.m. ET and airs Thursdays on FX.