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ATLANTA’s “Robbin Season” is a Triumphant Return (Review)

Spoilers for the first three episodes of Atlanta season 2 below.

In the first episode of Atlanta’s second season, Earn’s still living in storage, Darius is still cooking, Alfred is still smoking, and Katt Williams is living with an alligator. These abstract details suggest a return to the norm for a show that combined the stories of the Black American experience with a surrealist dreamscape of invisible cars, a black rapper named Justin Bieber, and a black kid in whiteface. But as “Alligator Man” comes to an end, The Delfonics’ “Hey Love,” gives us a hint about season 2’s “Robbin Season.” The song is also the sample for Notorious B.I.G.s “Playa Hata,” a romanticized ballad about a robbery, and for Atlanta it posits that in a sub-economy where pain is profit, everything and everyone are up for grabs.

This idea is a departure from last season’s pluckier entrepreneurial spirit that found the core cast on their hustle as young black Americans trying to get by in an Atlanta that exposed how far the chasm is between the American Dream and the black experience. Season 1 extended the hustle to include everyone from pizza delivery guys moonlighting as Instagram stars to black women marrying up into white society. Maybe Machiavellian, but never nefarious.

But with Robbin Season’s first three episodes, there’s something darker afoot, a fact made plain in the first six minutes of “Alligator Man” when an impromptu fast food joint robbery quickly goes sideways. When it cuts back to the cast, Atlanta quickly joins them with the theme. Earn watches a storage unit employee take his things and later sits down with his parole officer to discuss settling his fine for narcotics possession, a familiar peek into the myriad ways that even the legal system has a sub-economy that robs and ensnares poor black Americans everyday. The episode closes at Earn’s Uncle Willie’s (Katt Williams) house with a series of showdowns between Earn and Willie, Willie and his longtime girlfriend Yvonne (who he’s holding hostage until she returns $50 that she stole from him) and the whole group and Fulton County police officers. That final conversation is often framed behind a black steel screen door that resembles a prison cell.

Episode 2, “Sportin’ Waves,” brings the season’s premise into focus. Opening with a holdup involving Paper Boi, we spend the rest of the episode watching the ways he supports an entire ecosystem of economies he doesn’t profit from. From shopping around for a new drug supplier to a meeting with a social media platform company, Paper Boi is consistently robbed during the course of “Waves.”

Brian Tyree Henry operates with a deft physicality throughout this episode. His body always looks weary, but in any given scene, he can switch from resignation, to disdain, to defense. As he and Earn wander the offices he sees how unoriginal and disposable he is to the company. Through a glass-paned conference room wall they see a rapper performing on top of a conference room table a la Kanye West and moments later they run into Clark County, another up-and-coming rapper, who is only slightly more comfortable with the exploitive side of the business. The second episode detours into a wider world—Atlanta always widens and narrows the Greater Atlanta area–with these ideas about cultural appropriation and disposability, and it’s especially pronounced when we hear an acoustic rendition of Paper Boi’s single.

“Waves” also introduces new character Tracy, a friend that’s fresh out jail with a steely façade that’s a mix of optimism, swagger, and hustle. He’s got gift card schemes, a percolating hairstyle and a charming, literal worldview that he feels will be the keys to getting his life back on track. During the shopping outing at the mall with Earn, his front retreats just a bit. In-between schooling Earn on how to out-hustle retail, he coolly asks Earn about how to ace a job interview for a marketing position. “You went to Princeton, right? How do you talk to these white folks?” he asks Earn about a job paying just above minimum wage. His story reinforces how much internal and external struggle there is to overcome perceived and real biases when you’re living the double penalty of being black and having a criminal record.

The through-line on both seasons of Atlanta has been about the persistence and PTSD of black life in America’s towns and cities. In a wider mainstream setting, this story would read differently from the outside. We’d be celebrating the rise of an artistic talent instead of reckoning with the reality that making music is both an act of survival and a living journal for a life on the margins. We think of pot-smoking as a now-legal way to relax instead of seeing its firm roots in a violent, competitive economy and its consumption as a coping mechanism for chronic trauma. The show routinely affirms that it’s not a matter of black Americans not trying to reach the same peaks as their often more affluent white American peers, but that those peaks are intentionally higher and harder to reach.

It’s a dynamic summarized in “Money Bag Shawty,” episode three’s adventure that has the whole gang (Van’s first appearance in the season) trying to find ways to celebrate coming into money and feeling ahead of the game for once. As Van and Earn try in vain to find ways to spend his windfall, they’re constantly turned away at local businesses for a variety of complicated racial and class-based reasons. This gradually provokes an infuriated Earn, desperate for a win since dropping out of Princeton, to take a foolish gamble: run a footrace against an NFL star that makes a surprising though sensible cameo at the end.

The outcome seems wildly preordained, but still Earn tries in vain. When they’re alone again, Van asks Earn a question that’s really a question to us all: “Did you ever really have a chance?”

Images: FX

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