I hesitate to conjure some overreaching take on “Atlanta,” Donald Glover’s richly imagined and deservedly praised dramedy for FX, a hazy and half-stoned collage of a young African American man’s unhurried life in the inner suburbs of the Southern megalopolis, where he works, sometimes, managing his cousin’s rise as a local rap star.
Twice now I’ve seen Glover, with his “Atlanta” cast mates and co-producers/writers, sit in a roomful of journalists and seem genuinely baffled and even slightly perturbed by any attempts to dig too deeply into “Atlanta’s” intent, theme or meaning. The rave reviews and awards are fine, but that still doesn’t mean everyone watches “Atlanta” the same way.
While meeting with critics in January to promote the show’s long-awaited second season, Glover and company claimed that much of what they’re trying with “Atlanta” this time was partly inspired by “Tiny Toon Adventures,” a syndicated children’s cartoon show from the early 1990s. They giggled among themselves while serious-minded reporters asked them to elaborate on the cartoon’s merits. There was a vague sense that it’s fun to watch white people — so desperate to appear woke in an intensely woke moment of popular culture — project too much onto “Atlanta.” In fact, the Q&A session played very much like a scene from the show.
“Atlanta,” after all, functions and succeeds entirely on its own terms, even though in structure and momentum it isn’t all that different from Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things,” Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” or even Lena Dunham’s “Girls” — all of which rely on a disjointed, slice-of-life narrative style and their creators’ particular ways of seeing the world. The half-hour cable dramedy has become television’s most consistent expression of experimental film techniques, its own little exercise in 21st-century new-wave cinema. Last year “Atlanta” toyed surprisingly with talk-show formats, commercials and cartoons. Some also compared the show to the meandering genius of David Lynch.
Returning Thursday night after an extended hiatus (Glover has been busy playing Lando Calrissian in an upcoming Star Wars movie), “Atlanta” has acquired a coy subtitle, “Robbin’ Season,” which, as explained by Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), the show’s resident cool cat, is the wary time of year in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
In this unsettling inverse of Advent, the first minutes of the show include an armed robbery of a fast-food restaurant that ends with bullets flying in a Tarantino-like way of twining violence to wryness. “Christmas approaches,” Darius explains to Glover’s character, Earn Marks. “Everybody’s gotta eat.”
Based on the first three new episodes made available for review, “Atlanta” appears to be buckling down for a more serious moment with a more linear story line. Earn’s life is noticeably more marginal and depressing — the storage unit he used to sleep in with his belongings has fallen out of his possession. His cousin, Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), now better known around town as the rapper Paper Boi, is perpetually unhappy with the state of his career, which has plateaued.
Earn’s attempt to boost his cousin’s profile leads them to a branding agency — a modern, open-floor-plan warehouse teeming with mostly white, bright-eyed millennials who, hoping to appear doper than they’ll ever be, nervously patronize Al and Earn while spitballing ways to market Paper Boi. When Earn pulls out a CD of some of Paper Boi’s recordings, he’s told that there aren’t any disc players in this ultra-hip office; emailing a file doesn’t work either.
It’s two cultures failing in every way to connect — and, I think, what “Atlanta” is about, at heart. The show welcomes us into the world of Earn, who happens to be a Princeton dropout, and his closest friends and associates, all of them living apart from an America that is all too willing to leave them behind in the 21st century’s fairy dust — an America that craves their music, mostly as means to marketing.
As Earn eats a bag of chips and waits for a disgruntled Al to record a series of promos in a sound booth, he suddenly realizes that the entire office is watching him. When he turns around, they all pretend to go back to work. Viewing it, I couldn’t help but think of that roomful of critics trying to wrest more introspection from Glover than he was willing to give. The same closely held sense of self-consciousness flows through “Atlanta.”
Part of what sets the show apart is its unapologetic portrayal of Earn’s awareness of himself in the world — especially in the white world, where the indignities and dangers are endless and range from subtle to direct. Treating his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz), to a movie at a luxury theater, Earn has a $100 bill rejected by a cashier, only to see a white customer behind him pay for tickets using a $100 bill. His reaction to these moments isn’t outrage. Instead he says what most of us say in the face of mistreatment: “Wow. Seriously?”
Robbin’ Season also comes with a heightened danger of black-on-black crime and other cruelties, from a scene where Al gets robbed at gunpoint to another scene where an acquaintance sees an opportunity to swindle Earn out of a newfound and sorely needed payout.
All of which is to note that “Atlanta” might be a more depressing show than it used to be — and it wasn’t exactly euphoric to begin with. A viewer’s laughs come less from its covert commentary and more in exasperated gasps, as Earn endures repeated disappointments, always holding the short end of society’s stick. Beneath all its current cultural cachet, it’s not a Tiny Toon. It’s an excellent and deceptively precise show about the human condition.
Atlanta Robbin’ Season (30 minutes). The series returns Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX.