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Lakeith Stanfield’s character becomes the oddball heart of ‘Atlanta’ in its second season

Lakeith Stanfield stars as Darius in FX’s “Atlanta,” which returned for its second season Thursday. (Guy D’Alema/FX)
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While pumping gas in the second-season premiere of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” Earn (Glover) asks Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) what flavor his Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are. “Hot,” Darius says matter-of-factly, perched atop the car. Earn pops another in his mouth and replies, “I am tasting hot.”

The brief exchange captures Darius’s eccentricity, a subtle force behind the show’s surrealist leanings. Played by a brilliant Stanfield, Darius gained traction as a fan favorite throughout the first season with his unexpectedly prophetic remarks. In the pilot, he asks Earn’s father (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) out of the blue if he can measure a tree in his yard. We attribute the request to his being stoned, but learn through a news broadcast later in the episode that a nearby tree ended up falling on a power line.

“Atlanta Robbin’ Season,” the show’s sophomore run that premieres Thursday, plays more straightforward than its predecessor. And though the first episode does feature a mysterious alligator — it’s a long story — Darius ends up as the primary source of the series’ trademark bizarreness, which critics, and Glover himself, deemed David Lynchian. But Glover and his brother, Stephen, a lead writer, also flesh out the character in a way that showcases his unrelenting loyalty. Darius has become the oddball heart of “Atlanta.”

After all the praise and hype, what if ‘Atlanta’ is just a great show about the human condition?

Take, for instance, his concern for Earn’s well being. The two first meet in the pilot when Earn asks to manage the career of his rapper cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s also Darius’s close friend. Darius is a mystery — he discloses few personal details, one of which Earn discovers after Darius says, “Most black people don’t know who Steve McQueen is.” Earn wonders how Darius does, given his race, to which he replies, “Yeah, but I’m Nigerian.”

A short season later, he feels as much Earn’s cousin as Alfred does. As a technically homeless Earn leaves his friends’ apartment after the episode’s shenanigans, it’s Darius who senses his troubled mind and asks if he’s all right. It’s also Darius who drives Earn around, even accompanying him on a trip to check in on Earn’s unstable Uncle Willy (Katt Williams).

The mix of peculiarity and perceptiveness seems to be a heightened reflection of Stanfield’s own personality. Stephen Glover mentioned in a recent interview with Rolling Stone that the line between Stanfield and his character has started to blur: “Sometimes I don’t know if I’m writing Darius, or I’m writing actual Keith stuff. Darius has become a real person to me!” Stanfield commented on the show’s sometimes hallucinatory feel in the New Yorker’s extensive profile of Donald Glover, calling Darius “a high version of myself.”

Aspects of last season made “Atlanta” feel as though it operated in a parallel universe. Pop star Justin Bieber was inexplicably played by a black actor. The buzzed-about episode “B.A.N.” featured a news segment about a black man who identifies as white.

It contrasts with the satire of the second season, which is largely rooted in reality. It deals with Earn’s encounters with racism and the side effects of Alfred’s fame, leaving Darius to become what Stanfield called “all the fantastical elements of ‘Atlanta’ condensed into one person — this gateway to Freakville.”

How Darius introduces himself to Willy in the season premiere presents this well: “I would say it’s nice to meet you, but I don’t believe in time as a concept, so I’ll just say, ‘We always met.’ ”

Time doesn’t seem to have affected Stanfield’s career in a traditional manner, either. Every role feels like a breakout performance, ranging from the actual one, a troubled teenage rapper in the 2013 drama “Short Term 12,” to a man kidnapped by the Armitages in the Oscar-nominated film “Get Out.” (He’s the one who screams the titular line while lunging at Daniel Kaluuya.) His next is the upcoming Boots Riley film “Sorry to Bother You,” which premiered at Sundance and also stars Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer. Like “Atlanta,” it embraces racial satire and fantasy, featuring Stanfield as a black telemarketer named Cassius Green who discovers that the key to success is using a white voice.

During Sundance, Stanfield told Shadow and Act that he’s drawn to roles like Cassius and Darius, which allow him to explore stories that are rooted in realism but from mind-bending perspectives.

“I grew up feeling like I was strange and things of that nature,” he said. “It feels good to reiterate the idea that that’s okay.”

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