When it debuted in 2016, Season 1 of ATLANTA was one of the most distinctive and narratively experimental shows on TV, offering a loosely connected run of episodes that aired more like a collection of short films featuring the same characters than a continuous story. ROBBIN’ SEASON, named for the period leading up to Christmas in which Atlanta’s crime rates soar, expands upon this style, with even more one-shot episodes dedicated to exploring the daily struggles of the characters, amid the stream of insightful drama and surreal humour that links the show together.
Though his cousin, Al (Brian Tyree Henry), is starting to gain recognition for his hip-hop alias, Paper Boi, Earn (show creator, Donald Glover) is still struggling to make enough to keep himself fed, and his precarious relationship with on-again/off-again girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz), is far from reconciliation. Though they share a mutual desire to provide for their daughter and still retain complex feelings for each other, their differing priorities and goals, not to mention the branching story arcs, see them drift further apart than ever before. Al meanwhile faces different challenges; as he gains notoriety and begins mixing with more renowned celebrities, he struggles to stay real in a culture that obsessively sells falsehoods, and begins to discover the many downsides that even local fame can bring. Ever on his own, ethereal journey, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) mostly drifts through the season, teaming up with either Earn, Al, or both, but also benefits from a solo episode that throws him into a bizarre situation, and uses it to evolve his character.
As with the first season, the overall narrative of these episodes follows the career of Paper Boi, with most plot points focusing on how the pursuit of fame and fortune affect the lives of Earn, Al, Van and Darius. Wound into that, however, are the return of quieter, one-shot episodes that follow a daily struggle in the protagonists’ lives, usually focusing on one or two of them at a time. These breathers, which can be about anything from Al spending all day trying to get a haircut, to Darius getting caught up in a Gothic family nightmare when he tries to buy a piano, enable the show to play with different story types and genres, all the while developing the personalities of their characters. These situations also tie into the larger theme of the Robbin’ Season, with the eat or be eaten mentality rearing its ugly head in every corner of the show; be it the metaphorical use that underlines any adversity faced by Earn and co, or the less subtle but absurdly funny manifestation that is a grown man threatening the cops with his pet alligator.
ROBBIN’ SEASON delves further into the main characters […] to present deeply complex, naturally flawed, yet ultimately relatable human beings.
After ATLANTA’s first season challenged some typical stereotypes that surround the hip hop scene – such as the thuggish rapper, the jobless hanger-on and his estranged baby mama, or the philosophical stoner cliche – ROBBIN’ SEASON delves further into the main characters and their individual quirks, expanding upon their established personalities to present deeply complex, naturally flawed, yet ultimately relatable human beings. Chief among them, Earn follows a darker turn this season, as everything he worked to keep close to him continues to slip away; As Paper Boi’s star continues to rise and Al begins mixing with more successful rappers, Earn sees his managing skills pale in comparison to professionals, and rifts start to emerge between the two. With Earn more desperate than ever, and his potential gravy train out of poverty under threat, Glover’s determined, yet cynical performance gains some sharper edges, as even the usually aptly named Earnest succumbs to the eat or be eaten mantra of the Robbin’ Season.
As much as his growth is tied directly into the story, and exemplifies the key themes embedded therein, this second season actually focuses less on Earn than the first, and instead chooses to spend more time exploring his fellow stars and their relationships with him. An early episode, for instance, which sees Van take Earn to the city of Helen, Georgia, for an Oktoberfest celebration that she often attended as a child, uses the isolation from Al and Darius to forgo the Paper Boi story-line, and instead assess the ways in which Earn and Van fail to meet each other’s needs. Earn doesn’t like being thrown into the culture’s deep end, and ends up withdrawing to a safe state of sullen superiority, the selfish basis of which aggrieves Van and makes her question what he even wants from the relationship. Beetz’ strained performance throughout the episode crescendos into a tired resignation, which follows her into a later solo story in which she pursues a selfie with Drake to prove, mostly to herself, that she doesn’t need Earn.
With his growing career as Paper Boi leading most of the narrative, Al gets plenty to do this season, with a much more defined story arc than the first that neatly ties in his experiences on both joint and solo adventures. His struggles with phoney images crop up when he meets a fellow rapper who has lines about drinking and doing drugs, and yet refuses even a sip of whiskey or a toke of a joint; the fabrication of a persona that will sell records is jarring to Al, as his music is an authentic expression of himself, and the fact that the insincere rapper is successful makes the bitter pill even harder to swallow. Henry’s portrayal of Al has always been fairly grouchy, with anger being his knee-jerk response whenever fear or sadness threaten to emerge, to avoid being vulnerable; as the Robbin’ Season gets meaner and Al gets more stoic, he becomes a lot harder to read, for audience and characters alike, which makes the run up to the finale, and the question of Earn’s future as his manager hanging overhead, thrillingly unpredictable.
Having spent much of season one flitting through the stories of Al and Earn, dishing out hilarious, poignant and Yoda-like pearls of wisdom between exhalations of weed smoke, Darius steps up his presence in season 2, while still making sure to be the comedic centre of all his scenes. The first episode sees Earn heading to pay a visit to his uncle, and along the way, as the titular Robbin’ Season escalates across Atlanta, Darius enlightens him to the legend of The Florida Man, retooling an old meme into a creepy criminal with a rap sheet that includes shooting an unarmed black teenager, beating a flamingo to death and eating another man’s face. This bizarre mixture of culturally relevant, absurdly funny, and ghoulishly macabre not only tees up the hilarious introduction of the Alligator Man, himself somewhat of a local legend, but it neatly sets the stage for Darius’ solo episode: a twisted, symbolism-heavy horror story in which Stanfield shows his range, with Darius facing emotional turmoil while trying to buy a piano.
ROBBIN’ SEASON finds the space to really explore […] ATLANTA’s signature blend of black politics, kooky humour, and abstract surrealism.
While the main narrative portrays the struggles of breaking into hip hop – such as that of being a black artist working with a predominantly white record label – it’s within these deviations from the central plot that ROBBIN’ SEASON finds the space to really explore a wider range of themes, including ATLANTA’s signature blend of black politics, kooky humour, and abstract surrealism. Such a diversion is Earn and Van’s trip to up to Helen for Oktoberfest, which is known as the “Get Out Episode” due to its parallels with Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning social horror, including a run in with a wild animal on the drive up, and the white citizens being superficially welcoming, yet stressing racial divides through prejudice and ignorance. These instances include an old friend of Van’s tastelessly trying to connect with Earn using “street lingo”, and the racist tradition of blackface being so deeply woven into the celebration that one girl commends Earn on how good he looks, before going to wipe off the makeup and realising his blackface is just a black face.
Darius’ solo story is perhaps the pinnacle of ROBBIN’ SEASON’s experimental style, as his quest to obtain a multi-colour-keyed piano leads him to the creepy, Gothic mansion of brothers and ageing musicians, Teddy Perkins (Donald Glover in a prosthetic whiteface), and Benny Hope (Derrick Haywood), in a story that jumps rope with the line between dreamlike and reality. The episode quickly descends into a twisted and surrealist fun-house ride, as Teddy leads a reluctant Darius on a tour of his mansion-turned-museum, culminating in a grotesque exhibit that honours men Teddy deems to be great fathers, including his own – who beat both boys whenever they would make a mistake while learning piano – alongside Jo Jackson, who had similar tactics with Michael, and Marvin Gay Sr, who shot and killed his son. Family and sacrifice are strong themes in this story, and not only inform the symbolism and cultural reflections, but also tie nicely into the overarching struggle between Earn and Al as the latter’s fame increases.
Unlike its more disjointed predecessor, ROBBIN’ SEASON feels like a cohesive vision, with everything from the aforementioned Gothic horror story to a flashback episode that follows Earn and Al in middle school tying in, however abstractly, to the overall question that fuels the narrative: are you gonna eat, or are you gonna be eaten? With the world getting meaner and more desperate, the season follows its complex and relatable stars interacting with an eccentric supporting cast of oddball characters, dealing with race, poverty and existentialism in equal measure, and delivering experimental, thoughtful, and deeply engrossing television in the process.
Verdict: 5/5 Paddles