This Atlanta review contains spoilers.
Atlanta Season 2 Episode 1
We’ve been told Robbin’ Season is going to do things pretty differently from Atlanta’s inaugural season. It’s meant to be a more linear, grounded experience with continuing storylines that, in full, should feel like one huge movie. With the first season, which seemingly indulged in any surreal flight of fancy it felt like, Donald Glover claimed he was trying to make Twin Peaks for rappers. Funnily enough, the limited series of Twin Peaks that came out last year was, unlike the original series, viewed by David Lynch as one huge movie, so, whether intentional or not, Atlanta is continuing to follow in that seminal series’ footsteps.
The premiere of the Twin Peaks revival displayed little interest in gripping viewers or easing them into the world gently. Perhaps in part because, like in any film, the beginning unspooled more slowly, the premiere was drawn-out and unwelcoming. Atlanta is an infinitely faster-moving and more welcoming show than, well, probably any David Lynch production, but, for a half-hour show, and compared to the episodes following this one (I’ve seen the first three), “Alligator Man” is surprisingly slow-moving and decidedly ungentle about bringing us into Robbin’ Season.
The episode opens with a dark, dramatic scene featuring two characters we’ve never met before committing a robbery. Our returning leads are in predicaments that (unless I’m forgetting things from season one) we know nothing about and receive no backstory on. The lion’s share of the episode takes place in one little house and is about a conflict between two characters we’ve just met. And, in the very last scene, a brand-new character is abruptly introduced.
Regardless, Atlanta pulls it off. Part of how is that there are still familiar aspects to be found here. Darius is the same weirdo he always was; in the episode’s biggest, most surreal digression, he explains the history of Florida Man, a white guy who does all the crazy shit in Florida that makes it into the news (“think of him as an alt-right Johnny Appleseed” is one of the series’ all-time best lines). There’s also Atlanta hilarious moments to counterbalance the darker dramatic ones.
But otherwise “Alligator Man” stands on its own as an introduction into the unique, new(ish) setting of Robbin’ Season. To return to that opening scene, it masterfully establishes all the themes of what we’re about to see. The desperateness and violence of the robbery sets the tone. Everyone’s out to get theirs during the holiday season and things get rough. This is reinforced when Darius and Earn sit outside a gas station, indifferently regarding a crime scene; the dead body under the sheet is nothing out of the ordinary.
Through extreme situations, the show also highlights the absurdist situations capitalism pushes these characters into. The employee of a fast food place shoots it up with a machine gun to protect his drug dealing side enterprise. Earn’s been convicted for trying to sell half a joint and must pay a jail entrance fee as well as a recurring fee for an anti-drug class. He doesn’t have the money, so a payment plan is set up.
It’s still not entirely clear why so much of the episode is set in the house of a new character, Uncle Willie. As Al and Earn are cousins and Earn is Al’s agent, the mixing of family and business is another theme Atlanta continues to explore. Earn basically has to do whatever Al says to stay in his good graces, so he’s in Willie’s house dealing with his police problem. Also, Willie is evidently meant to serve as a cautionary tale to how Earn could end up.
However, it’s still just undeniably weird to start a season off with so much devoted to this conflict, most of which involves Earn with people we don’t know talking and yelling at each other in a small space. Luckily, it stays engrossing by being the right mixture of comedic, dramatic, and weird (there’s that ever-looming alligator in the other room). Plus, Katt Williams was a great choice for Willie; watching him get angry is consistently funny.
In the end, “Alligator Man” is a premiere with some of the aspects of Atlanta we’re familiar with, but mostly it throws you into the deep end of the unfamiliar territory of Robbin’ Season. In fact, there’s a degree to which it feels like the episode is being mockingly obtuse. There’s a gag plot about Darius and Al being angry at each other but never wanting to talk about why; they make up at the end when Al offers Darius a joint and he accepts it from him. In other words, we get to watch as a conflict we knew nothing about is resolved for reasons we don’t understand. (It’s actually an ingenious boiling down of a dramatic plot to its bare essentials: it’s all done with a few sour looks and some strays lines of dialogue.)
Also, for a show about a rapper, there’s barely anything about Alfred’s music career here. But, as I said, that opening scene smartly sets up everything to come. We might not see much of Paper Boi in “Alligator Man,” but the theme of people trying to make it in the music business is still touched upon by way of a discussion between those two unknown characters about a mixtape.
It’s a slow start, but Atlanta Robbin’ Season will get around to covering everything eventually.