It is in no way surprising that after an exceptional first season Atlanta would return with a well-earned sense of confidence as well as a few new tricks up its sleeve. After all, in addition to being buried under an avalanche of praise, the series racked up a number of awards, making the roughly 16-month wait for new episodes — so that series creator and star Donald Glover could venture to a galaxy far, far away — all the more excruciating. But with the wait now over, it’s clear that what the creative minds behind the series have crafted in Robbin’ Season is in keeping with what made Atlanta great in the first place, but it also feels like a smart, confident and daring step forward.
Atlanta season 1 was unique in part due to its unpredictability. The series would vary wildly in tone and subject matter from episode to episode, allowing for everything from a day-long journey to buy a sword to Brian Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi making an appearance on a fake talk show, complete with its own in-show commercials. The series demonstrated it could be anything and everything it wanted to be, from a fairly straightforward comedy about Earn Marks (Glover) figuring himself out to something far more surreal, like a show where an episode about one-upmanship culminated in a guy driving away from an incident at a club in an invisible car.
That Glover and the show’s creative team, which includes his brother Stephen on the writing side and director Hiro Murai, would take such a risk and still have the wherewithal to make it work as a coherent and somehow cohesive whole is reason enough to sing the show’s praises. But, as the team returns for Robbin’ Season, Atlanta makes a surprising creative shift, one that involves telling a more consistent story (at least over the first three episodes released to critics), and moving the stories of Earn, Paper Boi, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and Van (Zazie Beetz) forward in some surprising ways.
Robbin’ Season works as the central idea around which all the episodes ostensibly revolve. As Darius puts it in the premiere, Robbin’ Season takes place near Christmastime, where crime surges because “everybody gotta eat.” No one, especially not the main characters, are immune to the effects of Robbin’ Season, and there’s a sense that everyone’s a potential mark, which grants the first three episodes a different kind of urgency and general feeling of unease.
But as before, the change in season 2, from the tone to the more cohesive and serialized structure, simply works. Glover and all his collaborators have such a keen understanding of who these characters are and what motivates them they’re able to do pretty much anything they set their minds to. Perhaps that’s why, when the premiere swerves so unexpectedly from Earn’s familiar pursuit of a more permanent place to stay to a mostly comical standoff with the police featuring a surprisingly dramatic performance from standup comedian Katt Williams, it all feels connected in a way that is not only very entertaining, it’s decidedly less abstract.
Even if the absurd or surreal moments that Atlanta season 1 brought to the table were the reason you tuned in every week, it’s difficult to say that you’ll miss them too much here. There is so much going on, and so much of it is so good you’d be hard pressed to say an ingredient is missing. If anything, it’s the opposite. The more consistent, grounded nature of the first three episodes don’t prevent Glover and Co. from swinging for the fences with regard the dreamlike state the show can sometimes slip into. From Darius’s discussion of “Florida Man,” as though the events described in the meme are perpetrated by a single individual, or Williams proving why the episode is titled ‘Alligator Man,’ Atlanta hasn’t abandoned its association with the surreal; it’s just taking a different approach to how it implements those unforgettable moments.
Any comment on the more grounded start of season 2 comes with full recognition that things could change in a heartbeat, but given Glover’s remarks ahead of Robbin’ Season, that each episode will stand on its own, but, as a whole, will comprise something akin to a movie, it’s a good bet what’s being offered here is what audiences are likely going to get moving forward. Consistency is what most shows strive to achieve and yet seem to have the most trouble with. Last season, Atlanta was wildly inconsistent in almost every sense but quality, which remained high from start to finish. This time around, the creators seem to be testing themselves on their ability to make moves within the world they’re representing as well as the one they’ve created, all while maintaining a certain level of consistency.
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season continues next Thursday with ‘Sportin’ Waves’ @10pm on FX.