The first season of the FX comedy Atlanta didn't just introduce its characters through a series of memorable vignettes about relationships, music, weed and money. It gradually broke down expectations until it could do almost anything. It could cast a black actor to play Justin Bieber without elaborating. It could turn itself into a half-hour send-up of a low-budget cable talk show. It stretched the boundaries in which it existed, and in the second season, it feels more settled — and not in a bad way.
FX provided three new episodes from what they're calling Atlanta: Robbin' Season to critics, and none of them break format the way some episodes in the first season did. (Robbin' Season refers to the holidays, when people are more eager for money.) Instead, these episodes create new situations for the characters the show has so carefully constructed: Earn (Donald Glover), the aspiring music producer; his rapper cousin Al (Brian Tyree Henry), who's had one hit that he's trying to turn into a career; their buddy Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), who tends to lay low until he needs to speak; and Earn's on-and-off girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), who cares for him (and roots for him) even as she's often disappointed by him (and angry at him).
The second season, early on, doesn't feel plot-driven so much as theme-driven. Al is now a little bit successful, but he's successful in the way that subjects him to frustration over and over. He still has to buy his own weed, for instance, but he has to worry about somebody taking his picture. He takes his own calls and answers his own phone, but every time he gives out his number, he risks having his privacy breached by the curious. He has enough notoriety to lose his anonymity, but not enough to pay anyone to protect him from the consequences of success.
Similarly, Earn has a moment to contemplate what it's like to have money, even briefly, but it doesn't go the way he imagined it might. What he has thought was an aspiration to make money turns out to be — well, yes, an aspiration to make money, but also an aspiration to escape forces that are bigger and harder to defeat than that. Money, he learns is multi-dimensional. Not every dollar is treated the same. It depends on who gives it, and when, and to whom, and for what.
These stories are still really funny, even when — especially when — they're realized in small ways. Henry, in particular, would win an Emmy for Outstanding Seething in a Comedy Series in a walk. Glover and the other writers (including his brother Stephen) still value a great button on a scene or an episode, and they get a lot out of comedy from spot-on images like a cover of Al's hit "Paper Boi" that he does not welcome and a visit to what seems to be a streaming service run by white tech guys but fed by black musicians.
Atlanta doesn't run on its ability to make you tune in to see what happens. It's a show about hustle; if it ever really stops being about hustle, that's likely to be just another vignette about a sudden windfall. For now, it runs on its ability to place you in a particular moment and depict the feeling of it with great precision in whatever way works best. There are a lot of comparisons made between television and novels; if Atlanta were a book, not only would it not be a novel, but it might not even be a book of short stories. It would be a book of poems, sketches, verses written in different colors of ink. Perhaps you would turn a page and it would be a drawing; you would turn another and someone has pasted a collage of magazine headlines. But somehow, it would evoke a coherent sense of a place and a group of people that you'd feel like you'd never seen.