The premiere of the second season of Atlanta opens like a buddy comedy but quickly turns into a shoot-’em-up action sequence: Two friends playing video games decide on the fly to rob a fast-food restaurant. When they do, we see it all in tense slow motion, this small-scale heist invested with all the high-stakes drama of a battle scene in a war movie.
That kind of tonal shift happens a lot on this show, particularly its stellar second season — subtitled Robbin’ Season — which ends tonight. Atlanta creator Donald Glover explores a similarly abrupt turn from casual cheer to grim violence in the explosive music video for his new single, as rapper Childish Gambino, titled “This Is America.” In Robbin’ Season, these swerves into menace continue when rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) tries to pick up weed, only to have his longtime dealer and friend sheepishly pull a gun on him (“Ay, my fault”); or when three young fans encounter Al alone on the street and gush before attacking him and stealing his watch; or when a white man buying tickets at an upscale movie theater wordlessly pulls back his jacket to reveal a holstered gun on his hip, prompting Al’s cousin Earn (Glover) and the mother of Earn’s child, Van (Zazie Beetz), to book it. In the world of Atlanta, the threat of violence looms behind the veneer of every mundane interaction. As a white viewer (and a Canadian no less!), for me the show is a bracing reminder that the rhythms of everyday life are not the same for all of us.
Atlanta’s first season outlined Earn’s quest to make a buck managing his cousin’s nascent career. The second turns its focus more squarely on Alfred himself. Ambitious but ambivalent over his newfound fame, Alfred is caught between his community and the wider (and whiter) world of celebrity — a rapper who resists the imperative to posture although that seems to be all anyone wants from him.
Alfred’s season-two arc is a cutting portrait of stardom in the social media age. Being a local celebrity only seems to put him in danger — of losing touch with himself, but also literal, physical danger; his fame is a target on his back. The clichéd trappings of a successful rap career don’t yield many pleasures for Al. Even the promise of pussy falters: When Earn arranges for Al to sleep at a fan’s apartment during a college performance, to save money, the girl turns out to be less alluring than strangely threatening. Lying on her bed in her pink-walled room, she tells Al about a sexy dream she had where they were exotic animals holding each other naked: “And then I ate you. And there was blood everywhere.”
These incidents speak to the hazards of fame, but also its illusory nature. In the world of celebrity, nothing is as it seems. Al’s spacy sidekick, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), warns that anyone with a certain number of Instagram followers inevitably has an “unrealistic view” of life. In “Champagne Papi,” Van and her girls snag themselves invites to a party thrown by Drake; a friend of Van’s is stringing along the rapper’s tour barber, one of many satellites orbiting Drake’s star. But the party doesn’t quite resemble the one being documented all night on Instagram. The women have to wear hospital booties over their high heels to protect the mansion’s marble floors; a nice guy who offers to help Van charge her phone turns out to be a creep; and, finally, Van discovers that Drake’s not actually there, and that all those girls on Insta have been sharing photos of themselves standing beside a cardboard cutout — a fairly ingenious hustle run by two enterprising women charging partygoers twenty bucks a pop.
As the season progresses, Alfred learns that fame can be less liberating than oppressive. The higher he climbs, the more he realizes that his success depends on access to and the approval of white people. While fellow up-and-comer Clark County (RJ Walker) — whose white manager has already booked him a Yoo-hoo commercial — gamely snaps pics with the pale millennial running a hipster music streaming service called Fresh, Alfred takes one look at a twentysomething white kid eating a banana at his cubicle and wordlessly leaves the room, handing the kid his microphone on the way out.
As Atlanta Robbin’ Season was entering the home stretch, Kanye West started to tweet. He was a “free thinker,” he claimed, and he wouldn’t be shamed for supporting Donald Trump. “The mob can’t make me not love him,” he tweeted in late April, shortly before posting a picture of himself in a red MAGA hat. “We are both dragon energy. He is my brother.” Later, West visited the offices of TMZ and claimed that slavery was a “choice.”
On Monday, Ta-Nehisi Coates, of course, wrote the response I’d been waiting to read, about fame and how it fucks with people — especially black people, who carry the expectations of a community not just on their albums and movies and music videos and TV shows but on their own backs, too. Of his own brush with fame, after the publication of Between the World and Me in 2015, Coates writes, “I felt myself to be the same as I had always been, but everything around me was warping. My sense of myself as part of a community of black writers disintegrated before me.”
The implication in all this — and what Atlanta so nimbly teases out — is that there’s something inextricably whitening about the pursuit of mainstream fame in America, no matter how absolutely central the contributions of African Americans have always been in shaping mainstream American culture. (The show’s tradition of stamping its opening credits onto everyday objects, half-hidden, speaks to the open secret of black cultural dominance: This season, “Atlanta” shows up stitched into a placemat on a coffee table, etched into the barrel of a gun, and, my personal favorite, printed on the side of a bus driving by in the background, out of focus and barely perceptible. Central, crucial, yet marginal.) Atlanta Robbin’ Season made this point explicit in its headline-grabbing sixth episode, “Teddy Perkins,” in which Glover plays the title character — a wealthy mansion-dweller in a silk robe whose face is a bizarre mask of whiteface, and who claims his brother is a famous black jazz pianist. Darius, who drives out to pick up a piano Teddy listed online, suspects the man is black but has bleached his skin to the point of grotesquerie. Like so many episodes of Atlanta, this veers into violence as Teddy, rifle in hand, cuffs Darius to a chair and threatens to “sacrifice” him. Darius escapes unharmed, but before he does he takes the time to demonstrate empathy for his captor. Darius tells Teddy that Teddy’s father should have apologized for his abusiveness, and that Teddy still deserves love.
The existence of Atlanta itself is a powerful rebuke to its own hard-headed cynicism. The creative freedom that FX has given Glover means the show doesn’t launder its blackness the way so many other series centered on black life do — most TV is made by committee, and that committee is usually predominantly white. The show boldly speaks to American culture’s impulse to extract all that is cool or profitable from blackness while discarding actual black people, a compulsion that Jordan Peele so brilliantly made literal in Get Out. Alfred understands this, so he resists being sucked into the maw of mainstream pop culture — he doesn’t want to play this game, finds no solace in the fact that corporate, white America will pay him to rap over ads for chocolate-flavored sugar water. The freedom he craves is the kind that leads him “back to Home,” as Coates puts it, rather than “the white freedom of Calabasas.”
Maybe such freedom is impossible for someone like Alfred. That’s the conclusion he seems to have come to when he toys with the idea of jettisoning his cousin, late in the season, and hiring a bearded white guy in his place. Alfred’s arc suggests the near impossibility of being famous and real at the same time, especially if you’re black. Maybe Glover’s own success shows that there is a path for a black artist in a white world. But in the world of Atlanta, the best you can hope for is to be famous for being perceived as real, because that’s all fame is — a trick of the mind, an optical illusion. A cardboard cutout Drake.
The season finale of Atlanta airs tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.
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