Atlanta’s Season 2 Recap: A Nod to TV History

Some are calling the second season of Atlanta the best TV this year. It feels bigger than itself, with every episode spinning off into new tangents and chasing down additional rabbit trails. Atlanta rarely plays by the rules of the clockwork plot, where everything fits into an exact place and half the fun is in seeing how all the pieces mesh.

Stories in Atlanta are tied together less by plot or even character than mood. It’s a show about how the world, as seen through the eyes of Earn and his friends, is haunted by the ghosts of other selves. In the finale, Earn asks a Jewish man, who’s suggested that his cousin could be the perfect entertainment lawyer for Earn’s cousin, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), the up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi, if there’s any way a black lawyer could be as good of a lawyer as the other man’s cousin. The Jewish man says, sure, but being a lawyer inevitably requires connections — and black people rarely have the same level of connections for “systemic reasons.” He’s trying to be polite, but his response is a reminder to Earn (who is working as Alfred’s manager, another job requiring connections) of all that holds him in place even when his career seems to move forward.

Atlanta, then, is about the intricacies of identity. Yes, it’s Glover’s attempt to create a series that underlines the black experience in modern America, but it’s also about attempts to transcend one’s own identity, to figure out what it means to be an individual in a world intent on quickly pigeonholing everyone.

The second season is obsessed with differences between “fake” and “real,” from $100 bills Earn tries to use that are assumed to be counterfeit because he’s black to the idea of our reality being a mere simulation in some other universe, all of us video game characters. Authenticity is considered necessary to individualism, but Glover is fascinated by how difficult achieving authenticity even is for his characters.

And yet Atlanta is a comedy — and a frequently hilarious one at that. How is it able to encompass so much, in running times that never feel padded, while still being able to shift tones on a dime, when so many other TV shows in its “not quite comedy, but not quite drama” space struggle to do so? It’s all due to its rock-solid sitcom construction.

Every episode of Atlanta starts from a sitcom premise, then goes somewhere far more thoughtful. It’s easy to forget now that he’s taken over the world, but Donald Glover cut his teeth working as a writer on 30 Rock before moving on to a major supporting role on Community, whose creator, Dan Harmon, has stated that Glover’s improvised jokes were ones that often made it to final cut. Glover, as you might expect from that résumé, is one of the best pure joke writers on the planet, able to take just about any line and find exactly the right spin to make it as funny as possible.

But that time working in the network sitcom trenches gave him something in addition to joke-writing prowess. It gave him an innate understanding of sitcom storytelling structure and how to use that to guide the audience through an episode of television. Indeed, every single episode of Atlanta starts from the sort of time-honored sitcom premise that wouldn’t feel out of home on I Love Lucy: Earn comes into a windfall and tries to take his girlfriend out, only to have the night ruined; Alfred’s friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) tries to reason with a stranger whose ideas about the world mark him as an oddball recluse; Alfred gets roped into the schemes of a local businessman.

This, incidentally, is similar to how 30 Rock structured episodes, starting from very old sitcom premises, then increasing the pacing and cramming them full of jokes until they no longer resembled themselves. But where 30 Rock sped up, Atlanta slows way down. It follows the basic beats of the story you’d expect, but it stretches them out, leaving room for flights of surreal fancy, for weirdness, for outright horror…continue reading on

The second season of Atlanta is available to stream on FX’s streaming services.
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Written By: Todd VanDerWerff