'Atlanta Robbin' Season': TV Review

A great steal.
2/1/2018

Greater, weirder, more: Donald Glover and an excellent cast winningly resume their wholly original slice-of-life series on FX.

There is essentially nothing like Atlanta on television, so the Donald Glover-created FX series finds itself in this hyper-weird space as it returns from more than a year off after its freshman season. It's now less a TV series than a conceptual work of art — a fractured feat of storytelling that works on mood more than momentum, featuring a collection of actors who could be off making big-budget movies but are instead making a really small, personal TV series.

Capturing the zeitgeist mood of 30-minute slice-of-life series like Master of None, Better Things, Lady Dynamite, Baskets, One Mississippi — basically any series that popped up post-Louie, the series Louis C.K. and FX birthed in 2010 that rewrote the rule of what a TV show could be — Atlanta remains fresh and surprising. The show is very much a product of its name, shot on location and taking to heart the vibe of the Southern city, which is not a familiar TV milieu. Glover, aka Childish Gambino, delves into the homegrown rap world there while simultaneously deep-diving on what it's like to be young and black in America. Again, not prototypical TV.

So Atlanta was already well off the path of familiarity in its first season when it told its not altogether tethered episodes about struggling, Princeton-educated and essentially homeless Earnest "Earn" Marks (Glover), who finds a purpose trying to manage Paper Boi, aka Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), his cousin, whose mixtape lights up the streets and births a potential star (although it's the music industry, so nothing is that simple and nobody is truly getting paid just yet).

As Earn tries to represent Paper Boi, complications ensue — that's basically the short of it for a series that works on the granular day-to-day level of what it's like trying to scrape by. The show found much of its comic success through Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Alfred's weird-time consigliere/right-hand-man/philosopher king. For emotional resonance, there was Van (Zazie Beetz), ostensibly Earn's best friend and on-again/off-again girlfriend, but also the mother of his baby daughter and someone always telling him he needed to wake up and be responsible. Atlanta excelled at a strange mix of real-life brutal truisms, humor and friendship, and clashed all of its tones together as needed, loosely telling everyone's story for 10 episodes. It was as linear as needed, its pace loose, the elasticity of the storytelling allowing whatever creativity struck Glover and his writer-brother Stephen, along with director Hiro Murai, to operate.

So, yeah, Atlanta was more niche than hit, but few series were as effortlessly creative. It started in September 2016 and was over by November of that same year. The delay rolling into season two was mainly because Glover was shooting Solo: A Star Wars Story, where he plays the young Lando Calrissian, plus working on his music — but the entire cast have been insanely in-demand, making movies.

(FX has always been understanding about creative opportunities and not adhering to strict season-premiere dates, but it must have wondered if anyone in this cast was coming back, as Henry booked a number of movies and plotted a return to Broadway; Stanfield also did several films, including Get Out; and Beetz racked up a few features of her own, including the female lead in Deadpool 2).

It should be no surprise, then, that doing an ordinary TV series was probably out of the question for this group. Glover and company didn't want to call it "season two" and asked FX to simply call it "Robbin' Season," like an album title. (It refers to the period before Christmas when robberies increase as desperate people try to buy presents and eat; in the three episodes sent to critics, robbery of all sorts is both plot device and metaphor.)

Beyond that, Glover said the structure of the new season (which allegedly runs 11 episodes as opposed to 10) takes its cues from the early 1990s animated kids series Tiny Toon Adventures, and more specifically the direct-to-video movie (produced, of course, by Steven Spielberg) called Tiny Toons Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation. And no, he's not kidding. The central point Glover made was that there was a fractured sense to that series and movie, and each part was enjoyable in and of itself, while also playing well as a whole.

Although the three review episodes don't leap out as conceptual conceits in this manner, it's not far-fetched to view Atlanta as a loose collection of scenes stretched over 30 minutes — some funny and some dramatic, the clashing tones emblematic of life itself (and, to be honest, not entirely dissimilar from the feel of season one).

For example, the first episode of "Robbin' Season" opens with two unknown characters hanging out doing nothing (well, playing video games — FIFA, interestingly enough) and then going to a drive-through fast-food place; what happens next is pretty shocking — an unexpected robbery that goes sideways, and then Atlanta goes to commercial break.

Does it make sense? Sure, sense enough. It's a slice of life. There's a robbery. There's also an alligator. And a gold pistol. It's not Fellini so much as it's a world you don't exist in or maybe understand, which is probably one of the points.

A second episode sends up eager white consumption and promotion of hip-hop (in a scene that does Silicon Valley proud), while simultaneously commenting on weak, commodified rap sold by a rapper who might be easier to pitch to the masses than, say, Paper Boi. (There's another, edgier episode about Earn's inability to spend a $100 bill that is as sharply cutting as it is funny.)

Not all of the scenes are primarily story-driven or even essential to forward momentum as much as they are snapshots, artistic sketches that, combined over the course of multiple episodes, create a narrative of what it's like to be young, black and trying to survive in America.

Cast: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz
Created and written by: Donald Glover
Director: Hiro Murai
Premieres: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)