Atlanta’s Robbin’ season, the second in the series, ran for 11 episodes. Each one was starkly different, important in its own distinctive way, unified by a common thread that weaved its way throughout the series premise: being robbed. Though the opening moments of the series evoked a sense of violence, threat and felony crimes, what we soon learn is that in Atlanta, you can be robbed of in any number of ways: of dignity, of money, of autonomy, of safety, of love, and so on. Robbin season looks at the experience of being black in America from the perspective of the characters.
Alfred aka Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry with aplomb, is robbed throughout the season. First, he has to deal with the fact that he has a promising life laid out in front of him but it’s an unpredictable, unknown path. His day job is predictable, easy and he’s been doing it for years. But then he gets robbed at gunpoint by his longtime dealer. And then again by young fans. And then any respect he thought people had for him is gone when he sees how employees of a record company treat him: like some kind of exotic, caged animal. And finally, he’s robbed of his time by his barber in the season’s weakest but funniest episode.
Though each of the main characters is robbed of various things throughout the season, it’s Al who is the central crux of Atlanta. It’s his life that Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Earn (Donald Glover) cling to in the hopes of doing something with theirs – the latter more so than the former. With this pressure on him to succeed and take care of those around him, Al allows himself to be robbed of all that he believes in and succumbs to celebrity success.
The other main character whose life takes a major turn in the second season is Van (Zazie Beetz). Her relationship with Earn is the relationship of many people: they have a kid together, Earn’s around sometimes and when he chooses to be. It’s Van who does most of the grunt work. It’s a lived experience that resonates with many Black women in America. And when Van confronts Earn about wanting a committing, honest relationship, he can’t offer her that, robbing her of a future with her baby’s father. The most emotionally heavy of the storylines, it finally allows Van to see Earn in a certain light.
Meanwhile, all Earn is robbed of us is his comfort. Both Al and Van ask him to step up, to drop his holier-than-thou attitude in favour of doing better for himself and by proxy them. He needs to do better and it’s only at the end of the season that he truly understands what that means: he has to pull the other crabs down to rise to the top.
This is an unusual message to leave viewers with at the end of the season but that’s precisely the point.
As audiences, we’ve always been told what a TV series should be. We’ve always been told what and who working-class and poor people look like, act like; how people should behave in certain situations; how the path to success is rocky but manageable; how, at the end of the day, each one of us will fulfil our version of the “American Dream”, our individual version of “success.”
What Atlanta does masterfully throughout the series, though, is defy notions of what it is and shouldn’t be. Take Earn and Van. In the season finale, there’s a tender moment, a second or two where most TV shows would yield to audience expectations and have them kiss, reuniting the main couple. But Atlanta shies away from that. This is found throughout the series because it’s only at the end of the season do we truly realise that the people who were being robbed the most were us, the audience.
We were robbed of what a TV series is and our pre-conceived notions of what a scripted, comedy show was shattered, specifically one about African-Americans from the American south. Atlanta, despite being billed as a comedy show, barely induced laughs. A quip from Darius here and there brought a smirk but most of the time, an impending sense of doom hung heavily over the show. The powerful direction of Hiro Murai combined with the deft writing in each episode defied expectations.
Teddy Perkins, the terrifying, sallow-faced character played by Donald Glover in white-face made us confront what it is to make art in today’s cultural landscape. What Perkins makes us face is a choice: take on the scars consumerism and capitalism leaves on the bodies of Black artists or risk being ostracised, forgotten and left in the basement for not bending to the ways of society’s demands. Having been derided for his Childish Gambino moniker early on in his career, Glover is now lauded universally as an artist not only for Atlanta but for Gambino as well, especially in the wake of the This is America video. You can’t help but think of a correlation between Gambino or Michael Jackson and Perkins here.
What Glover does with Perkins, Paper Boi and Atlanta as a whole is dissect the experience of being Black in America while navigating a path to success. The road isn’t easy. Hell, you may not even make it very far despite being afforded the keys to it. Atlanta lingers on certain moments longer than most other TV shows allowing audiences to soak in moments where emotions swing in seconds.
Every artist who worked on Atlanta’s Robbin Season right down to Kat Williams and other side characters who floated in and out of the season were operating near the peak of their potential. Every person seemed to be on the same wavelength which allowed Atlanta to be filled with a foreboding sense of darkness and threat. It showed how every Black person is affected in their own way from just being born Black in America: they aren’t able to escape what’s shaped them, that they’ll always be trapped because they can’t escape their experiences, experiences which are automatically given to them because of the colour of their skin. The lingering after-effects of trauma are what fuels Atlanta’s Robbin season with mortal peril, tragic deaths, Teddy Perkins-esque characters and unyielding anxiety throughout.
Looking back on the second season of the award-winning show, you had to enter each episode (and the series as a whole) with a blank slate. In a 30-minute segment, Atlanta would twist and turn in ways you didn’t expect evoking feelings of distress, surprise, delight, anxiety, and annoyance all in a short amount of time. When the end credits hit, most were left feeling bewildered at the journey they were taken on. By the season finale, despite the many theories that floated around on the internet, audiences knew better than to want or expect any particular thing. And this unknown quality is what allowed Atlanta to have one of the strongest seasons in recent TV memory.