There’s no show I’m more acutely aware of being unqualified to understand than Atlanta — which is, of course, by its own brilliant design.
Donald Glover’s trippy, incisive comedy is in large part built to make white people uncomfortable. Per Glover, there’s a power in being able to do that. Atlanta seized the opportunity to stake a claim on premium space, the FX network, to not only tell stories about poor black people trying to make it but also force the white people watching to reckon with the biases they may not even understand they have.
But playing translator to a white audience is also, as Glover points out, an incredibly frustrating role. No matter how supportive or well-meaning a network FX is, it is inevitably still operated by largely white executives who will always need more convincing of the value of stories they haven’t lived. So no matter how much black creatives like Glover might want to make a show by and for black people, they will always have to convince white gatekeepers of their worth.
“If Atlanta was made just for black people, it would be a very different show,” Glover recently told the New Yorker. “But I can’t even begin to tell you how, because blackness is always seen through a lens of whiteness — the lens of what white people can profit from at that moment.”
One way he describes how he and his brother Stephen got the show on FX is that Atlanta was their “Trojan horse.” They promised FX a cerebral comedy based on Donald’s preexisting persona — in other words, a comedy that the network would both understand and want — before making a far stranger and more pointed series than they believed the network would ever greenlight. No white executive, they figured, would fall all over themselves to buy a show whose mission statement included making white people feel — really feel — what enduring the everyday degradation of racism is like.
The gambit worked: FX bought the show and gave them the freedom to make it as weird as they liked, and the resulting first season brought in the highest ratings for a comedy in the network’s entire history.
But as Glover told the New Yorker, the constant need to keep white people placated was a real source of pain for a long time. Recalling an argument he had with his Atlanta co-star Brian Tyree Henry after the Golden Globes, Glover describes Henry’s frustration over “the basic fact that white people don’t want their feelings hurt so we have to make everything palatable to them.” But, he added, “I used to feel the anger [Henry] feels about it, anger to the point of tears. Now it’s just boring to me.”
That tension is at the heart of Atlanta Robbin’ Season, premiering March 1. In fact, the very title confronts it: “Robbin’ Season” is an explicit reference to Atlantan vernacular for the pre-Christmas robbery rush for presents and bonuses. But when promoting the season at January’s Television Critics Association press tour, Stephen Glover — an executive producer and writer on the show — still had to spell it out, since they were promoting the show to a room full of mostly white journalists who assumed the idea of “Robbin’ Season” was a joke.
(Further underlining this tension is the fact that I have currently read only one Robbin’ Season review from a black writer, Salon’s Melanie McFarland; I hope there will be more to come, but I’m not expecting too many, due to criticism’s generally infuriating talent pipeline problems.)
As the much-anticipated follow-up to Atlanta’s groundbreaking first season — which earned Donald Glover two Emmys, one for directing and another for acting — Robbin’ Season also has the unenviable job of trying to live up to everyone’s effusive praise. As Glover puts it, “a lot of this season is me proving to people that I didn’t get those Emmys just because of affirmative action.”
And so Robbin’ Season makes a smart decision, weaving the fact of the show’s success into the narrative itself. This time around, the characters have achieved just enough success to be impressed with themselves, but not enough to navigate their world with anything resembling security.
Then again, as Robbin’ Season points out at every turn, there’s no level of success black men like Earn (Glover) and his rapper cousin Alfred, a.k.a. “Paper Boi” (Henry), could attain to placate people who are intrinsically threatened by their presence.
In the second episode, Earn gets Alfred a meeting at a streaming music startup that could get Paper Boi’s track serious publicity outside of the radio stations that have made him a minor local celebrity. But every single part of their experience at the Spotify-esque company — surrounded by mostly white 20-somethings — feels off. While everyone constantly praises Paper Boi’s music, their enthusiasm comes with a hefty dose of casual condescension.
When Paper Boi goes to the front of the office to perform, for example, barely anyone looks up from their computers. Despite all their insistence to the contrary, they’re not especially interested to see what he can actually do outside of making the company look cooler by association. There is, as Earn says with a raised eyebrow, a troubling “vibe” there that the company, full of white people who believe they are the good guys, doesn’t even register.
Scenes like this contrast sharply with those in which Earn is shooting the shit with Alfred and Darius (the ever-enigmatic Lakeith Stanfield), trying to relax with his erstwhile partner Van (Zazie Beetz), or even cajoling his wild-card uncle (Katt Williams) out of his house. They’re just more intimate and loose in every way, from the languid rhythm of their intertwining dialogue to the care with which director Hiro Murai traces their movements.
The show always finds jokes in the bleakest of situations, like how the season opens with a chatty car ride turned armed robbery, featuring some truly expert tonal whiplash. But the moments in which Earn and his friends can just be themselves are casually, wonderfully funny in a way that highlights how much they have to hold themselves back just about everywhere else.
So the times they have to be back in spaces that demand they justify their presence — spaces that, in other words, put white feelings first — are permeated by an unmistakable sense of loss. Just like the people bringing the show to life, Atlanta’s characters keep having to renegotiate everything about themselves to fit an impossible, constantly changing mold.
Atlanta Robbin’ Season airs Thursdays at 10 pm EST on FX.