ATLANTA: The Moments that Made “Robbin’ Season”

The best show on television is much more than the sum of its individual moments, but for Chase and David, here are the ones that defined Atlanta’s brilliant second season. 

“Alligator Man” — The Gator

When Alfred enlists Earn to straighten out his uncle Willy (Katt Williams, whose own life exploits are the icing subtext on a cake performance), Earn finds himself confronting a distressing harbinger of his future self. “What I’m scared of is being you. You know, somebody everybody knew was smart but ended up being a know-it-all, f-up Jay that just lets shit happen to him,” Earn says while confronting the man currently rumored to have kidnapped his girlfriend and be keeping an alligator in his bathroom. The Alligator itself comes with a wonderful Jaws-like payoff after director Hiro Murai keeps it playfully obscured throughout the episode. Even the cops who come to investigate the kidnapping don’t quite buy into its existence until a neighborhood kid insists upon it. “He’s the alligator man!” she shouts gleefully, as though it’s self-evident. The episode ends with Uncle Willy escaping out the back alley as the house’s screen door swings open and the nearly 1000-pound alligator struts to Notorious BIG’s “Playa Hater.” It’s weird, wild, and the perfect way to start the season.  –Chase

“Sportin’ Waves” — Meet 35 Savage

Paper Boi gives the most depressing concert of all time in “Sportin’ Waves,” which sees Alfred and Earn trying to make inroads at a Spotify-ish streaming company. The offices sparkle; the refrigerator is gluten-free; all the employees smile vacantly. It’s a world driven by algorithms and marketing funnels, and Alfred is only the latest to move through the assembly line. We know we’re in for a rough ride when we meet “outreach” director “35 Savage” (oh God), whose painfully banal small talk and perfunctory interest in Alfred’s music is only preamble for the moment when their state-of-the-art sound system can’t even play his tracks. The scene just goes on and on, seemingly in slow-motion, as the techs struggle with the phone. Alfred puts up with with all of this as long as he can, dutifully recording ads and posing for pictures, but his heart’s not in it. He bails on the performance for the glassy-eyed desk drones after one verse. Earn, somehow, is even more passive. It’s not the last time this season we’ll ask if being Paper Boi is any fun at all. What does Alfred really want out of this, and what further robberies — his money, his time, his dignity — will he suffer to get it? –David

“Money Bag Shawty” — The Seed of Doubt

Earn is terribly suited to be managing anyone’s rap career, as much of Robbin’ Season is keen to explore. He isn’t self-driven, he doesn’t have great connections, and he acts as more of a hanger-on than anything else. That truth begins to truly rear its head in “Money Bag Shawty” when Alfred attends a recording session with Clark County, Atlanta’s Yoohoo-shilling sellout (Lil’ Yachty, anyone?). He tells Alfred and Darius about his endorsements and his track on the new The Fast and the Furious soundtrack between passing up shots of liquor and free joints before slipping off to record raps about just how much he smokes and drinks. But making money is exactly what Alfred’s after, and Clark County’s stories begin to make Alfred wonder if Earn is the right man for the job. Atlanta is a comedy that punctuates its “black Seinfeld”-styled slice-of-life jokes with moments of extreme violence. “Robbin’ Season” actually opens with a carful of unknown characters shooting up a fast food joint that doubles as a drug den. In “Money Bag Shawty,” Clark County, sick of having the recording malfunction while he raps about buying “a dinosaur like Nicholas Cage,” asks Alfred and Darius to step outside so no one witnesses his enforcers beating the sound engineer to a bloody pulp. –-Chase

“Helen” — The Breakup

One of “Robbin’ Season’s” most interesting developments is Earn’s near-complete disappearance from the show. After this episode Earn would not appear again for more than a thirty-second token appearance until “North of the Border,” and many of his Season Two storylines revolve around him being a jerk. “Helen” is perhaps the key moment in that deconstruction, taking a moment to examine the pair’s “relationship” while Earn is well outside his comfort zone. The titular town of Helen, Georgia’s Germanic festival is overwhelmingly white and weird, including blackface, nonsensical games, and a surreal “demon thief prankster,” but Van is fully in her element and among old friends. But Earn refuses to even try, calling the whole experience stupid and bringing their struggles into the light. “I want to be in a relationship where I’m valued as a human being and not an accessory,” Van states. Earn can only weakly argue that “this arrangement works for me.” Even as Van and Earn have struggled through their on-again/off-again relationship I’d always taken it for granted that they’d end up together, but “Helen” casts serious doubt on that idea. The fault is squarely Earn’s, and it’s incredible to see Atlanta writing its creator, star, and artistic force’s character as a real prick. –Chase

“Barbershop” — Zaxby’s

My favorite Atlanta episodes are the ones that function as self-contained short stories, and “Barbershop” is essentially one joke — Alfred just wants a haircut, but Bibby the barber just needs to run one more errand — gloriously extended to 30 minutes. It’s Sideshow Bob’s rake: at first funny, then nearly tiresome, then we break straight through that into a more diabolical form of comedy that drills down on fittingly specific idea: what a black man will put up with from the only man he trusts to cut his hair. Alfred’s odyssey (or seven levels of hell, if you prefer) reaches its nadir when Bibby seems to offer him some Zaxby’s fried chicken as a peace offering, only to drive to a property under construction and pull leftovers out of a garage microwave. It’s in that moment that Alfred all but resigns himself to his fate: forget making it to his photo shoot on time, how about just not getting arrested for stealing lumber and rear-ending a pregnant woman’s car? Most of all, this solo outing solidifies Brian Tyree Henry — a veritable reaction GIF factory — as the true lead of Atlanta’s second season. You know how the Inuit have 50 different words for Snow? Henry has at least that many variations on the deadpan stare. –David

“Teddy Perkins” — The Museum

I could easily write 2000 words just on “Teddy Perkins,” the most remarkable episode of television in 2018. One of its many joys is in weighing the different subtexts it seems to simultaneously support. In playing Teddy himself in ghastly Michael Jackson whiteface, (nearly) alone in his Sunset Boulevard mansion, Glover delivers a poignant message on the destructive pressures of show business. Continuing the conversation from Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which also featured Lakeith Stanfield, the episode uses horror-movie grammar to confront issues of race and class. (The sound design on the ostrich egg alone, ye gods.) But the moment that weighed the heaviest wasn’t Darius’s heartfelt monologue, or the shocking violence that followed it, but Teddy’s unnerving tour of his barely-begun museum of fathers. It has just one exhibit: a white mannequin wearing his father’s white suit; the same father that abused him and his brother, Benny, so they’d be good at piano. Over time, Teddy has come to not only accept his childhood, but decide it’s the only reason he is what he is. “Great things come from great pain,” Teddy sagely intones, but we and Darius know that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes trauma changes you, and sometimes it consumes you. Snaking through all of this, and through every episode of Atlanta, is the idea that being black in America is itself a trauma, every day. Damn, what an episode. —David

“Champagne Papi” — The Jacket

It’s certainly lighter than last season’s Van-centric standout “Value,” but “Champagne Papi” is a delightful girls-night-out (plus Darius, who improves everything he touches) installment that isn’t quite as disposable as it seems. Van, still smarting in the aftermath of “Helen” but not willing to show it, has decided to “replace Earn with Drake.” But Drake, at least in the context of this episode, is only an idea; a construct. He’s not even at the mansion, but touring in Europe. If Van — and all the ladies at the party with similar designs — want to boost their Instagram profiles, here’s a cardboard stand-up, that’ll be $20. But she passes. A facsimile of Drake’s lifestyle (or a simulation, as a high Darius later asserts all of life is) isn’t enough; she wants a piece of the real thing. After floating through the party like a ghost, she takes her spectral form downstairs, to Drake’s closet full of near-identical jackets. She takes one, a moment that’d be out-of-character if we didn’t know how tired she was of playing life’s game by the rules. Finally, something tangible. It may have been a wasted evening in what she fears is a wasted life, but at least she went home with a souvenir. –David

“Woods” – Wally

Despite Atlanta’s insistence that Alfred “Paper Boi” Williams is a locally famous rapper, we’ve never seen him do more than mumble through his one supposed hit song. Alfred seems reluctant to play the game and do the things that could propel him to true hip-hop stardom. When he spends an afternoon with Sierra, a local social media star, she attempts to get the underachieving rapper to join brands with her and boost his public image. Alfred is having none of it and blows her off to walk home, and the unprotected rapper is jumped and forced to flee into the woods. His resulting travails to get home are the stuff of nightmares as Alfred must deal with being lost in an unforgiving landscape, encountering decomposing animals killed by unknown predators, and the constant presence of a hermit named Wally who follows him and hurls cryptic nonsense. But Wally’s threats becoming increasingly lucid, finally putting a box cutter to Alfred’s throat after sundown and warning him to stop wasting time: move forward, or die. It’s a threat both literal and metaphorical, forcing Alfred back to civilization and making him reckon with his stalled career. It’s time to focus, take control of his responsibilities, and unleash Paper Boi once again. –Chase

“North of the Border” – New Management

When everything goes south after a free concert Earn has arranged for Paper Boi to play at a college campus, Earn, Alfred, Darius, and Tracy seek refuge in a frat house. While Darius checks out the gun collection and Tracy wigs out at the naked pledges dancing to “Laffy Taffy,” Earn and Alfred’s baggage finally comes to the forefront as they talk about just how they got here. Sure, Tracy may have started the fight that began the night’s hysteria, but it’s Earn’s larger lack of control and planning that landed them couch-surfing with coeds and doing a free show in the first place. In Earn’s first major appearance since “Helen,” Atlanta’s stealth season-long arc comes to a head with Alfred deciding to seek new management and move forward in his post-“Woods” life, and Earn not even fighting for his job. He simply sulks out of the room upon his firing, a washed-up person who just lets things happen to him – the exact thing he admitted to fearing becoming in “Alligator Man.” It’s an old adage to not mix business and family, and “North of the Border” shows just why. Earn’s depression seems likely to deepen if Alfred’s career reaches new heights while Earn is left behind. –Chase

“FUBU” — Al Steps In

Middle school is the worst. Even the bullies agree on that. Being cooped up every day with other kids who are just discovering their hormones, social standing, and gifts for psychological warfare can be downright traumatic unless you’re able to keep your head down. For young Earn, a choice to instead poke his head out, hoping to earn some cred, instead becomes the worst day of his young life. But “FUBU” is also chock-full of little details and interactions that ring painfully true (especially as a teacher), and illuminates the foundations of Earn and Alfred’s relationship just when the previous episode put it at a breaking point. Al’s easy charisma and fast talk rescues Earn and his obviously fake jersey from near-violent humiliation, but the cost is high — too high for the kid to bear. In the show’s hardest gut-punch of an ending to date, Earn must live the rest of his life wondering how much he was responsible for his classmate’s suicide. Whether that ever enters into Alfred’s mind, the episode doesn’t say. For him, it was just protecting his family. It’s poignant following “North of the Border,” but as the lead-in to “Crabs in a Barrel,” it will turn out to be prophetic. –David

“Crabs in a Barrel” — The Happy Ending

For 35 minutes you can read exactly what’s about to happen at the end of “Crabs in a Barrel.” As Earn tries to get everyone ready to leave on Clark County and Paper Boi’s European tour he finds the golden pistol he confiscated from Uncle Willy when “Robbin’ Season” started, and stuffs it into his backpack in haste. Everything that follows points the way towards Earn’s eventual arrest for unconsciously carrying the pistol through TSA screening. He’ll get a heavy sentence for violating his parole, Alfred will have an opening to fire him as his manager, and it will end Earn and Van’s hopes for sending their daughter to private school. Earn’s world will come crumbling down just as he showed actual promise in organizing Alfred’s entourage for the tour. For 35 minutes that eventuality is certain — until Earn realizes his mistake in the screening line. Everything freezes as though Earn can see his own dark destiny, and then in an instant he changes the game. He slips the pistol into Clark County’s bag and slips though security. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but a second chance. The revelation that Clark County had his own manger take the fall for the pistol underscores Alfred’s comment to Earn that as black men they must take care of their own crew and “do what they gotta do because they ain’t got no choice.” Atlanta showed us the plan for 11 magical episodes, and though we may have seen the climax coming, it’s the denouement that offered the cathartic emotional resonance. Perfect. –Chase

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