I have a confession to make: I don't really get the second season of Atlanta.
The first season of Donald Glover's show mined the comedic burden of dealing with people who demand your attention. But as Earn, a homeless Ivy League dropout, tries to manage his cousin's rap career, the show's sophomore season, called Atlanta: Robbin Season, charts the humiliation of being ignored. Earn droops under the world's indifference, and — to this viewer at least — it felt like I was drooping under the show's. I'm on record as truly loving Atlanta's first season, but Robbin' Season is so hermetic it feels like it's shutting me out.
There's a very real possibility that, in some sense, this is purposeful. "I wanted to show white people, you don't know everything about black culture," Donald Glover told Vulture back when Atlanta first launched. He's been careful to make this a black show that primarily addresses black audiences, and that — especially in the first season — was its strength. Atlanta sidesteps a lot of the tropes non-black audiences have grown used to: There's no poverty porn, no sentimental back story that "explains" a character's present misdeeds, no effort to preempt the possibility of white judgment. Some characters speak in slang even non-Atlantans can barely understand, etc. There are a million ways this show isn't thinking about non-black viewers like me, a million ways in which it simply isn't trying to be legible to audiences that are used to being catered to. That's more than okay. Black artists should get to be every bit as weird and surrealist and opaque as their white counterparts.
I still miss the things I loved about season one. Glover's character Earn spent Atlanta's first season being accosted by a variety of characters as he helped his cousin Alfred (rap name Paper Boi, played by Bryan Tyree Henry) make it in the music business. While Earn was ostensibly using Alfred as a kind of meal ticket, the character was always more hustled against than hustling. Glover played Earn with the kind of good-guy resignation that attracts eccentrics and jerks. That let the season spin out some of the more funny and inventive and surreal stuff there's been on TV (where else would you see a bus-riding member of the Nation of Islam intensely offer a character a sandwich?).
Despite its inspired bits of surrealism, the show grounded its characters in a world bigger than them. Earn's parents, when they were around, were delightfully skeptical of him, and his girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) gave Earn someone besides Alfred and his loopy friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) to play against. Van and the family helped round out Atlanta's world and Earn's place in it: This is a character who needs an antagonist, if only so we can sometimes know what he's thinking and what others think of him.
The second season — set during the "robbin' season" for which it's named, the weeks before the holidays when crime spikes as people steal more — hunches under the weight of Earn's increasing isolation. If the first season was sometimes quasi-Lynchian, Robbin' Season feels more like mumblecore. Earn might technically be a little more successful, but it doesn't feel that way: He gets "stunted on" by everyone, and the character seems to be at such a low ebb that he doesn't have the wherewithal to care, or even really react. His resignation makes his scenes in the second season frustratingly uninformative: Earn's passivity makes it hard to gauge how crappily Alfred (for example) is treating him. (If Earn himself doesn't mind, why should we?) The show's central relationship gets strangely opaque.
By the end of the third episode, Atlanta seems so alienated and shut down it's practically airtight. It's not that it's bad; it's just that, Bartleby-like, it prefers not to explain. Take the first episode (my favorite of the three): Darius and Alfred are in a fight, but neither will tell Earn why. Something similar happens in Earn's confrontation with his erratic uncle Willy (Katt Williams): Earn says he's still mad about something that happened between Willy and his mother. In an otherwise funny scene, that bit — which feels pretty crucial — never gets articulated or resolved. Basically, the "Florida Man" logic Darius explains to Earl takes the episode over: stuff happens. Why? "Florida Man."
Granted, that episode is in one sense about how Florida Man defeats causality: His is a strain of whiteness that gets virulent and abandons reason and cause and effect. I'd have been fine with the episode's causal jumps if something similar didn't seem to be happening elsewhere with Van, Earn's on-again off-again girlfriend. Last season she was fired from her teaching job for admitting to smoking pot. She and Earn seemed to be having a rough time; he'd stay over sometimes, but it wasn't clear that they were really together. Now they seem to be, but three episodes in, there's no acknowledgment of the conflicts that animated their relationship last season. (Even their daughter is missing.) Darius remains the show's brightest spot, its main source of comic relief, and (this is the weird part) its least enigmatic character.
Basically, Robbin' Season doesn't feel like telling you much. Darius told Earn he didn't want to talk about his issue with Alfred, and neither, really, does the show. This isn't the quirky, confrontational, occasionally magical show of the first season. The characters seem demoralized, grubby, lonely, and on the make — not in an ambitious way, but in a low-grade, depressive way that seems to really believe that everyone's just using everyone. "This whole city runs on stunting, you feel me?" Paper Boi says, and that captures the ambiance of its first three episodes.
One of my favorite parts of Atlanta's first season was when Alfred confronted Earn for showing up on his doorstep just as he was beginning to get famous as Paper Boi. "People ain't just nice, Earn," Alfred said. It's a sad sentence that speaks volumes about — among other things — the cousins' history and current relationship. Alfred's right: Earn is there to try to make a buck off him.
Still, it felt like Atlanta's first season spent a lot of time dismantling Alfred's skepticism by building up the relationship between the two. This season, it feels like it's kind of proving him right.