When we last saw Earn (Donald Glover), he was sleeping in a storage unit alongside remnants of his life at Princeton University. He was holding a few hundred dollars, which could’ve been interpreted as a symbol of hope and direction. Perhaps Earn could actually manage the blossoming rap career of his cousin, Alfred (Bryan Tyree Henry), a.k.a. Paper Boi. But such a read of Atlanta’s season-one finale feels rooted in our addiction to redemptive endings. The dude’s sleeping in a storage unit, and what’s a couple of hundred dollars anyway? Like Alfred and his flakey yet weirdly intuitive right-hand man, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Earn is always scamming, and, unlike them, he’s always up or down a few ultimately inconsequential bucks.
There’s an expectation—ingrained into our minds by decades of pop culture—that Earn will eventually “get” with the middle-class program and net a stable income and settle down with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz). If this were to happen, the world of Atlanta would suddenly make sense to most of us, and the discomfort that’s triggered by the show’s searing satire of poverty and racism would be eased. And it’s this very expectation that Robbin’ Season effectively demolishes in its early episodes, with a sense of free association that causes one to wonder if Georgia’s capital has somehow been dropped into the world of Twin Peaks.
Robbin’ Season opens on a very David Lynchian tracking shot of a young man walking toward a set of apartment buildings. He meets a buddy who’s playing a video game, and they have a conversation that’s so steeped in personal references as to be nearly impenetrable to the viewer. They drive to a fast food joint and place an order, and we’re taken into the bowels of the restaurant as the order is prepared. With terrifying precision, the camera whips back over to the drive-thru window from the restaurant manager’s perspective, revealing the drivers to have masks and guns. Not to be trifled with, the manager produces an automatic weapon and a firefight ensues. Unsurprisingly, someone uninvolved with the violence is hurt.
This sequence is staged by director Hiro Murai with a sense of volcanic absurdism that’s distinct to Atlanta. The satire springs from the casualness of the violence, as we live in a country where an elaborate firefight is a matter of course. Another tension drives the scene as well: What does any of this have to do with Earn, Alfred, Darius, and Van? That question is left pointedly unanswered by the three episodes that were screened for press. Unless the series doubles back on this event later in the season, this opening serves matters of theme and tone rather than the mechanics of narrative.
Robbin’ Season is cloaked in a heavy yet strangely exhilarating veil of dread. Like Twin Peaks: The Return, there’s a suggestion that anything can happen in this series, as comedy mingles with violence and transcendence with a liquidity that feels simultaneously spontaneous and preordained. The most uncomfortable moments of Atlanta’s first season, such as the killing of a gun-running Uber driver, are the rule in Robbin’ Season rather than the exception. Last season’s lighter, frothier moments—the ones that kept it more or less tethered to the formula of a modern, upscale single-camera TV comedy for erudite young liberals—have been pared away. The characters are chillier and more aloof, defensive, and hostile now—especially Earn, who was initially introduced to us as our surrogate. Part of this new discomfort stems from what is murkily implied to have occurred in the characters’ lives since we last saw them. We’re made intensely aware of our limitations as spectators.
Donald Trump became president of the United States while Atlanta’s first season was earning critical accolades. The early episodes of Robbin’ Season don’t mention this event, but the show’s anxious atmosphere appears to be a reaction to his divisive politics of hatred and paranoia. Robbin’ Season particularly captures the sense of “wrongness” that pervaded the morning after the election. We’re told in the season premiere that “robbin’ season” refers to the time before the holidays, when criminals go on heightened sprees to cover their expenses. The shoot-out at the fast food restaurant is an example of such desperation, and another example is when Alfred is robbed by a longtime drug supplier, who, in a characteristically superb comic detail, accidentally locks Alfred in the back of his car.
Atlanta’s surge in confidence brings to mind Louie, which evolved from a brilliant sketch-like show to a series of loose, surreal interludes that bridged the gap between television, cinema, stand-up comedy, and social media. Atlanta’s presence in Robbin’ Season is even wilder and woolier than it was in the show’s first season. The trees and shrubs in lower-income neighborhoods are impressionistically menacing and comfortable, depending on the context of a given scene, while the strip clubs and malls are angularly hard and empty. The series resembles an American film, with hues that wouldn’t look out place in a production shot by Sean Williams Price, and with an understanding of silence that’s as musical in its way as Paper Boi’s beats.
The black neighborhoods are contrasted with the cocoon of the Google-like corporation that offers Alfred an endorsement contract, recruiting him to dress up its square-ness with his hip reputation. Other marketing campaigns are fleetingly seen, and they exemplify the show’s awareness of how conglomerates insidiously shape young, progressive culture. Atlanta has always been unusually smart about social media, which the series understands to be the highest present-day incarnation of our “hustle” culture that encourages everyone to be their own CEO and entrepreneur. Earn and Alfred are at a perpetual disadvantage though, because even theoretically democratic social media is governed by social castes—by the sort of connections that Earn relinquished when he dropped out of Princeton.
Yet there are moments of wonder within the brutally and beautifully pragmatic Robbin’ Season. When Earn tries to help his hustler uncle (Katt Williams) out of a domestic violence situation, he’s given a golden gun that brings to mind the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, as well as—more relevantly to Earn’s generation—the multiplayer 007 video game GoldenEye. The unlikeness of the weapon informs the episode with a dream quality that doesn’t usually surface in crime narratives, and this quality is heightened by the sounds of an alligator thrashing in the bathroom down the hall. When the alligator escapes, Murai films it emerging from a front door in slow motion as cops and onlookers bear witness. The majesty of the creature, and the impression of possibility that it imparts on the setting, are surprisingly moving—though Robbin’ Season pulls us back just as we’re approaching the precipice of sentimentality. That golden gun is hot and Earn would be a fool to keep it, and the alligator will be forgotten among the endless chaos of neighborhoods riven with uncertainty.