Inside 'Atlanta': How Season 2 Beats the 'Sophomore Album' Curse

"If the first season is Kanye's 'College Dropout,' this one is 'Late Registration,'" says show writer Stephen Glover

Inside 'Atlanta' Season 2: How Donald Glover, the cast and the writing room were determined to beat the "sophomore album" curse and one up themselves. Credit: Guy D'Alema/FX

Fans of the critically acclaimed FX show Atlanta learned early on to set aside their expectations. From the very first episode, the series – about an aspiring rapper named Paper Boi (played by Brian Tyree Henry) and his cousin-slash-manager Earn (played by Donald Glover, also the show's creator), was a slyly odd ride – storylines would appear and disappear; notes of magical realism would crack the surface; and violence would collide with absurdist humor. It made for a TV experience that felt totally new – and its hyper-specific point of view, honed by its young and entirely African American writers' room, connected with a way bigger audience than anyone expected. When Glover won two Emmys – one for his lead performance, the other for directing – he used one of his speeches to declare the Atlanta rap crew Migos "the Beatles of this generation."

But the show's runaway success created a problem when it came to crafting the second season, which debuts on March 1st. When you've already made an episode with an African-American actor playing Justin Bieber, or one that entirely takes place during the taping of a Charlie Rose-ish talk show, or one that features an NBA star driving an invisible car, what's the most surprising thing you can do? Stephen Glover, Donald's brother and the lead writer of many of the show's best episodes, says that question is one that the core creative team spent a lot of time grappling with. "It's a different show all the time," he says "But when you set that up with the first season, keeping [viewers] off balance becomes harder to do – they are already expecting it. And we didn't want to just re-mine the same stuff for the second season."

Instead, the show surprises viewers by going in the opposite direction, and focusing more on linear narrative and storytelling. Paper Boi, known to his friends as Alfred, grapples with an identity crisis as his growing fame gets in the way of his main source of income, selling weed. Earn, played by Donald, is a Princeton dropout whose situation in the first season becomes so precarious that he's essentially homeless; he begins to grow into his role as Paper Boi's manager. "We've kind of been comparing the season to a sophomore record from a new artist," says Hiro Murai, who directs the bulk of the episodes (Glover helms the rest). "Internally we've drawn Kanye parallels – if the first season is College Dropout, this one is Late Registration."

Or as Henry puts it, "The first season created this land of absurdity, whereas the second season is more linear – our feet are definitely on the ground."

One of the pleasing meta-experiences of watching Atlanta are the ways in which the show's arc mirrors the circumstances of its creation. In the first season, Paper Boi was unknown, but this time around he's an established act heading for breakout stardom. "That's so much like what we've been experiencing," says Murai. "Paper Boi's first album comes out, and people recognize him and have expectations for what his next album is going to be like. And that is exactly like the anxieties we've had about releasing the second season. But we also know the reason the first season was fun and good was that we made it for ourselves, and we've tried to keep as much of that mentality as possible."

And Atlanta's portrayal of the music industry becomes deeper and more gimlet-eyed this season. (Donald, of course, has deep insight into how the game is played, given that he's released three increasingly ambitious albums under his Childish Gambino moniker.) One of Paper Boi's foils this season is another local M.C., who loads his rhymes with constant drug references, in style of current Atlanta superstars like Future and Young Thug. When Paper Boi joins the MC in the studio to record a guest verse, he's dismayed to learn that his clean-living reality doesn't even remotely match his image. "Rap started as this very black, socio-political type of thing," says Stephen. "And now it's turned into pop music – we laugh about how everybody is doing the same thing in all of their songs. They're all doing the same drugs, drinking the same lean, whether they're Justin Bieber or the most grimy rapper. Not all of these people are really drinking lean! They just know how to sell records."

For the actors, who, besides Donald, were largely unknown, the sudden shift in circumstances has been a happy shock. Lakeith Stanfield, who plays Alfred's sidekick – and dispenser of Yoda-like wisdom – Darius, has become one of TVs best-loved characters. As the writers have gotten to know him better, the line between the character and actor is increasingly blurry. "Sometime I don't know if I'm writing Darius, or I'm writing actual Keith stuff," says Stephen. "Darius has become a real person to me!" Henry, who is currently appearing on Broadway alongside Michael Cera and Chris Evans in Manchester By the Sea writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's new play Lobby Hero, has gotten accustomed to fans conflating him with his character. "I'm not out there trapping and shit, but there is a sense that I have to think about things and move through my life with some of the consciousness Alfred has," he says. "And stuntin' is fun" – he adds, referring to the perks of fame – "but just like Alfred is learning, it's not real. He's learning how to grow in this persona is that he's created."

With the exception of Donald, who had written for 30 Rock and starred on Community, almost all of Atlanta's core team were rookies to television. Murai was a veteran music video director, but had never tackled narrative filmmaking. Stephen Glover was headed towards a career as a chemical engineer (he was also an aspiring rapper, and it's actually his voice you hear on Paper Boi's breakout song, "Paper Boi"), when his brother asked him to drop out of graduate school to work on the show. Now the siblings are co-creating a second show, an animated Deadpool series, and Stephen has an overall deal to create new shows for FX. Donald, meanwhile, has become the hardest working superstar in show business. His Gambino alter ego has nabbed five Grammy nominations, and the actor has two huge movie roles on the horizon: playing Lando Calrissian in the next Star Wars movie, Solo; and Simba in Disney's live-action reboot of The Lion King

Atlanta's success comes at a time when there's a growing wave of acclaimed and hugely money-making projects by African-American creators, including Black Panther and Get Out. "The way Donald and I look at it is that Hollywood is realizing, holy shit, we can make a lot of money!" Stephen says. "But we want to get to a point where [funding projects by black filmmakers and showrunners] isn't just something they do to make money. That's what's important to all of us that work on Atlanta. That people don't see us as a fad."

And if any fans are worried that the shift towards linear storytelling means that there won't be any surprises, the very real alligator that plays a key role in one of the first second-season episodes should set their minds at ease. "Even if we're telling a story with a throughline, we want to make sure that we can still go anywhere," says Stephen. "Before we started writing, we spent a week in the writers' room, just talking about our lives. And we ended up with some" – he laughs – "wide-ranging ideas for Season Two."