Is Atlanta the best comedy on TV? Or the best drama? The best family saga about the impossibility of either fatherhood or son-hood? The funniest crime story? The most depressive stoner romp? The most anti-romantic love letter to a city? The most absurdist state-of-the-nation report, in the form of a deeply black, deeply American, deeply 2018 chronicle of how the urge to work can sabotage all the other urges? As Donald Glover steps up his already-stunning game on the second season of his groundbreaking FX hit, it’s all these things and more. Simply “the best show on TV” will have to do.
Atlanta is Glover’s brainchild – he stars as Earnest “Earn” Marks, a guy who went to Princeton, dropped out, wound up broke and desperate back home in Atlanta. Now he struggles to get over by managing his cousin Alfred, a rapper who goes by the nom du hip-hop Paper Boi (the superb Brian Tyree Henry). Earn can’t catch a break whatever he does – the whole world stunts on him, whether he’s trying to get a good night’s sleep in a storage unit or live large at the strip club. He’s got a kid with his off-and-on girlfriend Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), but he feels like a failure at both roles. And the whole city has gone dark on him: It’s “Robbin’ Season,” the time when the crime rate rises right before everybody needs cash at Christmas.
The show’s second season is in the tradition of classic hip-hop second albums like De La Soul Is Dead or Kanye’s Late Registration – having spent the first season overflowing with creative ebullience, eccentric yet crowd-pleasing, the second chapter swerves hard into the grim. Glover has often called Atlanta “Twin Peaks for rappers,” and this season definitely enters the Black Lodge. There are tense and abrupt moments where violence is in the air; the emotional conflicts get even crueler. Paper Boi has become a ghetto superstar, but now he’s got the burden of local rap notoriety without the checks to go with it. In one perfect scene, he stares at his phone, watching in horror as a suburban white girl named Amber with a guitar sings her version of “Paper Boi” on YouTube. “An acoustic rap cover,” Darius explains. “Them white girls love that shit.”
There’s still the kind of sweetly zonked stoner comedy in a parking-lot philosophy question like “What flavor is a Flaming Hot Cheeto?” – if that’s all Glover had wanted to achieve with Atlanta, that would have been plenty. But after seeing how much weird dankness he got away with the first time, he’s aiming even higher now. There’s a funny moment where he listens to a small-time criminal operator go off about a certain cartoon horseman: “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a funny show, but the way they dive into depression, and especially after what he did to her daughter, I was like can I even feel bad for this horse anymore?!” Like Bojack Horseman, Earn struggles with his own depression, but also he also has to negotiate the depression piled up all over the city and its history. He’s between different worlds and not really at home in any of them, as in the moment when he tries to defuse a stand-off between the cops and his uncle – beautifully played by stand-up comic Katt Williams as a crotchety old man who keeps an alligator in the bathtub.
By now it’s official: Donald Glover has the weirdest career of this century. He held the spotlight at the Grammys last month, where he was nominated for five awards as his musical alter ego Childish Gambino. He won for “Redbone,” but he scored an even bigger success in his live performance, crooning his Seventies avant-soul trip “Terrified” with his live band. He has his own hugely successful and totally uncompromised auteurist vehicles in both TV and the music business; in his spare time he does The Lion King with Beyoncé. Who knows how many careers have been spent looking to combine TV stardom with hit records—I’ll see your Don Johnson and raise you a Bruce Willis. But Glover has achieved his massive success by refusing to follow rules and indulging his most eccentric impulses, yet he’s also suave enough to take over from Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian in Star Wars.
Many of us became huge Donald Glover fans when he was on Dan Harmon’s Community – but at this point, Community barely even makes his top ten career highlights. As the obsessive science-fiction geek Troy, Glover had a great Community moment in the episode about their model U.N. – he’s the representative from Georgia, adopting a cartoonish Southern accent and hamming it up. He gets testy when anyone points out it’s supposed to be the Georgia that’s a country in Eastern Europe. When the model U.N. votes on a resolution, Glover smiles sweetly and drawls, “Georgia – the country – is much obliiiiiged.” The easily overlooked tension in that moment all comes out in Atlanta – his relationship with his home state, like Earn’s relationship with his family, is a source of creative rage and pain. But as Glover keeps proving on Atlanta, he’s just getting more restless and ambitious all the time. The best might be yet to come.
The best TV shows to watch this March – from the return of ‘Atlanta’ and the final season of ‘The Americans’ to a rebooted Trump-era ‘Roseanne.’ Watch below.