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We Shall Be Terrible

Atlanta’s Black Paladins

A key observation in Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Donald Glover, which doubles as a clue about Atlanta, the auteur’s FX Golden Globe-winning show: “He feels constantly watched but rarely seen.” The early minutes of last week’s season premiere are devoted to the minutiae of two black guys in their late teens or early twenties, rarely seen or “seen” on TV, at least not in this way. (The identifier “black” should basically go unsaid when talking about this show. Damn near everybody is, and all the principal characters are.) One is playing video games, the other is talking about scoring some pot from a dealer who works at a fast-food place. They end up at the knockoff Popeyes drive-thru cul-de-sac, order a big meal along with a “number 17,” code for a side of weed. As the car ambles towards the pay-window, you think: how fun, how radical this banality is, which Atlanta’s first season elaborated through the sprawl of its set pieces; the slow-as-molasses establishing shots by its frequent director, Hiro Murai; and its Zora Neale Hurston-cum-Flannery O’Connor lyrical humor and lived-in cruelty.

And then something happens.

The guys, only a second ago dreaming of takeout, are all of a sudden grotesques, masks disfiguring their faces. And they move with a complementary ugliness, brandishing weapons, metamorphosing from guileless potheads to potential murderers. They pull out semi-automatic guns and then shoot into the restaurant through the slot you’d usually get fries from. One dude hops into the restaurant, fires some more, and goes into the supply room for his quarry, an enviable quantity of marijuana. The restaurant employee has a machine gun of his own and retaliates. The two chase each other through the establishment, and right as the bandits are pulling out of the parking lot, the shift manager steadily delivering bullets through the vehicle’s rear window, the car slumps still. A woman who we hadn’t known was in the backseat stumbles out, crying and bloody, yet unsure where her wounds are.

The scene lays out the theme of the show’s sophomore season, nicknamed Atlanta Robbin’ Season because it’s set during the holidays, when the thieves and scammers are out in full force.

The scene lays out the theme of the show’s sophomore season, nicknamed Atlanta Robbin’ Season, we learn, because it’s set during the holidays, when the thieves and scammers are out in full force. Nothing much has changed for the characters. Earn (Donald Glover) is still managing his cousin Alfred’s rap career, and is still homeless. Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) aka Paper Boi, who is on house arrest in the season premiere, has taken a step back in some ways, but has a hot new single on the radio. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) is still Darius, spouting conspiracy theories with the same vigor Alfred’s fans spit Paper Boi bars. In the first three episodes Van (Zazie Beetz) is rarely around, but when she does pop up she doesn’t seem markedly different, and anyway, she’s still on-and-off-again with Earn, so her heart’s in the same place. The fact that these characters have only made lateral moves since we last saw them contributes to the show’s meandering quality. This narrative languor and slow pacing (this is funny, especially because it’s about black people who live in the South, “lazy” being a dumb racial epithet for black Americans’ work ethic) makes the sudden violence they face, a trope established in season one and frequented in these early episodes, all the more garish. 

In the first three episodes, Earn, Alfred, and Darius are strong-armed out of their valuables: money, drugs, dignity. This kind of violence always strikes me as particularly heinous—much like in Frank Norris’s naturalist novel McTeague, which showcased an original “obscene” affair, when the title character murders his wife in an aside, an attack perhaps made more vicious because we can’t see it happening. The new verb for “getting over” is “finesse,” as in “finessed the plug.” Everyone here is finessed: much of it happens with casual, almost lackadaisical force, though not without humor. One main character is held up by his longtime drug dealer of ten years; as the thief drives away, gun trained on his mark, he apologizes for stealing and promises to return the money. Meanwhile, a new character, Tracy (Khris Davis), runs a gift card scam.

The first three episodes of Atlanta Robbin’ Season feel personal, not only because the press screener FX gave me had my name watermarked on it. In particular, it’s the weight of seemingly inconsequential moments that feels familiar. That opening scene is exemplary: in a beat, the fortunes of the ne’er-do-wells change; in that same narrative pause, in the quiet after the machine-gun rataplan, I go from “rarely seen”—in the presumed manner of Glover himself—to feeling visible. The strangeness of that condition is so relatable. Unlike the woman who becomes collateral damage to the bullet spree in the back of the hooptie, I didn’t need to pat myself to see where it hurt.

I am not dead, but I’m a victim of homicide. My dad got killed during a holiday season some twenty years back. My most evocative memory about that period of my life is the sensation of latent dread, the impression that anything could go wrong at any time. After all, in the course of going to retrieve Christmas gifts, a person could leave a house a husband and father and end up a corpse. As an adult, the experience of sudden violence and its likelihood of returning got compounded by the realities of my being a woman and black, an anxiety Atlanta understands. In the first season, Earn, Alfred, and Darius go to pick up a jacket Earn left in an Uber, and end up witnessing a police shooting. That extemporaneous violence is ratcheted up this season. A Twitter meme comes to life in season two, and a white male aggressor named “Florida Man” wreaks havoc on the people of color in that state, in order to keep them from visiting or buying property there (says Darius). A white man coolly brandishes the firearm on his hip when Earn politely walks over to ask a question.

Apparently Glover was signaling to people like me—those who always feel targeted. He told The New Yorker, “People come to Atlanta for the strip clubs and the music and the cool talking, but the eat-your-vegetables part is that the characters aren’t smoking weed all the time because it’s cool but because they have P.T.S.D.—every black person does. It’s scary to be at the bottom, yelling up out of the hole, and all they shout down is ‘Keep digging! We’ll reach God soon!’” In that statement, the last part of which sounds like something a character out of a Hurston novel would say, it’s like in depicting he’s addressing a theft of humanity and imagination, too, when it comes to black characterization.

The show’s visual grammar reflects this anxiety and paranoia. Murai’s choice to use film is a potent reminder that this is still fiction, but the choice makes it all the more real—not only because film adds texture, but also because when the celluloid occasionally pops, that jumpiness contributes to the show’s overall tone. Late night, after the strip club gets out, there’s an Edward Hopper tableau of small, illuminated spaces engulfed in darkness. The introduction of magical realism is straight out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, only Atlanta is a black Macondo made famous by Magic City, and instead of a woman floating up into the sky, there’s a disappearing club promoter and an invisible sports car.

In Robbin’ Season’s second episode, Earn and Al go to a Spotify-like company to get the new Paper Boi single on one of the streaming service’s coveted playlists. While there, Alfred and an up-and-coming rapper named Clark County are pitted against each other. Another young black man raps on a table while the mostly white tastemakers take notes. This is a commentary on the new gatekeeping of streaming services, but also a commentary on what one is willing to do to be successful. In performing for white execs, how much of yourself do you have to give away? How do you keep something for yourself? In that moment, Alfred-as-Paper Boi gives up, and hands over the mic instead of continuing to figure it out.

This question extends from the music business to Atlanta’s regular milieu. Alfred is constantly watched, not only by the police, or the state vis-a-vis the house arrest monitor he wears in the season premiere, but by almost everybody he encounters. When he needs to go get a new weed connect, all the people he tries out ignore his privacy, posting pictures of him on Instagram and inviting their girlfriends to meet him. Another new character, Al and Earn’s uncle Willy (Katt Williams), keeps an alligator in one of his bedrooms. All of this dense, muggy Southern allegory brought to mind these words:

we shall be riding dragons in those days

black unicorns challenging the eagle

          we shall shoot words

          with hooves that kick clouds

          fire eaters from the sun

we shall lay the high white dome to siege

cover screams with holy wings, in those days

                                                       we shall be terrible

Of course, they’re not Alfred’s Paper Boi raps. The lines come from Henry Dumas’s poem “Saba: Black Paladins.” If the first season was mostly devoted to threading the capricious and the dangerous, recalling that same brew in novels by Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, season two’s aesthetic evokes the work of Dumas, a poet and fiction writer who was killed at age thirty-three by the New York City transit police. Before he died, he wrote short stories and poems infused with mythology and that juxtaposed rural southern locales with black life in big cities. One of his stories, “Ark of Bones,” is about a couple of young black men, not unlike the duo from Robbin’ Season’s opening gambit, who discover a mystical ark along the  Mississippi River. Atlanta has some of that story’s claustrophobia and paranoia, and a lot of its jaded surreality.

If this season of Atlanta is about stuff being stolen from the show’s protagonists, it’s also about them taking some shit back.

If this season of Atlanta is about stuff being stolen from the show’s protagonists, it’s also about them taking some shit back, or at least protecting something. Cleverly undermining expectations is a part of the show’s design. On his subversive plans for the show, Glover told the New Yorker, “I knew what FX wanted from me[.] They were thinking it’d be me and Craig Robinson horse-tailing around, and it’ll be kind of like Community, and it’ll be on for a long time. I was Trojan-horsing FX. If I told them what I really wanted to do, it wouldn’t have gotten made.” Trojan-horsing is apparently common among showrunners and other creatives, but Glover’s goals have higher stakes. (He told The New Yorker his ultimate dream includes “something involving fairness and restoring a sense of honor.”) Within the world of the show, his character’s actions have high stakes, too, and are just as noble. Atlanta’s main quartet resembles Dumas’s paladins, defending each other from outside intrusion, holding on to what’s theirs, getting back at the system through small, subversive gestures. I’m excited to watch how regal and terrible they’ll be.