Atlanta season 2: surrealism in the heart of the South
If I used an Outkast song to depict season two of Atlanta, I would keep it local with “Elevators (Me and You)”. It’s more than coincidence that the song provides the mood for the finale of season one and sets the outré mood for a powerful sophomore season. As Earn (Donald Glover) strolls down a nameless Atlanta street, the evening seems to envelop him. The city of Atlanta has hundreds of streets like these and Glover keeps this one anonymous. It’s apparent that certain omissions are key for Atlanta’s narrative digression. The dark evening plays beautifully along with the song. As I watch Earn stroll down the street I hear Andre 3000 rapping “One for the money/ yes sir/ two for the show/ A couple years ago on Headland and Delowe.” This isn’t the first time music takes a prominent role in the show. However, it does create a peculiar displacement. If we don’t know where we are, or where we’re going, then will we ever be able to recognize a tangential moment? Not really. In short – everything matters. Glover subverts audiences’ need for details by designing character arcs which drift, twirl, and end up right where they began.
But what is real? When Darius is thrust into a psychotic, familial murder plot in the “Teddy Perkins” episode, there is a minute or two where he seems to be in real danger. And in this moment Atlanta puts the responsibility on audiences to decide whether or not they believe the threat is real. As we ask ourselves if Darius was ready to die for that piano, we concurrently ask if any show would kill off a seemingly important character over something so pointless. That’s the beauty of Atlanta: a series of perfectly plausible situations, slowly drifting outside the bounds of reality right under our noses. In the most recent episode, “Woods”, Alfred a.k.a. Paper Boi, flees into the forest after being jumped by three fans. If the beginning of season two was any hint, Alfred is not doing well. He ends up walking in circles for hours and arguing with an unstable vagrant. Alfred emerges from the woods relatively uninjured after going three rounds with this lunatic. My one question, after watching the rest of the season: do we know for sure that the man was actually there?
René Magritte was a prominent Belgian surrealist artist, known for his counterintuitive approach and interest in representational surrealism. In discussing his philosophy of painting Magritte said, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” Bringing this idea into the Atlanta discussion, it’s important to note what we do see in this moment – a strange man speaking to Alfred. Yet, even though the visual was clear, could it have been a projection of Alfred’s psychological discomfort? Was Alfred ever really in danger at all? We know by now that Atlanta doesn’t hesitate when it comes to pushing the boundaries of belief. From invisible cars, to pet alligators, reality is always a moving target. Earn, in particular, appears to have a general skepticism built-in, but if the “reality” being tested is transparent vehicles or domesticated reptiles, he’s usually astonished to realize the truth. To that end, Atlanta often uses surrealism to explicate subtle emotions or emphasize mundane violence. Whether made in the spirit of humour or fear, the surreal and often disorienting nature of Atlanta is what makes it so gripping.
It’s difficult to conceptualize how a show can be written about a city, yet take every opportunity to obscure its own location
Atlanta is about the who, not the where. It is the people that make the city of Atlanta so unique; its characters are the driving force behind the humour and mystery of its best moments. The series was billed as a television show about an up-and-coming Atlanta rapper’s journey to stardom and his ex-Ivy League cousin who manages his budding career. But Atlanta doesn’t treat the city like a canvas. Its characters are autonomous by design, and therefore the story itself feels malleable. As increasingly bizarre events unfold before our eyes, we’re tensely reminded of how silently violence can emerge from suburban American life ,and how this reality affects the day-to-day experiences of its people.
So where are we? Atlanta has an exceptionally ethereal quality. It’s difficult to conceptualize how a show can be written about a city, yet take every opportunity to obscure its own location. I can’t help but note the intentionality here. There are plenty of scenes that don’t seem to exist anywhere in particular. At the end of “Champagne Papi”, when Van and crew walk along the side of the road, they could be anywhere; the only two establishing shots don’t include any road signs. Glover does include references to several Atlanta mainstays throughout the series (Magic City, Zaxby’s, and Lenox Mall), but these venues are never mentioned with particular emphasis. There is a preoccupation on Glover’s part with disorientation. It’s a temperament that is summarily addressed through an idiosyncratic narrative structure, which distances itself from the common episodic structure; you could watch season two completely out of order and not miss a beat. In fact, this sheds a bit of light on the topsy-turvy visuals that preceded the season two premiere: Glover seems interested in inversion, in a literal sense, and in flipping the narrative of his own show on its head.
It might seem trite to say that Atlanta plays by its own rules. Yet, there are few shows bold enough to send a character on a quasi-solo excursion and trust that the narrative wouldn’t be lost. In fact, this season has frequently been pretty anti-narrative. Beginning with episode five, season two has featured each one of its characters in a nomadic-style, Kubrickian vignette, substituting cohesion for elegiac character development and, in Darius’ case, further confusion. The last five episodes have relied on delicate staging, allowing the world to sway in the fringe while one of the cast members arrives at an epiphanic moment. In the Drake-less “Champagne Papi” episode, Van goes on a quest for the rapper during a New Year’s party that we later discover he never actually attended. All she wanted was a picture to “flex with on Instagram.” When Van realizes the picture that she had been craving all night was actually being taken with a Drake cardboard cut-out, her perception of reality is inverted. Does it matter if she gets a fake picture, if people think it’s real? Later, Van sulks outside by the pool, accepting her role in the simulation, admitting “It’s all fake. There’s no Drake.” Once the moment fizzles out, reality immediately returns into focus.
…like most cocktail party chatter, Atlanta’s conversations are designed to pass time, not solve problems.
Atlanta uses this intentionally drowsy, cannabis-induced pace to its benefit. The first episode, “Alligator man”, froths to a surprising resolution after Earn’s Uncle Willy releases his pet alligator as a diversion to escape a potentially troubling police altercation. When the full-grown caiman strolls out of the front door everyone quietly gazes in awe. It’s a tactful, musical sequence scored to the Delfonics’ “Hey Love.” As the bizarre moment fades, the officers slowly return to reality, one partner looks to another, asking “Where’s Willy?”. The entire scene feels like a bad trip, or as Darius would say, “vibes.”
Atlanta is fueled by these vibes – short, abstract scenes of unexplained and uninterrupted black life. What’s profound within these moments is how often Atlanta features a quiet or completely digressive instance of self-reflection. It’s rare for black actors to have extended screen-time in situations like this; these scenes are seldom written for people of color. Yet, Glover has made a show of it and he’s done it brilliantly. Much of my appreciation for this effect is how nebulous and unfulfilling the dialogue can be. In the second episode, Alfred is held at gunpoint by his drug-dealer of ten years. After making friendly small talk the man tells Alfred to get out, but awkwardly fumbles with his gun while trying to open the door (“child-lock”). The whole scene shows flashes of Seinfeld. And like most cocktail party chatter, Atlanta’s conversations are designed to pass time, not solve problems. Glover is compelled to lead us astray, instead of trying to make a point, and in doing so, makes his largest one – for Atlanta, the mundane is essential.
There’s plenty to appreciate in the second season of Atlanta, particularly its collection of unexpected conflicts and impressive performances. So far, it’s a remodeled version of an original, context-less show that already had plenty of promise. And if you’re not beguiled by the visual imagery or dry wit, don’t look at Glover to explain anything.