Local philosopher Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) has some advice. “Watch out,” he says, “for Florida Man.” Florida Man? He’s “an alt-right Johnny Appleseed,” Darius narrates, and as he talks, we see montage of a shadowy Sunshine State psychopath killing zoo animals, devouring human faces, and indulging in other random acts of Southern Gothic violence. It’s a popular internet meme brought to funny-grotesque life—with a brutal punchline. Florida Man’s mission, Darius says, is “to prevent black people from coming to, and registering to vote in, Florida.”
And so we’re back in Atlanta, creator-star Donald Glover‘s folkloric rap odyssey. The first season’s finale aired on Nov. 1, 2016. Some stuff has happened since then. And the new episodes (subtitled Robbin’ Season, premiering Mar. 1 on FX) find Glover and director Hiro Murai pushing toward violent, absurd directions that match the tenor of our violent, absurd times. The atmosphere simmers with bad waves of paranoia, madness, fear, loathing. The premiere opens with a drive-thru gunfight that flips from hilarity to horror. There’s an omnipresent sound of police sirens. Impending yuletide brings no good cheer. “Christmas approaches,” Darius says, watching the cops cuff some attempted robbers. “Everybody gotta eat.”
The ecstatic pleasure of Atlanta is how it grounds nigh-Lynchian strangeness in addictive specificity: stylish visuals, fully realized characters, a feeling for the modern African American experience as a multiverse of tones and possibilities. Robbin’ Season begins with Earn (Glover) still managing his cousin Al (Brian Tyree Henry), who has continued his ascension as rapper Paper Boi. And if Atlanta were just a comedy about modern hip-hop celebrity, it would be a hilarious wonder. Henry is such a delight, tired eyes radiating weary confusion. And the new season tracks how Al’s rise to fame is really a series of strange tangents. He’s too famous to trust drug dealers anymore. His song shoots up the charts when a white woman posts an Instagram story complaining about his lyrics. (He raps “Kaepernick” with something I wish we could print.) In a truly dystopian setpiece, Al and Earn visit some sort of music-tech start-up, a cheerful and chilly place full of white people who watch them a little too closely—until Al starts rapping, and they ignore him.
But Robbin’ Season continues to spread playfully outwards, tracking the characters through daily microaggressions and mythic eccentricities. Minor success brings major problems. Earn tries to take on-again girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) out for a date night, a bizarre evening that involves a hookah lounge, a Fast & Furious movie, Georgia’s concealed-carry law, and the first interesting strip club scene in years. Glover and Murai have a sharp comedy rhythm, so Atlanta is laugh-out-loud funny even (or especially?) when it’s uncompromisingly bizarre. Comedian Katt Williams’ appearance counts as funny and bizarre—his offscreen legal issues feel like a reference point for his police-besieged character—but the performance goes beyond stuntcasting into real, messy emotion.
Williams’ role also involves allegations of domestic abuse, allegations of an alligator in the bathroom, and the unexpected delivery of a golden gun. Like everything that boldly aims for genuine surrealism, Atlanta is always in danger of becoming too precious, of hitting that Life Aquatic phase where the quirky style becomes empty weirdness. But after a long, awardsy break, the opening episodes Robbin’ Season left me thrilled, amused, and scared. Will success keep spoiling things for Earn? And who’s going to fire that golden gun? A