It’s been 16 months since Atlanta went off the air, so to say that the FX comedy’s new season is highly anticipated would be an understatement. However, according to the show’s cast and producers, the pressure was on from the moment they began working on season 2.
“We talked about how we wanted season 2 to be better than season 1,” executive producer Stephen Glover — brother of series creator and star Donald Glover — tells EW.
In case you forgot: Atlanta follows penniless college dropout Earn Marks (Donald Glover), his aspiring rapper cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), and their spacey friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) as they attempt to climb the ranks of the Atlanta rap scene. The first season, which premiered in September 2016, was met with rapturous praise and won several big awards, including two Golden Globes and two Emmys. Given the inaugural season’s success, it’s fair to say the bar was already set very high and you’d understand if the writers just tried to recreate the magic of those exceptional and poignantly weird first 10 episodes, but that’s the last thing they wanted to do.
“We just didn’t want to do what worked,” says Donald, admitting that made things harder. “It’s like starting from scratch again. We have characters that people like, which is great [because] we don’t have to restart that, but everything else is kinda like building another foundation.”
When the writers’ room reconvened in the late fall of 2016, they didn’t actually begin with the story. They began by simply talking about what they all did during the hiatus and watched TV shows like Chewing Gum, Tiny Toons Adventures, and Black. White., an old Ice Cube-produced FX reality series about a black family and a white family using make-up to swap races.
“We watched a few things just to open our minds,” says Stephen, unable to stop himself from laughing as he describes the ridiculous premise of Black. White.
While they were willing to pull from each others’ lives for the season, the one thing they tried to avoid was the 2016 presidential election, which ended while they were in the writers’ room.
“We didn’t want the election to be something that anchored our season in terms of that’s what made the world so crazy now,” says Stephen. “I think the events we [felt] were more important. Just the world at the time had been kind of moving fast and I think people were all trying to figure it out.”
This sense of the world becoming unhinged manifests itself in the decision to rebrand the show as Atlanta: Robbin’ Season, which is a reference to the show’s new setting. The new season takes place in the late fall-early winter, in that time period right before Christmas when crime rises in Atlanta (a.k.a. robbin’ season), putting everyone on edge. For star Brian Tyree Henry, this setting is a perfect response to how uncertain and uncomfortable the world has become.
“I feel like all of us at some point this year felt robbed of something. That’s definitely going to be reflected in the season because, first of all, we made it through the year,” he says. “But you still have that sense that the ground can fall from under you at any point in time, and [you need to decide] what you are willing to fight for.”
According to Stephen, the decision to set the show during Robbin’ Season was also another attempt at giving the audience something different since season 1 was set during the summer and you could feel how hot and sweaty it was.
“What’s cool about [Robbin’ Season] is that you get that dark, colder vibe and that is just contrasting what we had seen in the first season,” he says. “I think robbin’ season helps put the city of Atlanta in perspective. In my mind, Atlanta is a city where people are constantly trying to come up. They want to be richer than they were. They want to be better than they were. Everybody’s trying to do that.”
In season 2, we’ll see Earn, Alfred, Darius, and Van continue to strive to improve their lives, which have definitely changed. Alfred is struggling to adjust to his newfound level of fame (selling weed is kind of hard to do when people want to take pictures with you), and in turn, Earn has deal with the increased pressure of managing his cousin.
“The major thing this season is that all of the characters are having their backs against the wall or having to decide: am I going to eat or be eaten?” says Donald.
The characters’ changing relationship with their city also mirrors how the actors’ relationship to Atlanta had changed during their two years away from set. (The first season was shot in the spring of 2016.) “When we were filming Atlanta the first time, it was easy to trip out and walk in the street and be amongst the people, but now this second season, because Atlanta was so well received, it wasn’t the same thing anymore,” says Henry, who earned an Emmy nomination for his guest-turn on This Is Us last year. “We had to kind of really know your distance, know where you were going. It also gave us another awareness of the city we were doing the show in. That was pretty exciting.”
However, the cast found it easy to deal with these new challenges and circumstances because they were all together. “We all knew each and all the relationships that we had been developing in the first season just deepened,” says Zazie Beetz. “In turn, that allowed me to feel more free and have a lot more fun.”
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season premieres Thursday, March 1 at 10 p.m. on FX.