Are you a member of the Television Academy? Rain down the Emmy nominations on Atlanta.
Every episode of the FX series’ second season has been an event. A mythic quest to take a Drake selfie, an anti-romantic fairy tale full of German mysticism and ping-pong, a tense freaky-house allegory about child stardom gone Full BioShock, one black man’s desperate struggle to spend a hundred-dollar bill.
Star-creator Donald Glover should win Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for “Teddy Perkins.” The great Zazie Beetz took center stage in two Van-focused episodes. Lakeith Stanfield continues to be television’s ranking zen philosopher of one-liners. Regular episode director Hiro Murai shoots with a dreamy wonder that can trend hilarious or horrific within seconds. And Amy Seimetz, of Starz’ exquisite The Girlfriend Experience, directed the two Van episodes, a duology of surreal heartbreak and yet-more-surreal singlehood.
Noms all around! But. Brian Tyree Henry. Paper Boi himself. For Your Consideration. (I guess for Supporting Actor in a Comedy, though Atlanta is a show where everyone feels like a lead, and all the comedy breaks your heart.)
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season starts with Earn’s cousin Alfred ascending. He’s recognized everywhere now. It’s a running gag that’s running Al down: The double take, the wide eyes, the sudden mania when someone says “Are you Paper Boi?”
Is he? Does he want to be? Success hasn’t been easy. He can’t trust drug dealers anymore. They rob him, they give his number to their girlfriends, they post Paper Boi selfies on Insta.
This last part troubles Al the most. He’s an ambitious man. But the wages of contemporary music fame don’t interest him. He’s skeptical about everyone, the hangers-on, the people who seem to want something from him, the white people who seem to like him for the wrong reasons. On last week’s episode, “Woods,” Al hung out with not-girlfriend Sierra, the very model of the modern social media megastar. She suggested it was time for them to merge brands. She told him he had to post more on Instagram, man. “I ain’t into all that fake s—,” Al said. “I’m just tryin’ to stay real.” Keepin’ it real went wrong, like it always does: Soon there was a gun to his head, and a knife.
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One brilliant episode saw Al trapped on a meandering quest with his barber (guest-star Robert S. Powell III). The other man did all the talking, pulling Al on a series of misadventures, grabbing wood from a construction site, inspiring the local youth, getting into a horrific hit-and-run car accident. All Al ever wanted was a haircut; he was wearing his barber cape the whole time. A little kid asked why he was wearing the cape, and the barber said Al was a “magician.” The boy looked on with wonder, and this happened:
This is one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year. With a flick of his arm, Henry actually does suggest a magician performing a flourish-y ill-uuuuu-sion. It’s the most theatrical moment Henry’s had on the show — a sudden reminder that he’s a stage veteran, who was in the original cast of The Book of Mormon is currently on Broadway again in Lobby Hero. But it’s a grudging flourish, delivered with a perfect deadpan stare: A performer performing for an audience, and letting the audience know he does not enjoy this.
Al’s other standout episode this season, “Woods,” went in different direction, less comedic, even mournful. After walking away from Sierra, he ran into some adoring fans — who tried to rob him, a sequence of shocking violence that left Al running into the forest, fighting for his life. But the overall tone of “Woods” was minor-key. It was the anniversary of Al’s mother’s death — a woman who appeared only in the shadows of a flashback.
The episode was dedicated to Henry’s late mother, Willow Dean Kearse, who died two years ago—a fact that gives Henry’s performance an unimaginably moving resonance. You felt Al’s internal struggle, how staying “real” symbolized something about holding onto his past, a truth he didn’t want to lose. After a dark knight of the soul, “Woods” ended with Al agreeing to take a selfie with a fan, coaching the guy through the best angles, the best expressions. Was this progress, an act of forward momentum carrying Al higher into celebrity? Or was it an act of giving in? Henry’s rueful face offered many interpretations, few easy answers.
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On last night’s episode, gang went to a fraternity house full of naked pledges and Post Malone obsessives. Has fame ever looked more embarrassing? On Atlanta, it always falls to Al to make the hard decisions. “I think we need to talk about a real problem,” Al told Earn. His cousin’s not delivering as a manager, can’t take Paper Boi to the next level. “I gotta make my next moves my best moves, man,” Al said. “I don’t think you cut out for it.”
A lesser show, lesser actors, might’ve gone for melodrama. This right here is the collapse of the initial show premise: Cousin Manages Cousin, music fame comedy, Entourage for rap (Entou-rap?). And Glover’s performance was demolishing, another bad day for Earn in a bad year. But Henry gave Al a tough, wounded grace here. You felt that Al was making a straightforward business transaction, and the most important decision of his life. It was the kindest, most traumatizing way to fire somebody. I gotta make my next moves my best moves, man. On Atlanta: Robbin’ Season, all Henry’s moves are his best.