FX’s zeitgeist sensation Atlanta returned this year with Robbin’ Season, an 11-episode story sequence that wrapped Thursday with the surprisingly climactic “Crabs in a Barrel.” EW correspondent Chancellor Agard and TV critic Darren Franich watched the episode together, and then wrote each other very long emails about it. SPOILERS AHEAD.
DARREN FRANICH: I don’t know about you, Chance, but I really, thrillingly had no idea what to expect from this Atlanta finale. The show has so successfully written its own rules this season, telling luscious breakout short stories draped in hilarious surrealism and heartbreaking tragicomedy, German mysticism, strange walks through strange woods, Drake. Since you’re EW’s official Atlanta reporter, you’ve been the regular recipient of my weekly post-screener-viewing freakout. (A few weeks back, I think I just walked up to your desk, said “Teddy Perkins,” and fell on the floor.)
I expected this finale to pay off the simmering tensions of the season, and I take a bit of predictive pride in noting the potential final-act importance of the golden gun back in my review of the first few episodes. But it wouldn’t have surprised me if, like, we’d gotten a whole episode behind the scenes of the latest Clark County commercial. Yoohoo!
I thought this was a brilliant episode, more intimate and freakishly surprising than last season’s “Quest for the Key” finale. I appreciated the ticking-clock structure — get to the plane on time! — and loved how writer Stephen Glover and director Hiro Murai found room to spotlight everyone in Atlanta’s cast. The scene at Lottie’s school was funny, and existentially despairing. The opening scene in the Lyft car is now the defining Lyft sequence of the modern age. And I’ll be chewing over Earn’s big TSA move for a long time: It’s his first moment of success all year, but also an action that feels damning, and you wouldn’t say he necessarily looks happy as we close out Robbin’ Season. What were your thoughts about about Earn’s golden-gun con, Chance? And how did you generally feel about this finale?
CHANCELLOR AGARD: As with most episodes this season, I loved the finale. I think the thing I enjoyed most about the finale is how it carried the accumulated weight of everything that’s happened this season and provided a weird, unexpected sense of closure. In its first season, Atlanta was staunchly episodic, to the point where it wasn’t always clear what mattered in a given episode. That was both frustrating and exciting at times, given how serialized and binge-conscious television has become. However, I’ve found season 2 a bit tighter in this regard. Alfred’s experiences at the music startup, hanging with Clark County, and in the woods actually colors what happens later in the season when he finally has the long-awaited talk with Earn about his management skills (or lack thereof) in “North of the Border.” And that comes back around in this finale too. You feel Earn’s anxiety about his tenuous relationship with Alfred (among other things) throughout the entire episode.
Not only does the finale pay off the cousin’s long-simmering tension and the actual golden gun, but it also pays off the season’s thematic statement. In the season premiere, right before Earn gets the gun, he and Darius are talking about how Robbin’ Season comes down to “eat or be eaten.” That question’s been looming over Earn’s head (as well as Alfred and Van’s, to be honest) the entire season, and Earn finally makes his decision after a season of losing that he’s going to do the eating when he plants that gun on Clark County. That’s probably the most decisive thing he’s done since the series began. Remember how Alfred had to push him to get their money in season 1’s “The Club”? But I love that Atlanta didn’t just leave it there. No, it also used the final moments of the finale to add yet another punchline: Clark County’s manager took the fall for the gun. Was it because Clark made him do it, or did his manager volunteer to take the grenade? Given his low-key ruthless behavior in “Money Bag Shawty,” I think it’s former.
Speaking of Robbin’ Season: Darren, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on how the show weaved that theme throughout the entire season? Were you surprised by just how flexible “Robbin’ Season” ended up being and the many indignities and robberies (both literal and figurative) they suffered this year?
DARREN: First, I quickly want to praise R.J. Walker’s performance as Clark County, resident symbol of rap success (slash possible industry plant.) Sometimes I think he’s Atlanta’s Ken Cosgrove, and sometimes I think he’s Atlanta’s Gus Fring, and his appearance in the final scene was his apex. Paraphrasing here: “Yeah, my manager had a gun in his bag. The cops got him. The gun looked cool!” [Greets adoring fans, continues neverending Tracy Flick-ish ascension to fame.]
The Robbin’ Season conceit was dazzling, feels brain-teasing in the best way. Like, cue the subreddit: What was “robbed” this year, and did it ever even matter? Tracy stole some shoes, but the store had a no-chase policy. Van’s phone was stolen (I think?) and then reappeared, because Fastnacht. Then she stole Drake’s jacket, an act that seemed almost spiritual compared to the savvy Insta-preneurs stealing Drake’s image for some quick NYE bucks. Earn’s laptop was stolen, which I’m now realizing feels like some kind of deep-cover prologue to the big finale moment, when Earn realizes he’s got something MUCH less TSA-friendly than a laptop inside his backpack. Those guys by the woods tried robbing Alfred, although it feels more broadly like Alfred’s struggle this year was against the world robbing himself from himself. Some counterfeit cheater brand robbed FUBU of their style (not enough stripes), but then Young Earn robbed poor Devin of the right to claim “Kid Wearing True FUBU” status.
That last “robbery” really was an origin story, it turns out. With a little help from cousin Young Al, Earn got to eat (while Devin got eaten). We get a mirror of that here in the finale, when Earn “helps” Cousin Al. By moving the gun from one bag to another, Earn once again took another man’s place, heading off to Europe while his nemesis manager went away with the cops. (Of course, he was really trying to eliminate Clark County, and leave Paper Boi as the marquee name on the European Tour.)
Impossible question, Chance: Can you pick your two standout episodes from this season? I say two because I assume “Teddy Perkins” is one of them. It’s definitely top of my list, but looking back over the season, I’m struck by a very different episode about a very different musician in a very different (somehow equally haunted) house: “Champagne Papi” could’ve been the one-jokiest episode of the season (Waiting for Godot with Drake, LOL) but director Amy Seimetz and writer Ibra Ake conjured up a postmodern fairy tale that also felt like a pretty great episode of a hang-out friendcom. I think simulation theory is so dumb, but I could’ve watched Nadine and Darius talk about it all year.
CHANCELLOR: You want to know the 50th reason I know “Teddy Perkins” is an astounding episode? I can’t even fathom being a contrarian and saying it isn’t one of my two picks. I’ve now seen that episode four times, and I find it incredibly unsettling each tim, from the gross ostrich egg to the drop of blood on the rainbow piano. As a former performer, I found it incredibly poignant. Glover and director Hiro Murai forced me to wonder how things would’ve been different if my mother had been different (my mother was the opposite of Joe Jackson).
(“Teddy Perkins” is also an interesting episode to think about in light of “This Is America.” Both of them deal with the relationship of trauma and art/culture/fame, and engage with Michael Jackson’s legacy in different ways. We have the Jackson-esque Teddy, and Glover’s violent dance through the video is incredibly reminiscent of the controversial panther dance at the end of Jackson’s “Black or White.”)
Like you, my pick for the second standout episode of the year also featured a horror house of sorts: “North of the Border.” Everything that happens in the fraternity house is downright cringeworthy, in the best way possible. From the frat brother showing off his gun room and the naked pledges’ dance to “Laffy Taffy” to, of course, Earn and Alfred’s very heavy conversation, which takes place, of course, on a couch (which is in front of a Confederate flag). It’s one of the few times on Atlanta when the inevitable actually happens, and it’s very effective because you know this is Earn’s nightmare. Also, I think Glover and Brian Tyree Henry act the hell out of the scene, even though both of them give such reserved performances that it doesn’t even feel like acting.
But enough about what we loved about this season. Is there anything you wished you had gotten more of this season, or one area where you think the show could improve? Personally, I found myself wishing we had gotten to spend more time with Van, who I think is the show’s most interesting character after Henry’s Paper Boi.
DARREN: Robbin’ Season went full scale into character-centric episodes, so I actually appreciated how the Van duology (“Helen” and “Champagne Papi”) felt like a rich series unto itself. I’m inclined to say, however, that we could’ve used more Darius. His one real focal episode was “Teddy Perkins”— and although the title performance in that episode was incredible, Lakeith Stanfield kept the whole baroque Showbiz Gothic saga grounded, especially when he delivered a deeply moving (handcuffed!) soliloquy about Stevie Wonder. I expected, wrongly, that we’d get a spiritual sequel to season 1’s “B.A.N.” — a pure pop-culture parody — but I’m glad the show didn’t feel the need to self-copycat, and remain fascinated that we see everything about Paper Boi except for him actually rapping.
Truthfully, I’m disinclined to say the show needed to do anything more. The dreamy-satiric moods of Robbin’ Season beggar easy description. Even in this finale, there were moments of pure laugh-out-loud sketch comedy. I loved how the lawyer Earn and Al visited had a gigantic looming billboard of himself right outside his window, a cartoonish sight gag that also expresses cosmic layers of Branding Age narcissism. But this same episode found time for a stunning moment of humane stillness: That moment when Lottie slowly brushed her fingers across Earn’s mouth was so moving, and reminds me that even the most fervently anti-realistic outings this year found deep reserves of openhearted melancholy.
Atlanta feeds brilliantly into every conversation America is having about itself, tackling blunt racial reality with a heightened feeling for brutal absurdity — the conversation at the passport office felt like it could’ve been on 30 Rock or in Kafka. But Glover and his collaborators are also in the business of mythmaking, enlarging the detritus of modern life — angry Instagram moms, goofy internet memes, indie rappers theme-songing mass-market commercials — into art for the ages.
Toward the middle of the season, I actually started wondering if we were watching the end of Atlanta. Glover is busy, seems to have every opportunity, and also seems to be sitting in a, let’s say, curious position amid the epochal Disney-Fox deal. It’s a testament to how wonderful Robbin’ Season was that I actually think “Crabs in a Barrel” could serve as a final act — but it also feels like the beginning of a whole new era. What do you think Atlanta will be when (if? no, certainly when!) it returns, Chance? And what’s the over-under on the season 3 premiere date? I’ll say May … 2020. (Message to Atlanta cast and crew: I’ll take it sooner!)
CHANCELLOR: Thank you for calling out two of my favorite moments from the season: Darius’ soliloquy about Stevie Wonder (I’m still not over “Teddy Perkins’” use of “Evil”), and that moment between Earn and his daughter. The latter was sweet, but also a reminder of how little this probably happens between Earn and Lottie because he’s not around that much.
But in regard to Atlanta’s future, I think you’re right that “Crabs in a Barrel” seems like it’s kicking off a new status quo for Earn. In season 3, obviously Alfred’s profile will have risen, either because the tour went really well or because it went really badly, but Atlanta probably won’t give us exactly what we expect. I would love for season 3 to arrive tomorrow, but I’m more than willing to give the two Glovers, Murai, and everyone else involved as much time as they need. Great art might not need to come from pain, but it does take time. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if they somehow made sure Atlanta returns right before the live-action remake of Lion King hits theaters next July, in the same way that Atlanta is ending two weeks before Solo opens.)