2nd season premiere of ‘Atlanta’ impresses with alligators, bromantic rifts

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

The second season premiere of FX’s breakout hit, “Atlanta,” shows off all the surrealistic quirks and Lynchian bells-and-whistles that made the Donald Glover-driven TV show such a captivating watch in the first place. This time around, the underlying apprehension that was characteristic of much of season one has been amped up to a near constant atmosphere of dread and imminent desolation.

Don’t worry too much, though. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) is still around, and there are alligators and Cheetos-themed discussions aplenty to supply the oddball and eccentric humor that “Atlanta” does so well.

Last season, we followed Earn (Donald Glover), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) and Darius as they drifted in and out of prominence in the Atlanta rap-music scene. While Alfred and Darius balanced Alfred’s musical ambitions with his less-than-savory second career as a drug dealer, Earn strove to escape from the endless cycle of homelessness, poverty and accidental crime that had pervaded his life. The bumbling trio’s scramble to garner a modicum of personal and professional affluence was the overarching through line connecting together the freshman season of “Atlanta.”

Based on what we can glean from the premiere, the second season, named “Atlanta: Robbin’ Season,” looks to continue exploring that through line while teasing out more of the weirdness and idiosyncrasies that served as the “water-cooler” highlights for the first batch of episodes.

Before throwing us back into the lives of its central crew, “Alligator Man” begins with a harrowing and sharply directed cold open. The camera centers on two teenagers while they unsuccessfully and brutally attempt to rob a shady drive-through. As bullets are sprayed, haunting shrieks are heard and blood is spewed, we get a glimpse of the violence and faded morality that the eponymous “Robbin’ Season” inspires in Atlanta during winter.

Overlooking the carnage from another robbery a few minutes later, Darius comments “Christmas approaches, and everybody gotta eat.” In the opening act itself, “Atlanta” reminds us that even in times when the human condition is about to be consumed by an endless abyss of hopelessness, it is not going to magically transform itself into a “chicken soup for the soul” that will soothe and comfort viewers.

The unflinching honesty is on full display throughout the episode, which is largely concerned with setting up a playing field of dramatic conflict for our core group of characters. For Earn, that conflict largely comes from the dispossession of his storage unit. That’s right: Earn is, once again, homeless, and in need of a place to crash.

While Earn musters up the courage to ask around for other options, Alfred has him go on a mission to bail out Willy (Katt Williams) from a domestic disagreement. Darius, who is experiencing a rift in his bromance with Alfred, asks to come along after sensing some “bad vibes” in Willie’s house.  

It’s here that the episode kicks into high gear. In an understated yet powerful conversation with Willie, Earn airs out his anxiety about turning into a washed-up has-been who never really tapped the full scope of his potential.

“Atlanta” is rightly lauded for its depth and visual flourish, but the passivity to Earn’s character and his oftentimes unexplainable lackadaisicalness was one of the few sore spots in the first season. It’s refreshing to see “Alligator Man’’ taking slow, measured steps towards fleshing out what exactly makes Earn tick.

Besides the revelation that Darius doesn’t believe in time as a concept, another highlight of this closing act is of, course, the alligator in the room. Taken on its own, the entire notion of an alligator being a house pet in a run-down Atlanta tenement is strange enough. But the fact that the episode takes considerable care to set up the alligator as a “Chekhov’s gun” seals the deal.

Seeing the police officers who were out for Willie’s arrest react to the alligator is a sequence so strange, so bonkers that it is hard not to laugh. So far, “Atlanta” has introduced invisible cars, a Black Justin Bieber and possible hallucinations about very specific food interests (think random man on the bus waxing poetic about life while eating a Nutella sandwich). Now, it can add “pet alligator” to the growing list of bizarre experiences it has to offer.

Overall, “Alligator Man” is a confident and engaging return for “Atlanta.” Through the framing device of an actual season of robbing that takes place during winter, it sets up a possible future filled with depravity, desperation and (hopefully not) death. However, it takes care to undercut some of that simmering tension with unparsable yet hysterical sequences of levity, making it truly hard for viewers to keep their eyes off the screen.

Welcome back, “Atlanta.” You were dearly missed.

Arjun Sarup covers television. Contact him at [email protected].