[THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SEASON 2 SPOILERS.]
Atlanta is a television show about bashing lemons on the ground in frustration, creating what will eventually turn into lemonade as the motion is repeated. Its artistry is composed of a myriad of bad situations and extracting both the means for growth and, of course, the funny. For the first two seasons, the grand problem that constantly rears its ugly head is the come-up; how to survive it, and what comes after. Being a rapper truly, as often reiterated by our genre’s iconoclasts, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Protagonist Earn (Donald Glover), a melancholy mass of blank stares and wordless frowns, is a man searching for a way out of the glum existence he inhabits. He’s the travel guy in the airport, or at your outdoor mall, praying that you’ll stop to take a breath so he can stumble upon his words hurriedly as he gives you his spiel, only for you to reveal that you don’t have time for this as he finishes up. Over the course of the first season, he becomes a manager, by title alone, to his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), frequently referred to by his rapper name Paper Boy. While Alfred isn’t the star of the show, he serves as our eyes and ears as we explore, with increasing incredulity, the bullshit that comes with getting into the rap game. Add in the endlessly peculiar Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and the sporadic appearances of half-stoner, half able-bodied and wondering love interest Van (Zazie Beetz), and you’ll have rounded out Atlanta‘s main cast. Four black bodies, one miserable, poor-adjacent experience.
The first season was an imbroglio of morose experiences, beginning with a disquieting gunshot in the first episode, making clear that Paper Boy’s about that kind of action. Issues like transphobia, homophobia, mental illness, being broke, and trolling all brandish themselves within the first few episodes. Throughout the rest of the season, relationships that each character has with the world around them are fleshed out: Paper Boy’s changing environment thanks to his rising status, Earn’s evolving relationship with Van, and so forth. Each of the main cast grows to become more than 25-minute television show characters — they’re believable 20-somethings trying to make something pop off in a world where everyone tries, so nearly no one succeeds. When Paper Boy does start to win, his cynicism aligns with how we view everything with a grain of salt, so as the show raps up with “The Jacket” and Earn getting a 5% pay cut of Paper Boy’s money, we’re relieved. We kept hearing about how Paper Boy was coming up, now we saw it. As happy an ending as any, Earn, previously homeless, gets a key to a storage facility space that he inhabits. “Elevators (Me & You)” closed the episode out on a happy ending for the season.
“Robbin Season” came next, dramatically changing everything we knew about the characters we knew and loved in the previous season. Earn experiences a rollercoaster of a journey, learning that he’s usually the reason for the mess of his life, and that being a manager means that there can be no slacking. As Paper Boy reiterates through the season, he has a lot of people depending on him to do great. Paper Boy goes through the most profound journey of all. After obsessing over his street persona and becoming increasingly detached from the fakeness of the rap game, traumatic experiences (possibly hallucinations) force him to come to terms with his growing celebrity and change his ways. Darius explores the instability of his livelihood through Teddy Perkins and Benny Hope, in the series’ most horrifying episode “Teddy Perkins,” coming to terms with his mortality and the impact that family has in determining the trajectory of one’s life. Van, after a heart-wrenching game of tennis with on-and-off fling Earn, comes to terms with being single and gains the courage to get back out on the circuit, pursuing Drake before failing miserably (note: it wasn’t her fault). Newcomer Tracy (Khris Davis) starts off as a slick-talking, fresh-out-the-clink goofball, but he’s fleshed out to be a man with anger problems triggered by disrespect.
The season ends with a solution for a season-wide problem: Paper Boy doesn’t believe Earn to be a suitable manager because of his lack of care in life. He seems to just meander from situation to situation, scene to scene, observing everything but offering little input. But Earn being smart enough to offload a gun during an airport trip that could have gotten Paper Boy in some serious trouble wins him the respect and shot that he needs to show the latter that he really wants this. The final scene is of Earn and Paper Boy preparing for a flight to go on tour with fellow rapper Clark County — a sleazeball that will probably create more problems for the two in the future — finally on the cusp of fame.
After Donald Glover’s Deadpool: The Animated Series got canceled, many figured that it would spell the end for Atlanta. But FX recently confirmed that the show would be coming back for a third season in the near future. Based upon the narrative presented to the public, this could potentially be problematic and ultimately harm the show’s legacy. The story that we’ve been given explored the journey to getting in the position of pursuing fame and the mental and physical pitfalls that come with it. Now that the journey has been completed, the next leg comes : fame. So many shows and films have covered the pitfalls of fame—hell, rap music does it all the time—that another that looks to take a new angle couldn’t be any more profound than the scores before it.
From the character standpoint, where can any of them go? Paper Boy’s grown accustomed to fame so now he’ll be exposed to it on a greater level. What kind of profound statement can be made about that? Then there’s Darius who has come to terms with his eccentricity. Will he grow even weirder? His uniqueness was turned up from season 1 to season 2. How much more oddball can they make him without going into parody territory? Van is now a strong, independent woman with confidence in herself and a positive look to the future. What kind of arc could she be believably placed on that’ll be sensible and not artificial and, worst of all, backtrack?
And then there’s Earn. We’ve chronicled the painful transition from hopeless loser to sanguine boss man over the last two seasons. He’s figured out how to be an empath while being assertive and not taking any crap from anyone. What else could he possibly learn through the next season that wouldn’t be a retread of what he’s already done?
That’s not to say that a new season wouldn’t be welcomed. We could always do with more of Atlanta‘s magnetic view of the city and of the music industry. It’s shot beautifully and has the best curation of music in the world of television today. But its novelty comes from its unique perspective of the rise to fame and how zoomed in it is. When the threshold of fame is reached, there’s no choice but to zoom out to get an encompassing view. But that view has been tread time after time, on every medium imaginable.
At the risk of lowering its quality, is a new season worth it? How will it ultimately impact its legacy? CW’s The Flash was a hit with critics during its first two seasons. The third season came and received somewhat lukewarm reception. The recently-wrapped up fourth season has gotten absolutely terrible reviews. Show runners, even with decades of source material from comic books, ran out of ideas and kept returning to the same setups and mundane villains. How much harder will it be for Atlanta, which is already comprised of completely original material?
Maybe Donald Glover and company will take the “This Is America” approach and explore how African-Americans are still subject to the worst conditions, even when fame has arrived. Or, he could go in a completely left-field direction and extract something no one would be able to predict, a la “Redbone.” That’s the beauty of dealing with him. You never know what could happen. Or, he could attempt to extract new meaning of celebrity and fail in the process. Luckily, we’re still a few years out before it comes back, so a lot can happen before then. Whatever Earn and company get into next season, let’s hope that it continues to push the envelope.
More by Trey Alston: