Sunday, April 21, 2024

Atlanta Returns in Fine Form with “Alligator Man”

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The follow-up to Atlanta’s fantastic, award winning first season has been a long time in waiting. If you didn’t see it, you should. Immediately. Atlanta was a fresh breath of air into the TV landscape. Donald Glover (and his brother Stephen) created something simultaneously capable of powerful drama and some of the best comedy on television. It also focused to great benefit on telling a story unapologetically black, something that aimed to tell a story from a viewpoint the Glovers felt was needed on TV today and was in demand.

A big reason why this second season took so long to come out was Glover’s lack of appetite to just put out a second season. He wanted to make sure he had another story to tell, and that he wanted to make something even better. Will Atlanta’s second season surpass the first? We can’t know yet, but it certainly got off to a great start.

atlanta earn and darius

Poverty and Police

Atlanta’s premiere spends a lot of the premiere on serious moments.We’re reintroduced to the everyday lives of Atlanta and the very real struggles of living in poverty. It kicks off with a harrowing cold open of two men trying to rob a stash at a fast-food restaurant that ends with a gunfight and a young woman screaming while covered in blood. The season subtitle of “Robbin’ Season” is introduced soon after in the form a nearby murder scene while Earn and Darius get gas. Earn checks in with the parole office (where he doesn’t have the money to attend mandatory classes) while his cousin Alfred is on house arrest.

No time is wasted reminding people of the experience Atlanta wants to portray. For all the attention Donald Glover received from his comedy work, this ability to deliver an authentic look at this part of Atlanta remains the show’s biggest strength. It’s just so damn authentic and relatable. I don’t think you need to a black man or woman to get it, either. It certainly helps. However, there are elements of the everyday concerns and habits seen in this show that anyone who knows poverty will understand immediately.

Of course, there’s also the experience of living as a black American that Donald Glover wants to appeal to. You see plenty of that as well. While there’s certainly a lot of humor in Earn’s visit to Uncle Willy and his attempts to defuse the brewing hostilities with the police outside, you never really overlook the real danger of the situation. The fear he feels for what will happen if those officers storm the house is a very real fear. A fear playing out across these neighborhoods every day.

Obviously there’s also the robbery that kicked the episode off. Let’s just say not every fast-food restaurant has employees wielding automatic guns.

It’s not just these obvious dramatic moments that show how authentic Atlanta is to its namesake city and the people who live lives like Earn and his family and friends. Anyone who has lived in a poor neighborhood can relate to the unspoken fight over who is living in Alfred’s house and how many people he’ll allow to do so. Same with the quick gathering of the neighborhood around Uncle Willie’s house.

You really do worry about what will happen when Earn leaves Willy’s house. We’ve seen the sad endings that come of these situations. And then an alligator comes strolling out of the house.

Florida Man and Gators

Because really, it is these surreal moments that make Atlanta so special. What other show on TV can stick such surreal moments into real drama without it ever really feeling out of place? I can’t think of one, and definitely not one so damn good as Atlanta is.

And again, it’s such specific humor that works so freaking well. Darius’s Florida Man explanation will be immediately funny to anyone aware of the internet meme. As someone who lives in Florida, it was even funnier because of how uncannily accurate it was. That Darius tied it back to a collaborative effort on the part of “Florida Man” and the Florida government to scare off black residents and suppress their rights is perfect for the conspiratorial, “woke” nature of his character.

What really makes the joke, though, is Uncle Willy’s sudden mention of Florida Man later. It takes the joke from one man’s silly rant to a neighborhood boogeyman everyone knows. It was PERFECT.

What makes Atlanta’s forays into sudden, surreal comedy work so well is, like with the drama, the authenticity of it. This show doesn’t just throw random jokes out there to elicit a cheap laugh. It commits its characters to them, and through them commits you.  These aren’t random Family Guy-style “manatee jokes” you consume and forget immediately.

Hell, it’s this commitment to the surreal that makes Darius such a consistently compelling and entertaining character rather than an empty quote machine. Well, that and Lakeith Stanfield’s excellent performance.

You see it again with the alligator gag at Uncle Willy’s house. It would be weird enough if you just get the mention of an alligator and move on. The episode never leaves it there, though. The alligator is brought up time and time again because it’s there, it’s real. It’s basically normal to everyone except Earn and the police. Willie’s girlfriend knows about it, the neighborhood knows about it, and Darius hardly reacts to it.

However, Atlanta also never lets you forget just how weird the situation is. Then they deliver on the joke by having the damn thing stroll out of the house as a distraction while Willy runs off.

Surreal comedy is hard because you have to balance normalcy with oddity. Some people lamented how Atlanta never fully committed to some of the surreal stuff included in the first season. I think they handled it remarkably well. Go too far and these moments lose their impact. Make them too rare and they seem out of place.

If season two’s premiere was an indication, Atlanta knows exactly what it is doing.

Final Thoughts

Atlanta came back from this long hiatus at the top of its game. “Alligator Man” was a skillfully put together episode showing off all the strengths of this amazing show.

I know I focused a lot on everything except the characters, and I feel a bit bad about that. I was a little surprised how nice it felt to watch these characters again. Donald Glover’s Earn remains an intelligent, interesting main character I want to see live up to his potential, even as he worries he is squandering it beyond redemption. Alfred and Darius remain in this somewhat strange friendship that borders on the domesticity of long-time lovers. Well, only without any such hints of that kind of romantic interest. Willie was an entertaining new character I hope to see more of.

Over the coming season I can’t wait to get back into the lives of Earn’s parents, his baby-mother Vanessa, and everyone else in the larger community of Earn’s life. It speaks to Atlanta’s skill that I have no idea who Alfred’s friend crashing on his couch is, and that he came into the show insulting Earn, yet I can’t wait to see more of him. Again, it all just feels so authentic, funny, and relatable.

It’s great to have Atlanta back. If you’re not watching, you’re missing out on one of the most unique and rewarding shows on TV.

Images courtesy of FX

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