Fresh, Inventive ‘Atlanta Robbin’ Season’ Takes Off With A Bang [Review]

In this golden age of television, a lot of networks are giving shows the creative freedom to break the mold. Just check out Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins“I Love Dick” or one of the drug trip episodes of “Mr. Robot,” and you’ll see how certain shows are reinventing the form. In 2016, Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” joined the ranks of breathtakingly original modern television, delivering ten of the most creative 30-minute episodes critics had ever seen in its first season. This spring, Glover and co. are at it again as the show’s sophomore run, “Atlanta Robbin’ Season,” takes off with a bang. The first three episodes of ‘Robbin’ Season’ tell us what we already knew: “Atlanta” is back and fresher than ever.

“Robbin’ Season” opens much like the show’s original pilot. A context-less scene between two young men leads to an absurd standoff (we’re talking AK-47s at a fast food joint), and someone ends up shot. We’re then treated to more beautiful birds-eye-view shots of the titular city — thanks, cinematographer Christian Sprenger — before reuniting with our protagonists. Earn (quadruple-threat Glover) is still down on his luck, no longer able to squat in the storage unit he called home at the end of season one. Alfred a.k.a. “Paper Boi” (the delightfully deadpan Brian Tyree Henry), is enjoying newfound success despite chilling out on house arrest, implicitly because of the armed robbery he carried out in last season’s club-centric episode.

Episode one, “Alligator Man,” is the strongest of the opening three. Something sketchy has gone down between Al and his main man Darius (a blessedly ubiquitous Lakeith Stanfield), leaving their house icy. Still, Darius and Earn help out Al when his father, Willy (Katt Williams, dubiously cast), gets into a domestic dispute with his girlfriend. Because this is “Atlanta,” Willy happens to have a live alligator locked in his bathroom, and the eccentric man connects with Darius over a hilarious “Florida Man” conspiracy. The “Florida Man” thread in this episode, imparted by a solemn Darius and an astounding horror montage, conveys the pandemonium of life in the deep South and introduces the season’s motif. “Robbin’ season,” Darius says to Earn outside a gas station. “Christmas approaches, and everybody gotta eat.”

Earn stares off contemplatively. “Or be eaten.”

That existential gravity runs through the following two episodes, as Al has a run-in with his dealer and Earn flounders financially. Episodes two and three — “Sportin’ Waves” and “Money Bag Shawty,” respectively — don’t introduce anything too innovative, but there’s a high bar for that on this show. Though those episodes might be a tad too narrative for fans of the show’s surrealer aspects, they still offer groundbreaking takes on racism, classism, and rap culture. “Sportin’ Waves” features a sequence in a tech startup that will drench white audiences in “Get Out” levels of awkward guilt.

You need to get out your magnifying glass to spot this show’s imperfections, but there are a few. Hopefully later episodes will lean into, rather than away from, a more experimental tone. After all, the show was at its best last season when overrun with public access TV parodies, black Justin Bieber, and an invisible car. Feminist viewers and fans of women in general may also find themselves having to dial down certain parts of their brains (it takes two whole episodes for Zazie Beetz’s Vanessa, the one female character, to even show up), though that’s no more true than it was in season one. All the men are cheaters, the women mostly sex objects. The sexism is shallow, typical stuff, but it’s still there.

Overall, the benefits of diving back into this ingenious show far outweigh the drawbacks. Donald Glover is one of the best TV writers in the game today, and his comedic chemistry with Henry, Stanfield and Beetz makes for electric deliveries. Hiro Murai returns to the show to direct these first few episodes, proving the axiom “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” His direction is still solid. The visuals are still gorgeous. The soundtrack is still mind-blowingly good, thanks to Glover’s music supervision. Stephen Glover, Donald’s brother, delivers more strong writing in “Sportin’ Waves” and “Money Bag Shawty.

Rather than being better than ever before, so far “Atlanta Robbin’ Season” offers more of the show’s same. Still, it looks like ‘Robbin’ Season’ will build on its already stellar legacy. Fans and critics can’t ask for much more from the near-perfect “Atlanta.” [A-]

“Atlanta Robbin’ Season” debuts on FX on March 1st.