SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Crabs in a Barrel,” the second season finale of “Atlanta.”
The first season of “Atlanta” ended with Earn (Donald Glover) sleeping in a storage unit but seemingly content — hinting that his life was on an upswing. But the season that followed, subtitled “Robbin’ Season” to denote the time of year when people often resort to desperate measures to provide for their families at the holidays, lived in far more anxiety and tension. Still, while the season two finale “Crabs in a Barrel” had to follow suit in some moments, director Hiro Murai wanted to loosen the tone a bit.
“One of my favorite moments in this episode is the scene where they’re all on the couch together,” Murai tells Variety. “We haven’t seen [that] since the first season, when it became kind of an iconic location. And so even though the episode is a little harsher and at that point Earn doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him — whether Al’s going to fire him or not — there’s a flash of how things used to be where it becomes a little more casual. There’s something about that moment that really struck me and felt right.”
In the previous episode, which Murai also directed, Al aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) told his cousin Earn he was going to have to fire him. Earn tried to suppress his anger at being cast aside, only to unleash it on Tracy (Khris Davis), who was unfairly replacing him in Al’s confidence. But the next episode flashed back to show the origins of Al and Earn’s relationship, leaving Earn’s fate unresolved.
Murai acknowledges that the show is not typically plot-driven and therefore they don’t “feel liable to a lot of the moments that occur.” The second season of the series leaned into the concept that episodes could be standalone “short films” that pivoted to different genres, followed specific characters, and sometimes were bottle episodes. For Murai, this led him to shift his approach episode to episode because there was no “default ‘Atlanta’ structure.”
But in being tasked with closing out the season with “Crabs in a Barrel,” Murai notes there were some callbacks they wanted to make and pieces to pay off before season’s end — and whether or not Earn would continue to be Paper Boi’s manager was just one of them.
“Darius’ shirt and even just down to the scar on Earn’s face and obviously the gold gun from episode 1 — there are things that signify all of the things that these characters went through,” Murai says. “So in a way I think this episode serves as a nice bookend, even though we’re not a super plot-heavy show.”
Al ended up taking Earn on tour with him, aided by the fact that Earn helped rush some passports. But when they got to the airport, Earn found the gun he got from Willy was still in his bag. He made a spur of the moment decision to plant it on someone else so he could continue onto the tour.
“The structure of the season was we see all of the characters overcome hardships and make difficult decisions,” Murai says, “so even though Earn and Al’s relationship story gets resolved and Al comes to the conclusion he needs Earn because he’s one of the only people who knows who he is outside of his Paper Boi persona, the difficult part for Earn was having to pull another rapper down for his gain and for Al’s gain.”
This leaves Earn conflicted over a “cocktail of emotions,” Murai notes, even as he’s outwardly onto bigger and better things, traveling overseas. For these moments, and some that came earlier as Earn contemplated his future with Van (Zazie Beetz) and Lottie, Murai felt it was important to be “kind of quiet and meandering and [not to] move the camera very much.”
“We let people talk inside the frame,” he explains. “We’re sort of reacting to what we see in the moment. Obviously his connection with Lottie is a little more intimate, so the moment where she grabs and touches his face in the car, it felt like it wanted to be a moment we wanted to see through a window in a voyeuristic way.”
For Murai, it’s important to tell his actors to take their time and sit in the pauses. Although he can manipulate them in post if he needs to, he prefers not to so that they feel “honest and real.”
“That’s something that’s really important to us on this show — people taking a moment to take in their situation and digest it,” he says.
But rather than end the episode on Earn’s “stoic” reaction as he tries to digest what he just did in the airport, the final scene of the finale is Tracy, forgotten back at home in Atlanta. It’s a moment Murai acknowledges punctuates the point that Al chose Earn over Tracy, but also was one that they just “honestly thought was really funny.”
“It’s all about a kind of push and pull,” Murai says of the tone. “You can build tension but you have to release it at some point. Obviously it’s not a show that prioritizes comedy over everything else — it’s an ingredient that we add and it’s important to us — but we want each moment to feel real.”
That vibe is important to Murai, and also to Glover. The duo also recently collaborated on Glover’s “This Is America” music video, which features Glover singing and dancing his way through the foreground of a warehouse while a number of topical issues are addressed around him. The sound is upbeat, even when the visuals depict gun violence, suicide, Jim Crow laws and bystander apathy.
“We worked on music videos together before ‘Atlanta,’ and the way we work on ‘Atlanta’ came from how we worked on music videos, so it was sort of a fluid, intuitive process,” Murai says. “Donald took the creative charge on the initial conceit [of the video] because he knew what the song was going to be and I came on when he was mixing down the final pieces of the song. But the creative process for the video was like we were playing hot potato with ideas — even while we were shooting it.”
Visually, “This Is America” was inspired by the idea of a “dance video that took place in the last 20 minutes of the movie ‘Mother’ or in the world of ‘City of God,'” Murai says. But like the various episodes of “Atlanta” that have their own individual feel, he adds, “ultimately it was about putting all of the pieces in the frame and figuring out what we wanted to emphasis and what felt like the tone we wanted to hit.”
Like “Atlanta,” it was important for Murai and Glover to mix the light and the dark for “This Is America” to give the audience something to digest and to hopefully discuss.
And although Murai says he was “curious” — not concerned — about how viewers would react both to this season of “Atlanta’s” darker tone as well as “This Is America,” he says he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the response.
“When we’re working on something, I’m just trying to make it interesting for us and hope that whatever’s interesting for us will connect with people watching it,” Murai says.