“Atlanta” isn’t a show, it’s a state of mind. That was already true in the comedy’s critically acclaimed, stellar first season, which married seductive surrealism with a lovely, oblique portrait of black creative aspiration in the South. With its second season, “Atlanta” — subtitled “Robbin’ Season,” for the holiday season crime spree that engulfs the city — is even more atmospheric, with the measured confidence of an Olympic athlete. In the first three episodes released to critics, it feels as if the show is lazily stretching out, getting ready for what it knows it can accomplish, accumulating the requisite potential energy before rocketing forward. The premiere “Alligator Man,” which features comedian Katt Williams in a supporting role as lead Earn (Donald Glover)’s cousin, is a brilliant, mind-bending opening — one that specializes in not what it says but what it withholds.
In its second season, “Atlanta” inches even further away from the traditional sitcom structure, opening onto a landscape that illustrates not merely the characters’ hijinks but the pervasive anxieties that form their backdrop. The editing distances the audience from the punch lines, drawing attention instead to the space between characters, to the environment they are eking humor from. Director Hiro Murai, who directed most of the first season and the first three episodes of the second, seems to have weaponized the power of bright daylight filtering into a shaded interior; depending on the scene, the light is harsh or beatific, intrusive or a blessing. You could say the same thing about the humor in the show, which is both a cover for a narrative of inescapable discrimination and a life preserver within it. “Atlanta” is funny, but it’s not funny in a way any other comedy is; it’s like the two opposing poles of “how can you laugh at that” and “you must laugh at that” are forcibly horseshoed towards each other; sparks fly between the two.
“Atlanta: Robbin’ Season” begins its season with a glimpse at characters who are not part of the main cast and do not appear to have any connection to them; in what is a particular strength of the show, the tone of the scene pivots on a dime, darting into violence with unexpected speed, and then messily trying to clamber back. Little in “Atlanta” works as planned; confusion, not order, is at the center of its world. It is a purposefully destabilizing lens, and in the second season, it’s a lens that de-emphasizes the characters in order to focus on the central, unmooring chaos of systemic oppression. Al (Brian Tyree Henry, a gift), Van (Zazie Beetz), Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Earn are all there, but the episode arcs are not built around their growth, but rather their practiced stasis; Earn, in particular, has made an art out of maintaining the appearance of standing still. The takeaway is that “Atlanta’s” leads are not exceptional; they are (heartbreakingly, hilariously) subject to the land they are rooted in.
It’s an intriguing exploration, because while so much of the emphasis on diverse stories is about championing individual unheard voices, “Atlanta” carefully backgrounds its own characters to let this unforgiving, unreliable environment take center stage. Despite being created by, written by, occasionally directed by, and starring one of the most ridiculously talented people on the planet, “Atlanta” is a show about how individuals can’t and don’t transcend their environment — about how poverty and oppression become not just a trial to endure but a lived state of being. “Atlanta” is, in some ways, the inverse “Girls”: Lena Dunham’s perspective showed Brooklyn through the perspective of her autobiographical character Hannah. Donald Glover’s show depicts Atlanta absent the certifiably exceptional qualities of its star; his character Earn is neither passive or active, he just abides, slipping through the loopholes he can find.
This is where the season’s subtitle snaps back into relevance. It’s only hinted in the first few episodes, but desperation makes thieves of all of us. The question is just what will be lost, and when. With “Atlanta’s” second season, Glover and crew are examining a very different life of crime from “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire”; it shows us how easily “wrongdoing” slips under our skin and becomes a part of us. Few other shows are so capably transporting — not to a time or a city but a way of being, a way of living, that is only now being translated to screen.