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Atlanta - Season 2 - Review

"Friends, what is this medium called television? What can it be?"

The words above opened the letter Noah Hawley (creator of FX's Legion and Fargo) sent out to TV critics late last year. In this letter, Hawley questions the confines in which almost all TV shows exist, and expresses his desire to find some otherr way forward, to "crack the code". He writes abut the importance of being experimental and playful, and that perhaps the key to great TV drama is not to make it more dramatic, but instead to make it more surprising.

This letter has been understandably mocked by some - I encourage you all to read it and form your own opinion - but I find myself being sympathetic to everything Hawley is saying, even though much of it does walk right up to the border of pretentiousness, and maybe jumps right over that border entirely. Some things I am certain of are that Hawley is one of TV's biggest and most important creative voices - as the driving force behind two currently running acclaimed prestige dramas - and that his motives for expressing these ideas are genuine.

I do not like Hawley's Legion. I enjoyed much of the first season right up until the final episode, in which my hopes that the show was leading to something emotionally worthwhile were dashed, and I was left grasping at thin air looking for something in the show that never existed. I've watched four episodes of the second season, and while snippets of substance poked through every once in a while, the episodes left me with that same feeling the first season's finale did: that for all the technical wizardry, there's just not enough going on under Legion's surface.

Hawley wrote his letter while Legion's second season was in production, and in each episode you can see that desire to be playful, to be experimental, to try and push beyond some hard to define boundaries that the medium of TV has set. But it all feels effortful, and it's not all that effective. Nice to look at, but little else. What is ironic is that in the mean time, over on another FX series Donald Glover and his collaborators were doing exactly what Hawley was trying - and, in my opinion, failing - to do, and making it look like the easiest thing in the world.

I am, of course, talking about Atlanta, the FX sort of comedy, sort of drama, sort of a lot of other things that is the brainchild of rising star Donald Glover, which follows Earn (Glover), a Princeton dropout, and his rapper cousin Al aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), as they navigate the Atlanta music scene, along with their friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and Earn's on and off again girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz). Of course, you could argue that Twin Peaks: The Return is the show that truly did what Hawley has been trying to do, but it's unclear how much influence David Lynch and Mark Frost's masterpiece will have on the TV landscape: already, it feels like a fever dream shared by all those who watched it last summer. Atlanta, on the other hand, is making waves, much like it's creator.

What is so thrilling about Atlanta - which last week wrapped up a remarkable sophomore season - is how free it feels while you're watching it, that same feeling that I think Hawley is chasing with Legion. Any week Atlanta could be different - a coming of age drama, a horror film, an absurdist comedy - and yet it always feels of a piece with every other episode. Baked into the show from the beginning was a sort of Lynchian dream logic, which makes those transitions easier, and it has led to a TV show that feels alive like nothing else on TV does. It has that special something; it feels big yet small, epic yet intimate. It always feels like there's something just outside the frame, so that if Hiro Murai (who directs most episodes) were to just swing the camera to the left a bit a whole new show could emerge.

There's a stretch of episodes in the middle of the season - in which the show's de facto protagonist Earn hardly appears - that is perhaps most emblematic of Atlanta's willingness to change its skin with ease and confidence. Episode 5, "Barbershop", is the funniest half-hour of TV I've seen all year, in which Al goes to get a haircut from his regular barber Bibby (Robert Powell), but is instead taken on a series of misadventures with Bibby, that eventually leads to them stealing lumber and getting into a car crash. All the while, Al just wants his haircut, Henry hardly having to say a word to convey everything Al is feeling. Powell gets about 95% of the episode's dialogue. In the end, Bibby gives Al a great haircut, but the next time Al's in need of one, he goes to a different barber, and seems to instantly regret it.

Then comes the episode that will most certainly come to define this season, and perhaps the show as a whole, the episode being "Teddy Perkins". Darius, who has long been the show's (to use a broad descriptor) comic relief, is thrust into the role of the straight man, as he visits the house of Teddy Perkins (Glover in terrifying whiteface) to buy a piano. Also in the house is Teddy's brother, Benny Hope, a talented musician with a terrible skin condition. For much of the episode we don't see Benny, and are led to believe that he is not real, and that he and Teddy are one and the same person.

The episode starts out creepily, and eventually escalates into outright horror, before ending in bloodshed, as in the end Teddy is revealed to be real (as real as one can be in a episode such as this) and kills his brother, and then himself. Throughout the episode there is the constant presence of a deep sadness, as the obvious inspiration it takes from the final years of Michael Jackson's life gives it an immense emotional resonance.

Then, "Teddy Perkins" is followed up by a Van-centric episode, "Champagne Papi", which follows Beetz's character and a group of her friends as they attend a party in a mansion which is supposedly hosted by Drake. What follows is Van's quest to get a selfie with Drake, a quest that gets increasingly strange, uncomfortable, and obtuse. Eventually, it is revealed that Drake was never at the party in the first place, and that party-goers have been queuing up to take a picture with a cardboard cutout of the rapper. Also, Darius is there and tells Van's friend Nadine of the theory that life is probably a simulation run by a technologically advanced race of humans far in the future.

Lastly, there's "Woods", which starts out as a relative return to normalcy (whatever that means), before descending into something more unsettling and powerful. In it, Instagram model Sierra insists that Al needs to change his approach to his celebrity, but Al wants to stay "real". Walking home, he's mugged by three fans, and runs off into the woods, where he gets lost and his followed and eventually attacked by a homeless man, who holds him at knife-point. The man gives Al a chance to find his way out, and if he does't he's going to hurt him. Al makes his way to a gas station, and when he is approached by a fan, he gracefully gives him some selfies, including several with him with his mouth wide open, exposing bloody teeth. Atlanta is a series that wears it's Lynch inpiration proudly, and no episode does this moreso than "Woods", particularly in the way Murai shoots the titular woods.

It's after this string of unconnected - at least plot-wise - episodes that the season returns to it's actual story, the one that began the season: that of Earn's personal and professional lives falling apart, at least partly by his own doing, and the growing distance between him and Al. But even when Atlanta calms down a bit and decides to actually tell a slightly more conventional story, it remains as specific and surprising as ever, whether it's in the sudden appearance of Katt Williams and an alligator, a strange college gig that leads Earn, Al, Darius, and their friend Tracy to walk in on a bizarre hazing ritual in an alt-right frat-house, or the decision to have the penultimate episode of the season be a flashback episode featuring none of the principal cast that served as both an acute character study and a terrifyingly accurate depiction of school life, that was both specific and universal (I've lived in North Dublin my entire life, and this episode, "FUBU", brought me right back to my school days).

It's in this season's actual story arc where I'd argue Atlanta became one of the decade's greatest shows, and far and away the best show of the year so far (it's not even close really, as good as the likes of The Terror and Barry are). The show's first season was a triumph of mood and experimentation, of completely immersing viewers in a unique, precise vibe. Season 2 has continued in that tradition, but it has also tightened the show's thematic aims, and has also teased out a truly compelling and moving character study.

Throughout the season Earn and Al gradually drift apart, as Al's career begins to take off and Earn appears ill-equipped to be his manager. Al attempts to contend with his ever-growing fame by trying to remain the same, while Earn scrounges for money and places to stay even as he continues to seek individuality in a world in which that isn't really possible for a black man. Both characters seem to learn harsh truths: that in order to thrive, you have to become what is expected of you, and give up thinking that life is going to treat you fairly. Al seems to learn this in "Woods", while Earn's epiphany comes in the finale, "Crabs in a Barrel", which finds him realizing his responsibilities to Van and their daughter, as well as the need to cheat a bit in life in order to get ahead.

The finale's final sequence is a stunner; Earn, at the top of the episode, puts the gun he got from his uncle Willy in his bag, insisting that he'll get rid of it. But the episode ends up pulling Earn in a million different directions, and by the time he shows up at the airport with Al and Darius to go on Al's European tour (Earn knowing that when the plane lands he'll likely be fired), he still has the gun. He realizes this at airport security, and quickly slips it into Clark County's bag. They get on the plane, Earn finally abandoning passivity in favour of taking action, thus saving his managerial career. Then, Clark County boards, and tells Earn and the others that his manager Lucas was the one found with the gun, indicating that perhaps Clark put the gun in his manager's bag, or he claimed that the bag belonged to Lucas. In the final statement of a remarkable season, Atlanta suggests that such behaviour exists on an endless stream, that everyone is trying to survive and trying to pass the gun on to the next guy, and you have to have the quick thinking to pass that gun on.

Whatever you do, don't get caught with the gun.

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