For musicians, actors and filmmakers, the dream is the same: to express what’s inside of them, to become a success, maybe even get famous. Whether because they want to share their voice with the world or because they possess no other marketable skills, artists put themselves out there for our entertainment, longing to be heard and craving our approval. Rejection is their constant reality, but that pain is tempered by the hope of blowing up.
Except, what happens if neither scenario plays out exactly? What if you do well, but not well enough to silence those negative voices in your head? What if you get a little fame and a little cash, but you realize you’re still stuck with yourself?
The remarkable first season of Atlanta was an amorphous, atmospheric beauty that was a critical and cultural sensation, winning Emmys and propelling its star and creator Donald Glover to a new level of fame. A longtime staple of the hipster comedy scene thanks to his sketch troupe Derrick Comedy and his work as a writer on 30 Rock, he’s also put together an impressive indie hip-hop career under the moniker Childish Gambino — not to mention becoming a favorite on the cult sitcom Community. When Atlanta premiered, featuring him as a struggling young man named Earn with a young daughter and a fledgling career as a manager for his rapper cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), Glover was just 32 and already a star and savvy industry insider. But if the initial episodes from Atlanta’s second season are any indication, Earn and his pals are no happier than they were in Season One — and neither, maybe, is Glover.
The new season premieres Thursday, and the show’s creative brain trust have talked a little about the pressure they felt living up to Season One, which was so remarkable, in part, because its wandering, unexpectedly hilarious and sneakily emotional episodes were a bit under-the-radar. This time around, though, audiences are primed for great things, which shifts expectations. “We’ve kind of been comparing the season to a sophomore record from a new artist,” Atlanta director Hiro Murai said recently. “Internally we’ve drawn Kanye parallels — if the first season is College Dropout, this one is Late Registration.”
After watching the three Season Two episodes that FX has made available, however, I wouldn’t say that Atlanta is necessarily going in the direction of Late Registration — where Kanye dreamed even bigger and let his music get even grander, albeit while acknowledging plenty of social ills like racism and drug abuse. A better sophomore-record example might actually be De La Soul Is Dead, the bitter and more clear-eyed follow-up to the surreal, playful 3 Feet High and Rising. The characters on Atlanta have, in small ways, gotten a taste of success — and they don’t entirely like it.
Much of Season One focused on the individual hustles of its principal protagonists. Dead-broke Earn was trying to maintain a frayed connection with the more emotionally mature Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his child who eternally wishes he’d grow up, be more attentive to his daughter’s needs and stop pursuing his dreams of being a manager. (Meanwhile, she fantasized about running a boutique while laboring as a grade-school teacher.) Paper Boi obsessed over becoming a bigger name in the Atlanta hip-hop scene, releasing mixtapes while keeping an eye on his day job as a drug dealer with his stoned, mumbly buddy Darius (Lakeith Stanfield).
Atlanta’s first season, though, ended with glimmers of hope amidst the characters’ dispiriting day-to-day reality: Earn and Van seemed to be a little closer, and Paper Boi was getting some industry attention. Still, lingering economic hardships hovered over them like a dark cloud — and that’s not even mentioning the random appearances from trigger-happy cops, patronizing rich friends and culture-appropriating white people, all of whom contributed to the show’s darkly sardonic, underdog vibe.
Glover, who remains one of the show’s main writers, seems to have absorbed Atlanta’s acclaim and decided that he’s not all that impressed with the hoopla. (And don’t forget that in the meantime, his 2016 album Awaken, My Love! won him his first Grammy, as well as earning an Album of the Year nomination.) That ambivalence to being seen as a big deal seeps into Season Two, in which the characters discover that a little success mostly means massive new problems, some of them self-created.
Earn, for instance, sees his profile rise thanks to Paper Boi’s mainstream crossover, but in a candid moment, he confesses that he’s scared that, the bigger his cousin gets in the rap game, the less Paper Boi may need him around. (And as we’ll eventually discover, Earn’s insecurity is well-founded: Paper Boi’s growing stardom attracts flashier managers to his side.) Other problems creep up, too. Flush with a little cash, Earn wants to take Van out for a romantic evening, only to learn that, because he’s black, trying to pay for things with a $100 bill automatically attracts suspicion everywhere he goes. Apparently, no amount of money will erase his self-doubt — or change the color of his skin around white people.
Meanwhile, Paper Boi tipped his hand last season to being thin-skinned when he couldn’t keep his cool after being teased online by an obnoxious social-media personality. And that’s back when he was a largely unknown rapper: In Season Two, his slightly increased fame brings not the stereotypical rewards of babes and money, but rather, the parasitical attention of aspiring-musician waiters and sketchy drug dealers, all of whom want a piece of him because he’s blowing up.
It’s hard not to read Glover’s own feelings about fame into Atlanta’s mixed mood. On his albums, he’s always oscillated between swagger and uncertainty. He opened his 2010 mixtape Culdesac with “Difference,” where he bragged about being different while absorbing the knocks against him. Defiantly, he rapped, “Haters say I’m changin’ / But I haven’t changed at all / Indie kids saying that I’ve ruined all their favorite songs / Hood niggas sayin’ that I’m whiter than that Colgate / Hatin’ on my progress / I’m a long ways from Bro Rape” — a reference to a 2006 Derrick Comedy skit that went viral.
That emo-ish sensitivity has been reflected not just in Childish Gambino’s more soulful moments — his 2013 album Because the Internet was a lengthy grappling with his relationship to being online as a celebrity — but also in his interactions with the public. Around the release of Because the Internet, Glover took to Instagram to stress over his decision to leave Community to focus on music. Pouring his heart out about feeling hated and disrespected, Glover expressed his fears that he’d peaked already and admitted, “I hate that people can say anything. I hate caring what people think.”
But if Glover has been conditioned to treat success with suspicion, his tense relationship with his white audience — “I’m afraid people think I hate my race,” he wrote in his Instagram freak-out — also plays out in Atlanta, giving the series another layer of commentary and insight about the downside of “making it.” The first season depicted its marginal white supporting characters as racists or cultural tourists. One of the show’s signature moments was when a pretentious white aficionado of black culture proudly displayed his Awaken, My Love! vinyl as proof of his hip-hop bona fides — a nice meta moment that indicted the character and also Glover’s discomfort over his popularity with white fans.
Season Two is just as sharp, especially during an extended segment in which Earn and Paper Boi visit a sterile, preppy open-concept office filled with hip, young, tech-savvy white executives who want to help promote Paper Boi’s music, even though they don’t seem to know much about it other than it’s blowing up. Without spoiling the surprise, let’s just say that Paper Boi has to do something at the office that’s so incredibly demeaning — and so indicative of the way that white culture has absorbed hip-hop — that it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cringe.
The specificity of Atlanta’s critique of clueless white fans stings precisely because Glover has probably witnessed firsthand how race works as an accomplished black artist working in what’s still a predominantly white industry. Racism informs so much of this show, whether during Earn’s failed dates with Van or in the limited economic opportunities for these characters.
Season Two has been titled “Robbin’ Season,” a title that proves to be both metaphor and frighteningly literal in the early episodes. The hustle that was embedded in Atlanta from the beginning is still there, and it’s a credit to Glover and his collaborators how hilarious the show’s trenchant observations are. But at the center of Atlanta are Earn’s wary eyes — Glover signaling that, for a long time, he’s been residing where his character just arrived. If there’s any sophomore slump in Atlanta, it’s the characters’ realization that the comedown is gonna be rough. What’s sadder, for Glover and his characters, is that the highs maybe weren’t as high as they’d hoped.