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Donald Glover's 'Atlanta' Returns With 'Robbin' Season'


Almost two years ago, actor/writer/musician Donald Glover turned the TV world upside down with his ambitious dramedy "Atlanta." The show's second season debuts tonight on FX, and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it takes Glover's ambitions to new levels. Be warned - there is some rough language in the story.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Want to know what it feels like to be a young black man in America? Consider Donald Glover's character in "Atlanta," Earn Marks, an aimless Princeton dropout crashing on friends' couches who has a problem. Even when he has some money - several hundred-dollar bills, to be specific - he can't spend it. First at the movie theater...


DONALD GLOVER: (As Earn Marks) Yeah. Can I get two tickets for "Fast And Furious"?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) I'm sorry, but I can't take a bill that large.

DEGGANS: ...Then at a hookah bar where the owner is convinced the bill is fake.


GLOVER: (As Earn Marks) No, just get another hundred to compare it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) There are no other hundreds in the bar.

GLOVER: (As Earn Marks) Then you got one of those pens that you can mark it with?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Of course not.

DEGGANS: And the kicker comes when a security guard at the bar speaks to Earn as he's kicking him out.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hey, we all know that the bill was real, but the owner was tripping. Sorry about that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) That was definitely racist.

DEGGANS: The bit ends in a strip club where Earn is charged 20 percent to get change. Like Chris Rock once said, being black in America often feels like always being 50 cents short. And the racism comes from everywhere from white ticket sellers to black club owners. That's the vibe of "Atlanta's" second season, where most of the humor is rooted in the surreal indignities its characters endure just to get by. Glover pulls you into the experience and entertains you at the same time. The subtitle for this year's episodes is "Robbin' Season," that time close to the year's end when robberies and assaults go up. Earns' oddball friend Darius sums it up while the two watch police clean up a crime scene.


LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Darius) Robbing season. Christmas approaches and everybody got to eat.

GLOVER: (As Earn Marks) Or be eaten.

DEGGANS: Donald Glover's Earn Marks manages his cousin Alfred, also known as up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry. Paper Boi winds up on the wrong end of robbing season when a longtime drug connection robs him at gunpoint during a transaction in his car. When Paper Boi tries to open the car's back door to leave, he can't because, yep, the door's child locks are still engaged.


BRIAN TYREE HENRY: (As Paper Boi) Child lock, man.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I got you.

HENRY: (As Paper Boi) Child lock. OK, you - come on - got it. I got it. I'll just - I got it. Why you got to lock me in the child - oh, my God. That's the window, man.

DEGGANS: The sharpest humor in "Atlanta's" second season comes from leaning into those moments when Earn and Paper Boi should enjoy their growing success but the world won't let them. It feels similar Glover's real-life attitude where he often appears unable or unwilling to enjoy the acclaim and awards that came from the show's first season in 2016. The best moments of tonight's episode come when Earn faces his Uncle Willie, played by perpetually-in-trouble comedian Katt Williams. Willie insults Earn over his dependence on Paper Boi.


KATT WILLIAMS: (As Uncle Willie) You scared. You got to stay on his good side now 'cause he's Mr. Moneybags. Family is business.

GLOVER: (As Earn Marks) No, that's not it. What I'm scared of is being you. You know, someone everybody knew was smart but ended up being a know-it-all [expletive] that just let [expletive] happen to him.

DEGGANS: Willie comes back with some advice for Earn. It sounds a bit like the words Williams himself might offer about his mistakes in real life.


WILLIAMS: (As Uncle Willie) And if you don't want to end up like me, get rid of that chip on your shoulder. It's not worth the time.

DEGGANS: That nagging sense of lost potential gives poignancy to every scene, making this season of "Atlanta" another masterpiece. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "APOGEE (RJD2 REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.