‘Atlanta’ offers fresh social commentary

“Atlanta”’s second season is proof that Donald Glover and company not only have what it takes to elevate this show above the bar set by the first season, but also that this is a show aiming to cut into conceptions of what television can do as an art form. I don’t mean this in the way that a show like “The Sopranos” or “Westworld” pushes the boundary; the only show I can think of that does anything similar to what “Atlanta” does is “The Wire.” “Atlanta” is the best program on television, full stop.

I think it is funny when it needs to be, poignant when called for and crafted with an eye for detail so precise and imaginative that I am at a loss for words. Simply stated, it’s “The Wire” for a TV generation centered around Twitter and Netflix. Both “The Wire” and “Atlanta” are not only shows with a diverse cast of characters and plots, but are also programs that attempt to be nothing more than mirrors for contemporary times.

If I am just laying on the praise here, it’s because this show deserves every single piece of good press that comes its way. I try to stay away from just lathering on the praise in these reviews, but with a show like “Atlanta,” I think it’s important to recognize how special this show is. This excellence is due in no small part to how this program demands engagement from the audience.

Do I have to look further than the finale to this season, “Crabs in a Barrel”? I think not. I’m having a hard time thinking of an episode that exudes more of a harshly gray tone than this finale, or an episode that presents such a thorough portrait of a character for audiences to critique. Last season’s finale, “The Jacket,” was an excellent, quiet send-off for a show that might not have had another go-around, and it was a fantastic exercise in tone meshing seamlessly with thematic messages. “Robbin Season’s” finale “Crabs in a Barrel” surpassed “The Jacket” by leaps and bounds.

This is polemical, sure, but it isn’t far from the truth. This season we saw something the last season never really had time to do: develop its characters through narratives we could follow throughout the season. In the first season, we saw characters gain and lose jobs, find and lose money, and lose and create friendships––but it was purposefully cyclical. Last season quite literally ended where it began.

With “Crabs in a Barrel,” we can see just how much more this season was able to do with character development than the first season. Earn’s progression this season has been one of strife so subtle that most of us missed it until we saw the scars on his face in this last episode. We didn’t learn just how much of a schmuck Earn was until we saw this last interaction between Van (another character we saw progress far past their starting position) and him. And, most importantly, we didn’t know what Earn’s place was in this cast of characters until his final acts before boarding that airplane. Now we know definitively where he resides in his outlook on the world.

It goes without saying, then, that this show is a complete manifestation of excellence. Watching Earn move through society was funny, sad and frustrating, and I never found myself able to look away. Even better, Earn’s progression is tied to everything else in this show. Even stand-alone episodes like “Woods,” “Champagne Papi” and “Teddy Perkins” help set the stakes for Earn’s actions. “Atlanta” isn’t just a show about one person, it’s a show about our society, and it never loses sight of personal relatability despite its ambition as an artistic piece.

This level of creative prowess stems, in my opinion, from the show’s fantastic sense of mise en scène. At the risk of cementing myself as a pretentious English major writing for a school paper, I’m going to say that “Atlanta” absolutely nails its mise en scène (or arrangement of scenery) because its social commentary is utterly and completely linked with its artistic form.

The way this show moves through its locations, plots, characters and feelings is nothing short of magical, and the way we can see this movement as viewers leaves me speechless. From a surprise Katt Williams appearance in a deadbeat house to an even more surprising use of white face in a decrepit mansion, this show oozes artistic creativity.

We saw this last season in the tasteful feature of Outkast in the season finale, or in the style shake-up with the “B.A.N.” episode. Now, it is employed even more plainly with a second season that has its fingers on a cultural pulse (Tay K’s robbery in the first episode, the call-out of Post Malone in a frat house, the entire “Fubu” episode). “Atlanta: Robbin Season” cemented for me that “Atlanta” is a show that isn’t just excellent for art’s sake; rather, its excellence stems from its critiques of society.

This is one reason why I’ve been asking so many questions of whoever is reading this. I can stand up here and talk about how great this show is, but that all gets pretty meaningless if I don’t bring up anything with which this show wants the audience to engage. The first season of “Atlanta” was great because it introduced us to a world, tone and characters that exuded the charisma of its creators. The second season of the show is great because of how much it presents for the audience to sink their teeth into.

The showrunners didn’t include a Michael Jackson––sorry, Teddy Perkins––episode just for shock value, and they didn’t include so many Confederate flags for the same reason: The tone of this show, its thematic depth and its sense of artistic creation all stem from a reflection of society. I love this show not only because it is entertaining and satisfying to watch, but also because it’s a show that filters so many of the disparate elements of American society into an appealing portrait.

 

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