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Comedy Is Drenched With Foreboding On Season 2 Of 'Atlanta'


This is FRESH AIR. The second season of the FX series "Atlanta" begins tomorrow night. The series follows the stories of four African-American characters in "Atlanta." The first season in 2016 won rave reviews, big ratings and Emmys for its creator and star, Donald Glover. Our critic at large John Powers says "Atlanta" is one of the high spots in today's pop culture.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Although we tend to label eras with the name of presidents, politics and culture rarely go hand in hand. Even as Donald Trump dominates the political landscape, it's African-American culture that's been seizing center stage, be it Beyonce performing "Formation" at the Super Bowl, Colson Whitehead and Jesmyn Ward winning literary prizes or "Get Out" becoming the most galvanizing movie of 2017. As I speak, "Black Panther" isn't merely ruling the box office but demonstrating how a superhero movie can actually be about things that matter.

In this big, bold, confident explosion of creativity, one of the loudest bangs has come from the FX series "Atlanta," whose creator, Donald Glover, won both directing and acting Emmys for its first season. Starting with roughly the same freeform comic genre as "Louie," "Girls" and "Better Things," the show is built around vignettes that range from the hilarious to the dead serious. Glover endows the format with a stinging social dimension. He captures the deadpan surrealism of lives that feel powerless in the face of a world gamed against them.

As you may know, Glover stars as Earnest Marks, known as Earn, who dropped out of Princeton and now lives part time in a storage unit. Earn's got a daughter with his sometime-girlfriend Vanessa. That's charming Zazie Beetz. To make money, Earn manages the career of his volatile cousin Alfred, played by the brilliant Brian Tyree Henry, who's a gifted rapper known as Paper Boi. Paper Boi's pal and court jester is Darius, played by one of my favorite actors, Lakeith Stanfield, who walks and talks on a frequency different to everyone else's.

As the new season begins, things are in flux. Paper Boi has become successful enough that adoring white girls sing folky covers of his songs. But he still needs to sell weed to survive. Meanwhile, Earn must deal with an arrest for possessing a tiny amount of marijuana. Here, in one of the sly, short scenes that are an "Atlanta" trademark, Earn meets with a probation officer.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Earnest Marks - first-time offender, narcotics possession with intent to sell.

DONALD GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) Half a joint - plus they say the charge don't even count as long as I don't get charged again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Unless you get arrested again, not charged. One's easier than the other. You've already paid your entrance fee.

GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) Yeah, my jail entrance (laughter) fee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I'll need $50 for the mandatory anti-drug class materials. And each class is $25. So that's $325 plus the $50 - $375 in total. Are you able to pay this amount of this time?

GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) A payment plan will be set up for the remainder of your classes. Please pay promptly, or a warrant will be issued for your arrest.

GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) Would I even have to show up for these classes if I paid for the whole thing in full?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) You can't. So let's not. Take one of those cups by the door. Fill it up, and leave it in the cupboard.

GLOVER: (As Earnest Marks) Yes, thank you.

POWERS: When Gabriel Garcia Marquez was asked about his work's so-called magical realism, he said that he was actually being realistic, that magic was part of his reality. Glover might well say the same about the hallucinatory quality of "Atlanta," which seeks to capture black life in its often delirious aspects, like the alligator that turns up in Episode 1 or Darius' great riff on the tabloid monster he dubs Florida Man.

Because Glover's not the sort to pound away at a message, he likes unsettling our feelings, not wrapping issues up in a bow. He gives us his character's kaleidoscopic reality in all its laughter, bafflement, violence, resignation, loyalty and of course racism, not least the racism of white folks who think they're woke. Where "Black Panther" presents a utopian myth of blackness, "Atlanta" is all about capturing the textures of life as it's now lived, even ones that don't always put African-Americans in a good light.

If Vanessa is clearly the most sensible of the main characters - women tend to serve as a reality principle - the most fun to watch is Darius, who in Stanfield's boundlessly droll performance is a perma-stoned (ph) holy fool who seemingly floats above the action. That's not true of Paper Boi, an artist whose cauldron eyes burn with poetry and rage, amusement and self-destruction. His soul's too vast for the narrow world he inhabits.

In contrast, Earnest - caught in a classic bind of book-smart African-Americans. He doesn't want to have to give himself over to the white world to get ahead, yet he also doesn't want to wind up trapped in what "Get Out" called the sunken place - being just another black guy in a world where that means nobody can hear you scream.

I've only seen the first three episodes of season two, ominously titled Robbin' Season. So I'm not really sure where "Atlanta" is heading. But I know its comedy is drenched with foreboding. I also know there's nothing else quite like it on TV, no series at once so strange and angry and hysterically funny. It's a show that smiles at us through clenched teeth.

GROSS: John Powers writes about TV and film for Vogue and vogue.com. The second season of "Atlanta" begins tomorrow night on FX. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be comics Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. They'll host the Independent Spirit Awards on IFC Saturday night, honoring the year's best independent films. They also do the lead voices in the new Netflix animated comedy series "Big Mouth" about a group of kids going through puberty, dealing with new sexual urges, body changes and considerable embarrassment. Kroll co-created the series. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Stanishevsky (ph). Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


SONDER: (Singing) People say I drive too fast, move too fast, live too fast. Ain't no such thing as too fast for me. People say I drive too fast, move too fast, live too fast. Ain't no such thing as too fast for me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.