Donald Glover
Photo: Curtis Baker (FX)

Of the many compliments that can be hurled at Atlanta, the highest has to do with the show’s tendency to dramatically shapeshift from week-to-week. It’s a horror anthology. It’s an indie comedy. It’s a commentary on contemporary black life. It’s a high-art after-school special about the grave consequences of fashion shaming. Atlanta is—and I beg you to read this in your best grindhouse trailer voice—more action! More rappers! More subtext! More of everything! It is, at once, the television show that is easiest to describe and the most impossible to explain.

Even “Crabs In A Barrel,” which is hopelessly conventional by Atlanta’s lofty standards, is surprising for its conventionality. For the second year in a row, this generally abstract show has concluded with a straightforward catch-up with each of the four characters and a loose, character-focused conclusion. “Crabs” follows an even more direct path than season one’s “The Jacket,” which mostly focused on its jarring episodic story before concluding with a thematically climactic montage. The biggest difference between the two Atlanta finales lies in their disparate tones. “The Jacket,” despite its police-involved shooting and the specter of death looming over Alfred, ended on a celebratory, triumph note. Meanwhile, “Crabs” is most of a victory lap, but it feels like a funeral.

The shift is apparent from the episode’s earliest moments, beginning with the deliberate choice to forego the cleverly disguised title reveal and the stinger of a song that usually accompanies it. There’s a conspicuous absence of music throughout the episode, save for exclusively diegetic elements like the Lyft driver’s gospel, Lottie’s headphone distractions, and her teacher’s soulful rendition of “Wheels On The Bus.” The lack of hip hop is appropriate for a series of events that looks like it’s about to be Earn and Alfred’s The Day the Music Died. Not in a literal sense, one hopes, considering the episode ends with a transcontinental flight about to take off, but in the sense that their relationship is reaching a major tipping point. Alfred is going into the next phase of his career, and it’s far from certain that Earn will survive the transition.

But the question posed by Stephen Glover’s knotty script is why Alfred is eager to make a change and how Earn perceives those intentions. From the meeting with the entertainment lawyer, to the auspicious yet terrifying parent-teacher meeting at Lottie’s school, to the encounter at Darius’ passport renewal connection, Earn gets the same message over and over again. Black folks can only get you so far, but real success ultimately requires the access and resources that only whiteness can afford. It’s an interesting idea to pose right at this moment, given that we’ve spent most of the season viewing Earn and Alfred’s relationship through a mostly transactional lens. Sure, they’re family, but what is Earn actually accomplishing for Alfred? If Clark County can get that Yoo-hoo coin, seems like Paper Boi should have his own brand of cigarillos by now. Earn isn’t in a position to facilitate that sort of thing.

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Of course, their relationship isn’t strictly business, a fact for which “FUBU” serves as a potent reminder. There’s a good reason Alfred keeps Earn around despite knowing there are objectively better managers he could be working with, and it’s not purely sentimental. As much as he gets frustrated with Earn’s general bullshittery, Alfred knows that because of their family bond and complicated history, their relationship will never have the dimensions of a business arrangement. Making less money than he could be making and seeing other people benefit from opportunities you’re not getting is one side of that coin. The other side is knowing that Earn, out of some combination of loyalty and abject desperation, has his own version of doing what the next man won’t. Al needs an occasional reminder, and Earn gets a chance to deliver it when Uncle Willie’s golden gun reappears at a most inopportune moment.

Earn is usually responsible for his fuck-ups, and while this case is no different, the golden gun oversight is a mistake anyone could have made. The episode takes place over an extremely action-packed and stressful eight-hour period, during which Earn was dealing with a lot of shit. Between the logistical stress of shepherding Al and Darius out of their place and onto an international flight, and the emotional stress of uncertain futures with the most important people in his life, dude was burning the candle at both ends. But Earn, either to his credit or to his chagrin, depending on perspective, turns the situation into an opportunity. He sneaks the gun into Clark County’s bag—an attempt to secure Paper Boi the headlining slot he deserves—only to find out that Clark’s manager actually took the fall.

Aside from being a clever play on the concept of Chekhov’s golden gun, the incident offers Al and Earn a chance to make amends and to recommit to their odd, business-casual relationship. Yes, there’s a lot still in flux. Van is thinking about moving back in with her mom and taking Lottie with her, and Al and Darius need a new place to live. (So does Earn, still, in all likelihood.) But “Crabs,” like “The Jacket” before it, ends on a note of bittersweet triumph. So it’s no wonder I have basically the same criticism of this finale that I had of that one. Everything around the intricacies of Earn and Al’s relationship and their attempts to navigate Atlanta’s trap music scene is so rich and well-done, that it frequently feels like a shame that the show is never more than maybe 20 percent of that stuff. And even when the other 80 or so percent is vivid, surreal, and sui generis, it all runs up to a finale packed full of character beats you could be forgiven for forgetting you’re supposed to care about.

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We come to the conclusion of another season of Atlanta with an only slightly better grasp of how much of this show’s iceberg lies beneath the visible tip. There is a template of sorts, fairly traditional bookends with goofs, larks, and the occasional prosthetic nightmare visage in between. That said, only a fool would claim to know what a season three would look like for Atlanta, even though “Crabs” leaves an aftertaste of warm mother’s milk. As is clear from Donald Glover’s other recent triumph in conjunction with director Hiro Murai, Glover has a lot more on his mind than rap jokes. We’ll presumably find out more whenever the show returns, and not a moment sooner. All that said, I look forward to joining you all for the season three premiere, a standalone prequel episode in which Teddy Perkins and Florida Man escape together from an Atlanta-area prison and take refuge on a present-day sharecropping farm.


Stray observations

  • The title refers to Earn, Al, and Clark equally. It’s robbin’ season! Discuss.
  • Episodes like this one remind me a lot (thematically at least) of Starz’ Survivor’s Remorse, which lasted longer than I expected it to, but not as long as I wanted it to.
  • Earn has really bad luck with customer service experiences.
  • Donald read the hell out of the line where Earn asks the teacher if there’s anything...cheaper they can do to improve Lottie’s future.
  • Van looks like she’s out here living her best life. She asks Earn about the scar on his face, but then is like, “Uh...okay, do you.” And it’s convincing.
  • FX clearly spares no expense with this show, because licensing Nina Simone tracks is really not cheap.
  • The passport guy, on the premise behind his service: “Rappers procrastinate.” They do!
  • Of course Clark County loves the golden gun. Of course he does.
  • Them boys could have told Tracy they were moving. He brought Chinese food.

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