You’d drop me off by the Dungeon / Never came in, but I knew that you were wondering / Now are these niggas in this house up to something? / Selling crack sack by sack so they could function? / Well, yes and no / Yes we were selling it / But no it wasn’t blow / Cook it in the basement then move it at a show / Then grab the microphone and everybody yelled “ho!”

OutKast, “A Life In The Day Of Benjamin Andre (Incomplete)”

The primary responsibility of a television show’s freshman season is to teach the audience how to watch the show. That process is usually brisk and intuitive because so much of television follows effective, if staid formats. But an auteurish, geek-cool single-camera comedy about the Atlanta hip hop scene has to set its ground rules. The first season of Atlanta has done that…sort of. Nobody, least of all me, wants to be the guy advocating for spoon-feeding. But I came away from “The Jacket,” which is a stellar season finale in just about every way, wishing Donald Glover and his team had put forth more of an idea of what Atlanta is. This was a weird, bracing, crazy-like-a-fox season of television, and lots of it is legitimately brilliant, but I don’t totally feel like it taught me how to watch Atlanta.

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I’ve compared Atlanta to lots of shows in my head, most recently The Leftovers and Love And Hip Hop: Atlanta. But the show I thought of most while watching “The Jacket” was Lady Dynamite, the only show that takes longer to explain to someone who doesn’t watch it than does Atlanta. The Lady Dynamite pilot lays out an insane narrative structure, one that takes a good while to get comfortable with. But once the show explains the game, it plays by the rules consistently throughout the season. Atlanta’s only rule seems to be that rules are only suggestions. Vehicular manslaughter with an invisible sportscar? Yes. Black Justin Bieber? Why certainly. An entire episode dedicated to a Bizarro public-access talk show? Turn down for what? Those odd, totally unexpected moments are what make Atlanta so lovable, but they also keep the audience at arm’s length.

All season, Atlanta has maintained a tenuous balance between its grounded, character-based storytelling and surreal comedy elements. Sometimes, those are dueling instincts, but they don’t have to be, and the show it at its best when it’s equally magical and realistic. One example is the indelible moment in “Value” with Tobias, the kid sitting in in-school suspension wearing whiteface makeup for reasons unknown. When the show leans too far towards its outré sensibilities, you get “B.A.N.” There’s so much to like about that episode—”The price is on the can, though”—and it’s reminiscent of Robert Townsend’s best work. But it stands apart from the rest of the show and doesn’t advance the story of Earn’s journey to the life of his dreams. Hollywood Shuffle has a lot of weird-ass jokes in it too, but there’s a narrative function for stuff like There’s A Bat In My House.

My quibbles were brought on by the final shot of “The Jacket,” a moment so great, I hate that it isn’t perfect. In its first act, the episode feels like an inconsequential romp. Earn wakes up disoriented in the wreckage of a house party thrown by a guy who, y’know, fucks with y’all but doesn’t fuck with y’all. Earn can’t find his jacket, so he spends the episode trying to retrace his steps. The story doesn’t feel like one meant to put a period at the end of the sentence, and if there’s anything I’ve learned from this season of Atlanta, it’s not to expect those kinds of rhythms. Once the premise of Earn searching for his jacket was established, I stopped anticipating answers to (still) unanswered foundational questions like what actually happened during the shooting incident in the pilot. I was good just hanging out with these characters one more time.

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But then that ending came. Stephen Glover’s script is quite clever and subtle, especially in the way it uses the jacket as a decoy MacGuffin when the item Earn’s actually after is inside the jacket. By the time he retrieves the item he needs—a mystery key—he’s turned down an offer to crash at Alfred’s place. Then he passes on an offer to spend the night with Van and Lottie, an invitation Van extends eagerly after Earn gives her a wad of much-needed cash. Instead, Earn takes the key to his storage space, goes inside and gets comfortable on the couch inside. Going to sleep in a storage space wouldn’t constitute a happy ending in most stories, but it does in this one. After a season of couch surfing, Earn is finally ready to stand on his own two feet. The camera pulls out slowly to the tune of OutKast’s “Elevators (Me And You),” the most perfect song choice in a season full of fantastic music.

As great as that moment is, it feels like the conclusion of a throughline we haven’t seen most of. Earn began the season in dire straits without reliable income or a passion in life. The shot of him looking perfectly content in his dank storage space is a lovely symbol of how far he’s come. But it’s the neat bow wrapped around a season that has repeatedly told me not to expect neat bows. I couldn’t help but think how much more effective the last few moments would have been if the show had spent more time chronicling Earn’s journey rather than killing so much time on interesting detours that didn’t flesh out the story it’s telling. I was reminded of a different OutKast song, “A Life In The Day Of Benjamin Andre,” which is the first thing I reach for if someone suggests Andre 3000 doesn’t sit comfortably among the best hip hop lyricists of all time. It tells a story starkly similar to the one Atlanta’s been telling this season with more focus and just as much panache. It’s the last song on the album, and it leaves you hungry for more.

“The Jacket” accomplished a lot, including a chilling take on police-involved shootings, but what it didn’t do was leave me hungry for more. It left me curious for more Atlanta, and I have no doubt I’ll watch every minute of this show until the Brothers Glover don’t feel like making anymore of it. But I don’t feel anymore amped to see next season than I felt between episodes of this one. And that’s where being a little bit conventional can go a long way. Atlanta morphed into something like a loosely-connected episodic anthology set in the same world, with the same characters. That neither-fish-nor-fowl quality is thrilling in the moment, but it leaves me not feeling as excited about the next chapter of this saga than I should be. Donald Glover has proven capable of defying expectations, but the real gangsta move next season would be defying our expectations by setting some, then actually delivering on them.

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Stray observations

  • The final shot reminded me of the last shot of Girls’ “Sit-In,” which was co-written by Atlanta executive producer Paul Simms.
  • That shooting scene is far more brutal and affecting than I thought this show was capable of.
  • I’m not entirely sure what money Alfred was giving Earn and whether or not it was related to the drug stuff.
  • Thanks for reading! Y’all come back now, y’hear?

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