The second season of Atlanta, subtitled Robbin’ Season, ended with the stunning, tentatively optimistic “Crabs In A Barrel.” After weeks of hard truths and consequences, an embattled Earn (Donald Glover) comes perilously close to losing it all. The finale sees Earn flailing, as usual, while Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) calmly mulls over their future. Joshua Alston’s excellent review of this “daring reverse heist” explores the cousins’ different approaches to getting ahead, which may finally converge here. But the air of finality in “Crabs In A Barrel”—not to mention that shocking callback to “Alligator”—warrants further discussion, so we asked the rest of The A.V. Club for their thoughts on the season-two finale.
Note: Plot points of “Crabs In A Barrel” are discussed below, because we are, after all, talking about the finale here.
Erik Adams: Take a beat to appreciate how rich with detail “Crabs In A Barrel” is, and how much it ties together not only Robbin’ Season, but all of Atlanta to date. Darius is wearing a Benny Hope T-shirt. There are callbacks to the series premiere, from the couch to the credit-card guys at the airport. And then there’s Uncle Willie’s gun, a MacGuffin that nevertheless took my breath away shortly before it took the sound away from “Crabs In A Barrel.” All those details make the ending ripe for dissection: Did Clark throw Luke under the bus? Did Luke jump in front of the bus for Clark’s sake? If so, does that create more doubts in Al about Earn’s willingness to sacrifice? More importantly, they demonstrate and reinforce where the characters are coming from, what they’ve been up against, and what they’ll do to get what they want. I once wasn’t sure a more cohesive Atlanta could also be a “way better” Atlanta. I’m pleased to be proven wrong.
Danette Chavez: I don’t think there’s ever been such an anxiety-inducing half hour of television as “Crabs In A Barrel.” Donald Glover and Hiro Murai team up once more for a deceptively straightforward story, one that has a clear goal—get him (Al) to the airport on time—and road blocks. We almost anticipate Earn’s mistakes, though not the one that’s a callback to the premiere, and seems poised to be his downfall. This has been such a bruising season of Atlanta; all the fumbles and failures have instilled a kind of muscle memory for disillusionment. I braced myself at the two-minute mark, then loudly exhaled once everyone (except Luke) was on the plane to France. But, like Al and Earn, I’ll be wrestling with Earn’s ingenuity, and just which crab in the barrel he’s supposed to be, for some time. The episode is a fitting conclusion to a superlative second season—and, if this is the end of Atlanta, one of the best TV shows period.
LaToya Ferguson: I’m disappointed in myself for not seeing Atlanta ending its second season in a grounded fashion coming. I got so swept up in the escalation of Robbin’ Season, I didn’t think about how the actual robbin’ season had to end. So now, when I think back about how bizarre this season has been, I’m really brought back to Donald Glover’s original Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Summer Vacation comparison—which holds up, especially when you think about the surrealism and bizarre character detours of both. (“FUBU” took us back to school, marking the end of the vacation/season.) “Crabs In A Barrel” getting back to “normal” highlights just how linear the season’s story has been, even if it hasn’t always seemed that way. It’s also relatively simple, putting Earn back front and center, with everyone else back through the lens of his perspective.
Kate Kulzick: Considering the season’s several horror-tinged (make that –soaked) episodes, I was relieved to have a straight-forward day-in-the-life level of tension and dread for the Atlanta finale. I didn’t expect the question of whether Alfred will fire Earn to carry so much weight, but it looms heavy throughout. Premise-altering conflicts rarely stick, but given that no season three plans have been announced, Donald Glover’s busy schedule, and the various premiere callbacks, “Crabs In A Barrel” feels distinctly like a series finale, and I wouldn’t have put it past Glover and the rest of the creative team to end on a tragic note. It’s almost a relief when Earn’s decision at the airport, dark as it is, brings him and Alfred back together. From Glover’s performance, it’s a split-second call, but the question of whether some small part of him planned for this eventuality will linger with me all summer. Here’s hoping we get a season three to find out.
Alex McLevy: When “Alligator Man” kicked off Robbin’ Season, I was initially worried the year would err on the side of dark, despairing poignancy. That’s an affecting register, but god, it’s brutal to watch sometimes. Luckily, 10 episodes after that initial outburst of violence, we’ve pulled out of what first looked like an emotional nosedive, into a still-tempestuous but far more resonant and artistically ambitious season. What makes “Crabs In A Barrel” work is how it threads together several of the season’s narratives: Earn’s tenuous grip on his job and precarious status with Van and his daughter both enter a new phase of anxiety for the struggling manager, while much-needed heart-to-hearts finally happen between characters who have—to some degree—been talking past each other in nearly every episode. (Though Darius, it could be argued, is always at least partially talking past whoever’s in the room.) But Donald Glover’s excellent reactive performance, his eyes and face aggregating the toll the assembled stresses and indignities of life are piling up, creates a contemporary Chaplin-esque bundle of social pressures, harnessed to a character we’ve watched evolve steadily. It’s a wonderful piece of acting that showcases the little-bit-of-everything approach to the season, culminating in a literal evacuation from the title setting itself. What a cathartic relief. (Though watching that first episode again—damn, it’s still bleak as hell.)
Clayton Purdom: I half-expected it to all come together in a flash. This season was a masterpiece in unresolved tensions, turning the 30-minute format into an elegant, structural exercise in surrealist horror. How might the finale possibly yoke together and justify Al’s nightmarish journey in the woods, the simulation-theory disaffection of Drake’s mansion, and Teddy Perkins’ grinning, plastic face, as well as the stolen shoes, broken laptops, and hit-and-run accidents that passed like fleeting punchlines? It couldn’t, of course. Instead, all of these hallucinatory and too-real traumas suffused the finale with a panic-stricken sense of disillusionment, displayed mostly on Earn’s barely moving face, an anxiety he refused to even alleviate with a blunt among friends. I gasped when the gun resurfaced in that final silent moment at the TSA, one final lurch of terror in a television season uniquely focused on creating them, and then, when I didn’t expect it, there it was: a steel cord of humanity, of family, stretched from Al to Earn in the waning moments before a red-eye flight takes off. Right when you least expected it, but most wanted it, the closest thing this bleak, beautiful TV show finds to hope.
Kyle Fowle: There’s a glut of very, very good TV shows out there right now, but I’d argue there’s only a handful that ascend to that next level, the one where something either truly different or incredibly confident and compelling is being done. The Americans is one of those shows. So was The Leftovers. Now, Atlanta deserves to be in that same conversation. It’s a show unlike any other. There’s simply nothing like the unsettling, giddy experience of sitting down to watch a new episode of Atlanta, because you have no idea what Donald Glover, Hiro Murai, and the rest of the creative team are going to throw at you. Earn and Al’s relationship acted as the vaguest of anchors for this season, providing just enough structure to allow Atlanta to put on all sorts of masks. Be it the horrific horror movie in miniature of “Teddy Perkins” or the painful story of adolescent pressure in “FUBU,” Atlanta proved that season one was no accident. In the first episode of the season Darius mentions that robbin’ season means it’s “eat or be eaten.” Atlanta has decided it’s not about to be eaten any time soon.
Randall Colburn: There’s obviously so much to talk about here—the season’s embrace of genre; Earn’s cold, desperate swerve in the finale; Darius’ “God flabbit”—but I’d just like to highlight how well the show utilizes anxiety as both a means of alienation and an agent of action. In the finale alone, we watched Earn struggle through some of the relatably anxious situations in which a person can find themselves in, from running late to a meeting with a kid in tow to wrangling lazy movers to dealing with passports and airport security. Through it all, Earn is harried and despondent while Al, Darius, Lottie’s teacher, his Uber driver, the movers, and just about everyone else casually ambles toward inevitability. That anxiety does a fine job of aligning us with Earn here, but it also hearkens back to a season that routinely painted the world of the show as uninviting and unpredictable. Think of the confusing labyrinths that were the homes of Drake and Teddy Perkins, or the woods in which Al nearly met his maker, or even the school hallways where bullies reside around every corner. You’d sacrifice a bit of your humanity, too, if it offered an escape.
Allison Shoemaker: Let’s spare a moment for that Lyft ride. It’s fitting that the finale of Robbin’ Season would begin with something mundane, yet surreal, a tiny piece of hell that’s ultimately trivial but sure feels big in the moment. Earn deserves better, but what is he supposed to do about it? Lottie deserves better, but how can he make that happen? Al deserves better, but how can Earn get him better? There’s no easy way to describe that Lyft ride—singing driver, squirming kid, GPS that can’t be considered wholly sane. “My Lyft driver was… religious” pretty much does the trick. Robbin’ Season, in some ways, followed a fairly traditional arc, with Al and Earn’s divergent paths taking the form of a crescendo in which the swell wasn’t volume, but tension. The surrealism doesn’t stand in opposition to that arc. They underline it, because life is fucked, and it doesn’t always make sense, so it’s important to cling to the things that do.
Ali Barthwell: Al and Earn have been getting robbed this season because they aren’t ruthless. I don’t know if Earn knows he isn’t trying but he definitely ain’t trying hard enough. He still can’t figure out how to provide for Lottie. Al knows that Earn is holding him back. Al’s loyalty to his family and his desire to keep things laid-back is going to prevent him from moving to the next level. “Crabs In A Barrel” shows how Al and Earn think they can skate by with charm and the bare minimum. Clark’s success has been a thorn in their side up until this point and this tour should be beneficial for everyone. Earn’s cowardly stop-gap approach to life and Al’s misplaced loyalty are the worst flaws to have around someone like Clark, who is ready and willing to destroy anyone who stands in his way. I’m ready for Earn and Al to get their shit jacked up and I’m not going to feel bad about it.