Keith Stanfield and Bryan Tyree Henry (Photo: Guy D'Alema/FX)

As a three-time Atlanta resident (expect to see this phrase again before the season is out), I was initially worried about Atlanta when Donald Glover first presented it to critics at this January’s TCA Press Tour. Glover was asked about the airport scene in the pilot, the one in which he discovers who Paper Boi is and gets sexually menaced by somebody’s m’dear. He conceded that the scene was filmed not in Atlanta’s airport, but rather in its convention center after Glover and director Hiro Murai concluded the convention center looked more like an airport than the genuine article. It struck me as the kind of creative indulgence you’d avoid so early on in a show that means to depict a city.

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My concern was obviously misplaced. After all, Atlanta doesn’t have to reflect my personal experience of the city. It only has to reflect Glover’s vision of Atlanta, which clearly leaves room for surrealistic and hallucinogenic elements, and can substitute one location for another if Glover so chooses. But even though Atlanta’s take on The City Too Busy To Hate can take a lot of liberties, the show still has to establish the cultural nuances of the world it’s building. “Streets On Lock” goes a long way towards introducing Glover’s Atlanta, and the result is spectacular. I can’t remember the last time I saw a sitcom appear to become its best self in episode two.

On second thought, I can remember the last time. Master Of None, a show to which Atlanta has been frequently compared, followed a similar template. For that matter, it’s the template followed by most of the highly personal, semi-autobiographical auteur sitcoms. The pilot is charming, but puts most of its energy towards introducing the characters and establishing the premise. Having cleared those hurdles, Atlanta can now get into the really fun stuff, experimenting with voice, tone, and structure to pinpoint exactly what the show is and what it does well.

“Streets On Lock” follows a fairly typical structure, but its voice is anything but typical and the episode shades in the world Glover has created. “Streets” picks up immediately after the events of the pilot, with Earn and Alfred locked up following the shooting incident, the outcome of which remains unclear. (Though it doesn’t look like anyone is dead, so thankfully Atlanta isn’t going quite that dark yet.) But so quickly swerving into this lane grants the show an opportunity to tell a story about the hip hop fantasy of criminality and how it differs from the very stark reality.

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The pilot’s cliffhanger suggested one of two directions for episode two: one in which the convenience store kerfuffle fizzles out or bolsters Paper Boi’s street cred, and one in which the hammer falls. “Streets” explores both paths, splitting its attention between Paper Boi as he considers the gravity of the situation and Earn as he tries to stay sane during his extended stay at the county lockup. Both stories are quintessential Atlanta, so they flesh out the city and nails its quirks as the episode drives home the show’s central themes. It’s an especially thrilling episode if you are, in fact, a three-time Atlanta resident. The many bit players who populate the episode are literally perfect. (Ol’ boy in the orange sweater? My early frontrunner for Best Guest Actor in a Comedy.) The conversations sound like ones I’ve heard, or could hear, in a holding tank, or the tow-truck claim yard, or the unemployment office—anywhere a group of black folks are having a terrible day.

Earn has the privilege—if you can call it that—of taking part in most of those conversations as he sits in a cell ineligible for bail until someone “enters him into the system.” (For a phrase used so commonly, “I’ll enter you into the system” sounds totally Kafkaesque.) He’s staying quiet and keeping to himself, but he keeps ending up in other people’s conversations, or exchanges he’d sooner avoid. But in those moments, Atlanta almost feels like a male, miniaturized Orange Is The New Black. Empathy begets empathy, so I watched the episode feeling like there wasn’t a single character in it that I wouldn’t mind spending more time with.

Meanwhile, Alfred physically roams free, but mentally he might as well still be in timeout with Earn. On one level, he’s happy about his newfound infamy inasmuch as it raises his profile musically, but he’s also concerned about how his actions reverberate in his community. Not only that, I’d imagine he’s also dealing with the weight of the fact that as a black man in America, he essentially has zero margin for error. And he just made a huge mistake, one for which Earn continues to suffer, and has spread quickly enough that kids with toy guns are imitating him. It’s a sense of responsibility Alfred wasn’t prepared for, a psychic weight heavy enough to even spoil an order of J.R. Cricket’s famous wings smothered in mythical lemon pepper sauce.

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These are heavy-ass themes, and before “Streets” is over, Atlanta has tackled the prison system, transphobia, and mistreatment of the mentally ill. But it never feels heavy, and it’s considerably funnier than the pilot. I found the pilot perfectly charming, but this was something different. This was what I wanted Atlanta to be when I first heard about it. I’ve gone from being intrigued to evangelical in the space of one episode.

Stray observations

  • Sorry for the delay, I didn’t realize FX was dropping a two-fer last week.
  • That sly grin on the Cricket’s waiter after the “Don’t let me down” bit…just amazing.
  • I loved when the processing clerk at the jail told Alfred “This ain’t a movie.” But then, I love any instance of a television or movie character saying “This is real life, this isn’t a movie.”
  • If he was this excited about Paper Boi, that corny selfie-snapping cop must have lost his entire shit when he arrested Gucci Mane.
  • Speaking of Gucci, between the mention and the reverence for lemon pepper wings, I couldn’t help but think about “Lemonade,” which is amazing and perfect:

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