‘Atlanta’ Skips a Grade

Posted May 11, 2018 6:57 p.m. EDT

What is “Atlanta,” exactly? It’s a fair but limiting question.

Fair, because, look, if one week you were watching a show about a couple who might have broken up at a German-culture festival, and then the next week they’re gone and you’re watching a road comedy about an exasperated rapper and his pathologically distractible barber, and the episode after that is a mini horror film built around a different character trapped in the mansion of a kooky human mannequin, the change-ups might feel destabilizing. But the question is limiting since so much TV in general right now resembles no TV that’s come before it.

“Atlanta,” whose second season wrapped up on FX on Thursday night, proudly embodies that development. No episode looked or felt the same as the one before it.

The show has four central characters — Earn, Alfred, Darius and Earn’s sometimes ex-girlfriend, Van — who veer in and out of friendship, selfhood, personal clarity and, often, the show itself. In a classic television sense, “Atlanta” is about them. But it’s also increasingly about itself: what its makers can do with the medium, yes, and also what’s possible for the twinned comedies of race and status. It knows the assorted bars a half-hour “sitcom” faces and sets out to raise, vault over and demolish them, to prioritize “sit” over “com.”

“Atlanta” is like a rapper obsessed with his own brilliance. You want to see if the show can top itself because that self-regard is part of the hook. But loving this show means worrying that it might be devoured by its own genius, that it’s too great to last, that, eventually, conceit will cannibalize concept. This second batch of episodes was more obviously, aggressively ambitious. The show became cinema (one ominous aerial shot of a vegetal forest canopy made me want vinaigrette) and appeared to have on its mind the ideas in “Get Out,” the moods of “Moonlight,” the hypnotic ambiguities of David Lynch. Some of that reach toward movieness nudged the show into self-conscious precocity, the equivalent of skipping a grade.

The episodes were packaged as “Robbin’ Season” and kicked off with a drive-through stickup of a chicken-and-biscuits joint that erupts into a grisly shootout that Michael Mann could applaud were it not also depressing. Elsewhere, wallets and money were stolen. But so were time, dignity, childhoods, selfies, songs and a New Year’s Eve allegedly culminating at Drake’s mansion. Thematic audacity came this close to being a drinking game.

The mind-warping grace notes of the first season — a black Justin Bieber, the jaw-dropping getaway of an invisible sports car — were deployed with nonchalance. There was no, “Yeah, we did that.” The lawlessness had charm. For Season 2, something gothic seeped into the show, so even that trip to Drake’s felt haunted. The back half of the season took on the eerie solemnity, existential panic, desperate fealty and forest sequences that made “The Sopranos” cinematic, literary and philosophical.

All of the stoned, bad-dreaminess on “Atlanta” pooled outward until Episode 8 flirted with (then abandoned) formal dream logic: Alfred, played in a state of rock-hard ennui by Brian Tyree Henry, asleep on his sofa, stumbling out of the house, then out of a nail salon, then out of a mugging, then out of the woods. So the next episode’s groggy surrealism — involving a college-party gig — felt like a continuation of the previous week’s. There’s no firm line drawn between slumber and reality. Alfred’s rap career as Paper Boi is either taking off or stuck on the runway. People want him to give them their version of his authenticity. And the dream — if we’re calling it that — is an odyssey to discover what’s truly real.

I imagine that keeping us guessing is part of the mandate of a show like this. Its makers don’t want you to see any of it coming. And if surprise is a strategy, maybe sacrificing conventional coherence is worth the gamble. Season 2 wanted to beguile more than entertain. Its most alarming episode was that mini horror movie, “Teddy Perkins.” The plot’s pretty simple. Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) drives a U-Haul to God knows where to pick up a piano with painted keys.

Darius is the kooky mystic who doesn’t just smoke weed the way everybody else does on “Atlanta”; he personifies the high. And getting that piano is very him. The stiff, formal white-ish gentleman selling it, Teddy Perkins, says he’s the brother and caretaker of a black jazz pianist named Benny Hope. Teddy has the tight, clammy pallor and limited mouth movement of a ventriloquist’s dummy — under the makeup, it’s Donald Glover, the show’s creator, head writer and star, who usually just plays Earn. Teddy isn’t Michael Jackson. He’s merely another resident in the racial prison that locked Jackson up. Which explains why he might have locked his brother up, too — if Benny really is his brother. The episode’s central mystery involves the relationship between them and how the hell Darius is going to get out of their house alive. And yet I did wonder how such a ropy pothead has managed to maneuver that heavy instrument onto a dolly with no apparent sweat.

But being a stickler for sense risks missing the sensibility. “Atlanta” can think pretty big and also movingly small. Alfred’s breaking into a big, semiembarrassed smile might be the invisible car of character development. You’ll never forget it, and who knows if you’ll see it again. Amid the yeah, we sure did do that mechanics is a lot of magic — pleasurable stuff whose rib-tickling and cultural acuity defy easy explanation. So perhaps the crucial question isn’t actually what is “Atlanta,” but how it’s done and why what it’s doing is so good? The movies have at least a partial answer. There’s a concept for an impossible, insinuating lightness that can pass between characters. It’s called the Lubitsch touch, after the great German-American Jewish filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, a founding father of American screen comedy. Lubitsch’s apex was the 1930s and 1940s (he directed “Trouble in Paradise,” “The Merry Widow” and “The Shop Around the Corner,” to name but three), and this touch of his is evident in the comedies of Nora Ephron and certain Robert Altman movies and decades of TV, including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Golden Girls” and “Happy Endings.”

A key element is the incongruity of tone and circumstance. Lubitsch would drop you somewhere, often in Europe after a revolution and between the wars, then tell dirty jokes and hatch a bunch of rude schemes. You’d get a lot of cocked eyebrows and double entendres, delivered with panache by master winkers like Miriam Hopkins, Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Jeanette MacDonald. Statecraft, capitalism, political power and patriotism are willfully mixed up with lust and love. You’re laughing at these dances of decorum and indecorousness, at how the eyes and posture can say what the tongue cannot.

The touch can be hard to detect. But try dusting for fingerprints. It’s Mary Richards’ suppressing a crackup at the funeral for Chuckles the Clown, then bursting into tears when the priest tells her Chuckles would have wanted her to laugh. It’s the deli fake-orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally” and just about every episode of “Seinfeld.”

“Atlanta” has a not-dissimilar finesse. But where Lubitsch set his sights on sex, “Atlanta” plays with race, fame, money and moods. It’s how you forget that that invisible car took out some clubgoers as it zoomed away from gunfire. It’s how Van (Zazie Beetz) discovers that the Drake doing Instagram selfies with scores of women isn’t Drake at all, just some cardboard that, for $20, you can pose with, too. It’s the way a shot of Earn watching Alfred record something at the offices of a Spotify-like outfit captures a blurry sea of mostly white employees feasting their gaze upon the rapper. He turns around, and they all scramble back to what they’d been doing earlier; even the phones remember to resume ringing. It’s a line like “It’s Michael Vick” or, from Thursday’s finale, “For systemic reasons.”

The “Atlanta” touch is fantasy and depression, weed and trauma; the unshakable, unnamable savoriness of certain dreams. Actually, in lots of moments — facial expressions, silences, décor — it’s all five tastes coming over you at once. The touch gets at the sometimes simultaneous sinking and buoyancy of being black in America. “Atlanta” specializes in the properties of blackness, the adjustment of heft and levity for bizarrely emotional effect. It’s a form of both irony and telepathy — knowing that you’ll know what is being unsaid. Robert Townsend, Dave Chappelle and Key and Peele made similar adjustments on their sketch shows, but within the precincts of satire and farce. The “Atlanta” touch works under all situations, comedic and otherwise. Blackness isn’t a cause or a solution but a state of being around which anything is possible. It’s another show about nothing, but where nothing can’t stay nothing for long.

Could the “Atlanta” touch spread beyond “Atlanta”? Could it reach, say, Donald Glover himself? Maybe not. Last week, as his musical persona, Childish Gambino, he released a single and video for a provocation called “This Is America.” The song is a gumbo of Afrobeat, trap music and Lionel Richie. The video strives to lament the hypocrisies of armed violence, mass entertainment and fame. It’s set in a sunlit warehouse filled with parked cars, human chaos and chickens, at the heart of which is a shirtless Glover, who writhes and undulates around the space. He pulls a pistol from his pants and shoots a man playing guitar, then is soon tossed an assault rifle so he can mow down the gospel choir providing accompaniment. He rarely stops moving. Neither do the uniformed school kids doing the gwara gwara and the Roy Purdy behind him.

As a production, it’s captivating. The director is Hiro Murai, who’s also directed a majority of “Atlanta.” He’s a whiz with actors, spatial configuration and his camera. Here, it’s a little Bela Tarr,a lot of Alfonso Cuarón, Beyoncé and Michael Jackson. People rid the frame of the occasional corpse. They leap from catwalks to their death. But the camera stays with Glover and his troupe. It stays with the party. We’re meant to find the indifference of the dancers — and the camera — tragic. Maybe we’re meant to find a conflation of our nation with less ostensibly “fortunate,” “developed” brown ones. As it happens, Glover’s shirtlessness, slacks and neck chains evoke Fela Kuti, the Nigerian bandleader, activist, live-music marathoner and pioneer of Afrobeat. When Fela, as he was internationally known, had a bone to pick with, say, colonialism or, well, America, he made sure to leave a filet.

What Glover and Murai have done here feels like it should come with a joy stick. Their art is a parody of seriousness. The video might have the “Atlanta” touch, but not its grasp. A downside of this sort of oblique critique is that it threatens to become the moral glibness it means to indict. Nothing in it actually goes far or deep enough. Well, almost nothing. There is the truly alarming sight of Glover’s body, and the minstrel twitch that sends his limbs spasming and causes his eyes to pop. It’s as if 200 years of disputed American entertainment are rattling his bones and pulling his strings to perform this dance macabre. It’s urgent, ingenious choreography that winds up holding together the surrounding flagrance.

Watching his dancing murderer run for his life at the end of “This Is America,” I suppose we’re meant to think about the sunken place: the white prison of the black mind that Jordan Peele invented in “Get Out.” That’s there. But I also wondered whether, under the video’s indicting circumstances, paying to watch Glover presumably delight us as Lando Calrissian in a new “Star Wars” movie coming later this month sets a grim trap for him and for us. Is there a tasteful way to go from that massacred gospel choir to Tatooine? The video leaves you free to wonder about both the potential contradictions of activist pop and the queasy disjunction between moral concern and capitalist ambition. Maybe Glover is banking on that discomfort. And maybe he’s also just banking.

Mostly though, his running reminded me of all the eviction and evacuation so powerfully woven into the second season of “Atlanta” — characters sprinting from their own homes, booted from nightclubs, harassed in schools, abandoned at parties, unwelcome at movie theaters, gawked at in offices — and how painfully all of that spatial discomfort and dislocation rhyme with real life.

The catalog is grim and spans a month or so: black people arrested at a Starbucks while awaiting a business associate, murdered at one Waffle House and violently arrested at another, publicly insulted at their own golf club, wrongly accused of stealing clothes from Nordstrom Rack; a black Yale grad student questioned by the police when a fellow student reported her for napping in a common area; a Hispanic man accused at gunpoint of not paying for the roll of Mentos he’d just bought.

“Get Out” names a movie, yet it also endures as a humiliating national command. Glover’s video caused a sensation because it’s sensational. In an altogether different way, so is the touch of his show. This might be America. But America is definitely “Atlanta.”