He Gives ‘Atlanta’ Anxiety. And That’s a Good Thing.
Posted May 9, 2018 6:05 p.m. EDT
The second season of “Atlanta,” which ends Thursday on FX, has been thick with tension. From its opening minutes, when two teens sprayed a fast-food joint with bullets, heralding the start of “Robbin’ Season,” an unyielding anxiety has persisted, fueled by unnerving imagery, mortal peril, tragic deaths and the arrival (and bloody departure) of one of the eeriest characters to grace the small screen.
“I didn’t really think about it while we were making it, but in retrospect, a lot of elements lent themselves to horror tropes,” said Hiro Murai, the director who, along with “Atlanta” creator Donald Glover, is the show’s chief visual architect. “There’s a lot of overlap between comedy and horror because they’re both about milking tension, and then delivering a punchline.”
From the start, “Atlanta” established a penchant for absurdity. As the narrative loosely tracks a reluctant rapper and his makeshift squad, more impressionistic, magical moments — an invisible car runs over clubgoers, a stranger proffers a Nutella sandwich and vanishes into the night — are designed to add emotional intensity while defying rational explanation, Murai said. “We always want the surreal aspects of the show to feel like a fever dream,” he said.
As the storylines skewed darker this season, so too did the look of the show. Murai — who directed seven of the 11 episodes — toyed with the balance of dark and light and used the city’s own natural elements, like trees and parking lots overgrown by weeds and kudzu vines, to elicit the hair-raising quality that prevailed.
In episodes like “Alligator Man,” which culminates in an actual alligator strutting out of a house, and “Woods,” which ran Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred through a gantlet of physical and emotional terror, Murai took cues from David Lynch, Takeshi Kitano and Joel and Ethan Coen. He admires Lynch’s ability to create a “soup of ambiguity” and declared that the Coen Brothers “play with comedy and drama and sudden bursts of violence better than anybody.” And he has been obsessed with the “dry, deadpan delivery” of Kitano (better known by his stage name, Beat Takeshi) since his film school days at the University of Southern California.
A recent rewatch of Disney’s animated “Alice in Wonderland” also made an impression. “It has this playfulness, but also this underlying ominous tension,” he said. “Donald and I often talk about how the kids’ movies from our childhood are memorable because they’re so tonally complex. That has influenced both of us.”
“A lot of what we do on the show is an extension of ideas that we were playing with in our music videos,” he added, referring to his collaborations with Glover’s musical alter ego, Childish Gambino. “Whether it’s blending comedy with a dramatic performance or with a heightened sense of surrealism, all the things that we were playing with sort of found their way into ‘Atlanta.'” (Their video for the new Childish Gambino single, “This Is America,” released after this interview was conducted, similarly hinges on unexpected bursts of chaos.)
Below, in edited excerpts from a phone interview, Murai discusses some of the show’s most memorable moments.
— A Four-Legged Cameo
In “Alligator Man,” the Season 2 premiere, Earn’s Uncle Willy (Katt Williams in a cameo) releases his pet alligator during a standoff to distract police from his own escape.
“We had two hours, maybe an hour and a half, allocated to shooting this alligator. These animal wranglers came in from Florida and we just let them do their thing. We couldn’t even be on set because you’re not supposed to be in direct line of sight from an alligator because they could charge you. We were mostly just hiding inside of a tent, watching through a monitor and talking over a walkie-talkie. At the end of the day, it’s an alligator — alligators don’t care that you’re making a TV show.
“It’s just such a majestic looking animal. It was late in the day and the sun was hitting it in a beautiful way. To me, that moment was less scary and more euphoric.”
— An Unforgettable Face
“Teddy Perkins” delivered a chill-inducing mixture of suspense, cultural commentary, brutal violence and flat-out weirdness, with Glover unrecognizable under prosthetic makeup as the titular recluse. He stayed in character between takes on the set.
“Christian Sprenger [the show’s cinematographer] and I watched “The Shining” together — there’s a lot of Kubrick-y things in there. Looking into [Teddy’s] face was like looking into a doll’s face. There’s something so uncanny and unsettling about it. There was a general sense of unease on set because the cast and crew didn’t know how to behave around him. Just being in the same room with him was really unsettling, and it definitely made me lose some sleep.
“Honestly, Teddy Perkins, in a different world, could be a sketch character. For me, the big challenge was to construct this episode in a way that in the end you’re sort of conned into empathizing and caring about what happens to him. That moment where Darius [Lakeith Stanfield] gives his monologue and everything comes to an end, if you didn’t stick the landing, the episode wouldn’t have worked.” — The Frat House
In “North of the Border,” Al and Earn find themselves in a white fraternity house, surrounded by naked pledges, mounted guns and a giant Confederate flag.
“We always talk about the gray area on this show. No pun intended, but there’s no black and white way to talk about race. That scene wasn’t about the fact that these frat kids had this Confederate flag on the wall or were overtly racist. It was about how they grew up in a culture that supported having a Confederate flag on the wall [as well as] being massive fans of Paper Boi and snap music. It’s never clean-cut, racism.
“I was expecting [the nude scene] to be really tense and strange, but it was one of the last things we shot in the season and everybody was so relaxed around each other. The extras who were naked, they just happened to be really cool people. Surprisingly, it was very relaxed to shoot and not as weird you’d think it would be. I don’t really believe it as I’m saying it, but it’s true!”
— An Invisible Getaway
In “The Club,” in Season 1, Al has just triumphed over a duplicitous nightclub owner and he and Earn are enjoying a well-deserved win in the parking lot. When shots ring out, an ostentatious NBA star flees in an invisible car, running over bystanders.
“What was important to us about that scene was that the invisible car wasn’t the point of the shot — it just happened incidentally in the frame. When you look at that scene, [the action is] happening in the back of a scene about Paper Boi and it’s not even in focus. It’s part of the language of the show to play things in a deadpan, unflowery way.”
— An Impressionistic Sandwich
In “The Big Bang,” the first episode of the series, Earn is riding a bus with his sleeping daughter and lamenting his failures. A suited stranger offers cryptic advice then aggressively forces a Nutella sandwich on him, before exiting and disappearing into the trees.
“That scene is kind of the nucleus of the show to me. Episode 1 is more story-heavy than others, just because it’s the pilot and we needed to set up a lot of story. But that moment on the bus was very impressionistic in how it delivered information. You can’t literally parse out that scene and figure out if it’s a metaphor or a thematic device. It just felt true to Earn at that moment.
“We’re always looking for what we call “dream logic,” something that feels right, but doesn’t necessarily have a logical throughline. We’re always chasing that feeling.”