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‘Atlanta’ Season 2 Review: ‘Robbin’ Season’ Changes the Game with Sharp New Episodes That’ll Leave You On Edge

More money, new problems is a predominant theme of "Robbin' Season," as Earn and Paper Boi learn what it's like to be successful and black in white America.

ATLANTA -- "Alligator Man" -- Season Two, Episode 1 (Airs Wednesday, March 1, 10:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured: Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

Guy D'Alema/FX

There is no “B.A.N.” in the first three episodes of “Atlanta” Season 2. Anyone expecting the long-awaited follow-up to Donald Glover’s breakout FX comedy to be as earth-shatteringly on point as its Season 1 peak needs to know a) that’s not happening, and b) that’s not how it happened last time. Meticulous but surprising, the initial 90 minutes of “Robbin’ Season” are laudable independent entries — truly strong solo episodes. But grouped together, their best trait is a lurking sense of anticipation; anticipation that feels a lot like dread.

“Atlanta” began its exquisite first season with a slew of smart set-ups: Characters were introduced. Tone was established. Disaster struck. “Robbin’ Season” is following suit, although how it establishes when the new season takes place and what has happened in the time jump is perhaps less interesting than how it formally repurposes the pilot’s framing: The very first scene of Season 2 is entirely disconnected from what follows, hinting (if not outright promising) that what’s coming later will deliver the goods — in harrowing fashion.

For those who forgot how it all began, we first met Earn (Glover), Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) when a passer-by sideswiped their rearview mirror. The three men got into it with the young couple, the camera cut to an extreme wide shot from above, a gunshot went off, and we waited until the end of the episode to find out what happened.

ATLANTA -- Season Two, Episode 3 - Pictured: Zazie Beetz as Van. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

Season 2 may be playing an even longer version of that same game — or it could be playing a different game entirely. Without getting into spoilers, let’s just say the first three episodes, “Alligator Man,” “Sportin’ Waves,” and “Money Bag Showty,” offer substantial insight into the issues they examine — and are still, by and large, sharply funny — but they still serve as a tease for what’s next. And after that distressing opening, what’s next could be anything: dramatic, scathing, or downright tragic.

The premiere catches the audience up: New dynamics have formed between friends, and matters of pride, family, and reliance are studied. Earn, a Princeton drop-out, remains worried about where he’ll end up; what kind of man he’ll become because he didn’t take the safest route available to sound living. Even with continued success, the friends’ social status hasn’t changed, but the expectation of further prosperity has them thinking about the future. Earn comes face-to-face with his fears in aptly odd fashion, involving a dynamite guest turn from Katt Williams and an actual alligator.

ATLANTA -- "Alligator Man" -- Season Two, Episode 1 (Airs Wednesday, March 1, 10:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured: Donald Glover as Earnest Marks. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

“Sportin’ Waves” sees even more unexpected problems arise, most of which involve bending to the will of those who have what Earn and Paper Boi want: money and weed. Fame becomes a problem, and that discussion continues in “Money Bag Showty,” the strongest episode of the first three.

“Atlanta” has always excelled at specificity: Just think of the ads for the Dodge Charger and Swisher Sweets in “B.A.N.” or how many different topics came up in bottle episodes like “The Club” and “Juneteenth.” The third episode of “Robbin’ Season” dials in on one central idea — Earn wants to go out — and uses a half-dozen examples to break down why that’s not as easy for him as it should be. Not only does it further Earn’s motivation in intriguing new ways, but it invites a broader understanding of his perspective. His problems are both his and so many others’.

Brothers Donald and Stephen Glover, who penned the episodes, continue to find natural rhythms to convey the bigger picture. When Paper Boi drives home the theme of Episode 3 in one perfect comparison, it connects. And so much hits home even without a declarative statement, like the bizarre climax of the premiere. You’re waiting for a moment to happen without really knowing why. Then it happens and everything clicks. Never does it feel like the show is up on a pulpit, nor does it stray from its characters’ compelling points of view. That helps the jokes pop, often arising in an instant and sending you into fits of laughter, but the blend of big and small concerns is utilized for an intriguing purpose in “Robbin’ Season.”

The title alone denotes things are different this year. “Robbin’ Season” may refer to the specific time when it’s almost Christmas and folks in Atlanta get desperate to provide for their families, but that framework is in place for a reason. Though exactly what that is remains unclear, the first three episodes are reason enough to believe. Something’s coming. It won’t be “B.A.N.,” but it will be big. And we’re already eager to find out.

Grade: A

“Atlanta: Robbin’ Season” (Season 2) premieres Thursday, March 1, at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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