“I know you’re always at peace with everything, but my life is falling apart.”
An old adage I’ve heard more times than I care to remember was that black folks have a “crab in the barrel” mentality. If you’ve never seen live crabs in a bushel before, they claw and climb their way to the top of the pile, often dragging and pulling down other crabs in order to gain an advantage to leave their unnatural encapsulation. I’ve heard the phrase all my life, and it would be thrown around whenever people discuss black-on-black crime to degrade and stigmatize black folks that grow out of ghettos and slums that commit crime against each other. This, also, is a symptom of respectability politics, the thought that white people will not begin to respect black people until blacks respect themselves and each other. This tactic is used to dull how black folks talk, dress and interact in public to impress others in hopes of gaining their approval. In other words, minimize blackness to get by because the approval of others outweighs the value we have within ourselves. And that’s total bullshit.
Season 2 of Atlanta doesn’t overtly play into respectability but it does challenge the notion of what black-on-black crime actually is. In Atlanta (the show and, maybe, the city too) everyone is looking for a come up no matter the route. Robbin’ Season has been partly that: thievery and deception for survival. The season premier took the audience on a “Grand Theft Auto” style armed robbery of a chicken joint/drug spot. But there’s something more to stick up that was a motif throughout the entire season: circumstance and opportunity.
In the episode, we follow two young black men, one of them lives in a hood near the airport. (If you’ve flown out of/into Atlanta International Airport and looked out the window while taking off/landing, the airport is surrounded by multiple hoods. Not exactly prime real estate.) They start the show with a seemingly innocent conversation; one wanted to cop weed but his dealer was non-responsive. The other gentleman knew of a place that served and they made a plan to swing by the establishment. After the men ordered the #17, they hatched a brazen robbery attempt, only to have the dealer retaliate with an AK-47. The men, however, were able to escape with their lives and a drug stash. This jarring and seemingly out-of-place scene, vastly different than anything that was shown Season 1, was just the beginning of a roller coaster ride culminating in an impactful ending. The overall season was excellent, but I want to focus on the stirring season finale and what it means to the sophomore season.
Episode 11, entitled “Crabs In A Barrel,” follows an exhausted Earn (played by Donald Glover) running errands around the city and at his wit’s end. Throughout the season, his relationship/situationship with Van ends, he’s on the verge of being fired by Paper Boi and his overall happiness is virtually non-existent. But he’s not the only one growing through tremendous stress. Al aka Paper Boi (played by Brian Tyree Henry) is fully depressed. He’s robbed and attacked by teenagers, told by Instagram model, Sierra, he needs to be fake to gain acceptance and is strung along by a scheming (and hilarious) barber. In the marvelous episode “Woods,” Al symptoms of depression are on full display (dejected, lackadaisical and gloomy) but does not confront his feelings. Al’s personal code of conduct was always “keeping it real” and not conforming to other people’s standards. He doesn’t do autographs and he won’t even accept extra fries from a burger joint, as seen in the “Teddy Perkins” episode. Sierra pressures him into dressing extravagantly in order to impress and stunt on his fans, but he wants nothing to do with it. However, by the end of the season, his morals eventually give way to the pressures of being newly famous. We see him offering to take pictures with fans and wearing Gucci from head to toe, something the old Paper Boi would have loathed.
“I see you, man; learning. Learning… but learning requires failure.”
By the end of “Crabs In A Barrel,” Paper Boi is disillusioned about his circumstances and black people in general. During the episode, the crew is set to fly to Europe on a concert tour. Earn, who forgets that he’s carrying a golden gun in his backpack, is getting ready to pass through TSA security checkpoint. To avoid going to jail over the pistol, Earn acts quickly, stashes the gun in rapper Clark County’s bag and goes through the checkpoint without any problem. While on the plane waiting to take off, Al tells Earn he saw him get rid of the piece but he didn’t care. This triggered something more telling. Here’s what Al says to Earn:
“[T]hat’s exactly what I’m talkin’ about; niggas do not care about us, man. Niggas gonna do whatever they gotta do to survive because they ain’t got no choice. And we ain’t got no choice, either. You my family, Earn. You the only one that knows what I’m about. And you give a fuck. I need that.”
With everything that Paper Boi experienced this season, after getting robbed, conned and finessed, he believes that black folks don’t really care about other black folks. This is similar to what Kendrick Lamar was trying to express in “Blacker The Berry,” but both men are wrong. In the last gotcha! moment of the season, we learn that Clark isn’t arrested and that his manager, Lucas, was arrested for the gun. Lucas is a white man and he ate the gun charge because Clark made him.
Atlanta shows you that crime isn’t some mystical force that black folks only do to others black folks. Earn stashes the golden gun (the circumstance) on a black person only because he just happened to be stand right next to him (the opportunity), and Clark passes the blame to his manager just because he happened to be available to take the charge. Those kids robbed the chicken joint/drug spot because they were poor and who would think a fast food place would be a trap house and who would think a trap house would get robbed in the middle of the day? The three teenagers that robbed Paper Boi only did so because he just happened to be walking along the road with his jewelry on. Sierra only wanted to use Al for clout only because he was gaining notoriety, and that had nothing to do with his or her dark skin. And the barber? Well, the barber was wild as hell and I’ve got no answers for him.
There are only two flaws from the season that I can tell: first, how the show wrote it’s black women characters and, second, naming the season Robbin’ Season. The former cannot be dismissed because a vast majority of the black women were either super aggressive (Sierra), played into tired stereotypes (Tammi from the “Champagne Papi episode), chasing after the non-consequential (Van from “Champagne Pai” also) and/or had no real personality. Van’s role was limited due to conflicts with shooting Deadpool 2 and that can be excused but the other women were hard to digest. Naming the season Robbin’ Season stunted expectations of the individual episodes. After every show, the question always posed on Twitter was, “Who got robbed tonight?” instead of experiencing the show as a whole. The season was about succeeding while seemingly take others down, and I think the creators of the show wanted to drive home the message that this mentality is prevalent throughout society today, but the title may be too on the nose.
“Not all great things come from great pain. Sometimes, it’s love. Not everything’s a sacrifice.”
Throughout the season, asking the question “Who got robbed?” made us distrust everyone. With every episode, the audience waited with bated breath hoping something terrible wasn’t around the corner. While this kept us on the edge of our seats during the “Teddy Perkins” episode, it made it easy to miss the caring aspects of the show’s characters. Darius (played by Lakeith Stanfield), while a source of delightful nonsense, was a beacon of positivity that may have been ignored. In the season’s premier and finale, he ask Earn how is he doing. While this seems basic, he’s one of the only people outwardly showing that they care and have concern. He shows genuine empathy with Teddy Perkins, a person who he just met and that was two seconds away from murdering him. Lottie’s teacher is brutally honest with Earn and Van about Lottie needing to be enrolled in a better school This wasn’t done maliciously or even to truly disparage her school, but it was more important to be honest about the child’s future than to stunt her development. Willie, Earn and Al’s uncle (played magnificently by Katt Williams), gave Earn the golden gun as a signifier to protect Al and himself while in the music industry. These are all black people caring about and loving other black people, something that a title like “Robbin’ Season” would lead you to believe didn’t exist.
No one knows when Season 3 of Atlanta will return. There was a almost a year and a half between the first two seasons and with the rising profiles of the show’s actors, deservedly so, who knows when the gang will get back together. Calling this my favorite comedy undermines the totality of the show and calling it a drama misses a lot of it’s soul too. I’m satisfied calling it my favorite show on television without any qualifiers. The surrealism is poignant and cuts to our basic fears. The musical choices are incredibly thoughtful and clever. The actors are funny, daring and moving.
And Katt Williams deserves an Emmy for being the Alligator Man. And for running like this.