The Best Thing on TV This Year Was: ‘Atlanta’December 28, 2018
After a slow winding second season that sometimes seemed more preoccupied with stand-alone episodes than pushing forward the main plot, Atlanta’s finale tied up all loose strings with an epic closing scene in its season finale episode, "Crabs in a Barrel," that was truly one for the books. Leading up to the finale, up-and-coming rapper Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) was considering firing his cousin Earn (Donald Glover) as his manager, who was admittedly doing a janky job but who also has no other career prospects to support his family. In the finale Alfred ominously weighs his cousin’s fate from an unusually cold distance as Earn scrambles to get the crew ready for their first European tour. The tension wearing the duo down somehow transversed the screen, making me feel like even I needed one of their smoke breaks. But the payoff was in the way the episode artfully turns their dilemma into a larger question about what black people owe one another and how their fates are intertwined.
When a stressed out Earn asks Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) if he’s going to get fired, Darius responds: “You’re learning and learning requires failure. Alfred’s just trying to make sure you ain’t failing in his life. Y’all both black so you both can’t afford to fail.” His profound assessment illustrates what Atlanta does so well. The show exposes the high stakes in “ordinary” situations without exaggerating them. Both Alfred and Earn reach for their goals like they have a ticking time bomb on their back. Knowing how little room they each have for setbacks, as black people and young adults, makes Earn less of a loser and more sympathetic when he’s in a frenzy trying to corral all the wild logistics of the trip.
That makes the climactic final scene even more stressful when he finally gets to the airport only to realize he has a gun in his backpack seconds before going through a metal detector at TSA. He can’t seem to catch a break. Earn stares blankly into the distance and appears to keep moving normally, somehow not setting off the detector with his own bag, but calmly walking away as chaos erupts in the background. On the plane, Alfred tells Earn he saw him stash the gun in another person’s bag, creating suspense that Earn may finally be getting fired. But it turned out the gun debacle reminded Alfred that he needs someone like Earn around that he can trust.
It was a cathartic ending to an episode, and a season, where characters are constantly unsure of their fate. Plus it offered a new take on age-old unresolved questions in the black community: Do we blindly support black people at any cost? The episode answered that doing so is actually best for everyone at the end of the day, and a hustler mentality at the very least means failure is not an option.
One of Atlanta’s signature styles has been showing the most deadpan realistic version of typically dramatic scenes. And simultaneously weaving other moments that reveal the characters’s deep anxieties, which become the real drama as they’re always inches away from their biggest fears coming true. Those persistent fears aren’t usually about getting shot or arrested or caught in some other stereotypically “hood” dilemma. They’re usually much more universal questions about success and failure, and how to be the most poppin’ version of yourself. That’s why even with its winding plot, Atlanta pulled off one of the biggest feats in television this year, turning its hyper-specific story outward to tackle timeless philosophical questions in the black community and beyond that creating a heart wrenching, sympathetic depiction of struggle where any young adult could feel seen.
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