The second season of Atlanta bears the foreboding moniker of Atlanta: Robbin’ Season, and halfway through “Alligator Man”, the reliably insightful Darius neatly reveals why. “Robbin’ Season,” he says, for some reason sitting cross-legged atop his car at a gas station, “Christmas approaches, everybody’s gotta eat.” Darius’ explanation is superfluous, though. “Alligator Man” begins with a robbery that turns into a shoot-out, when two men (we never learn their names) are confronted by a rifle-wielding fry cook while sticking up a fast food joint.
We will likely never know the names of those would-be robbers, or see them again. The sequence, which continues a streak of impressive scenes in Atlanta by director Hiro Murai, is just a jarring prologue, as Atlanta remains committed to the elliptical and atmospheric quality that made season one so mesmerizing. Surrealism in the series couches blunt facts. ‘Tis the season, so “Alligator Man” opens with a robbery; what else do we need to know?
After its violent beginning, “Alligator Man” finds Earn being evicted from the storage unit we saw him retire to in the final moments of Season One. Substantial time has evidently passed, long enough for the manager to become aware of Earn’s living arrangement. Long enough, too, for a rift to grow between Alfred and Darius, which Earn discovers when he drops in on his cousin Alfred, currently on house arrest. Neither Alfred or Darius want to talk about the friction, but Darius’ striking apron and Alfred’s icy remove suggest a new twist on domestic resentment: an ankle bracelet breeds contempt.
Despite its early shootout, “Alligator Man,” like Atlanta as a whole, is markedly subdued. The series’ storytelling is languid, it’s color palette is muted, and its camerawork, in scenes focusing on Earn, Darius, and Alfred, is naturalistic. It operates as an absorbing portrait of a distinct environment – Atlanta, the city – dotted with instances of heightened reality, or complete unreality, that typify the Atlanta in creator Donald Glover’s mind (or dreams? nightmares?). Flourishes in season one – a black child in white face, a rapper inexplicably named Justin Bieber, or an invisible car, to name a few – drop jarringly into Murai’s vivid rendering of the city, which is brought to life with a constant hum of crickets, and seemingly tangible humidity. The balance between the realism and outbursts of fantastical style obscure the sheer amount of information in the series – some of which is vital to Earn’s struggle, some of which is merely a fact of the world of Atlanta.
It would be characteristic of the series to move past Alfred and Darius’ rift without explaining it, or revealing a resolution. It’s just as likely that their relationship will tie into the ostensible plot of Atlanta: Earn and Alfred’s trials in the music business. Where other shows might abandon seemingly erroneous nuggets of info, choosing to adhere strictly to plot, the details of Glover’s vision form a mosaic. They are clearly the product of a creator who has detached the value of his ideas from those ideas’ relation to story. When the manager of the storage facility kicks out Earn, he also walks off with a handful of Earn’s belongings. One gets the feeling that including a clever jab from the manager (“Yea I’ve seen storage wars, too. This ain’t that”) is more vital to Glover than revealing whether or not Earn ever gets his stuff back.
When Earn visits his probation officer later in the episode, he witnesses the crippling trap of America’s justice system first-hand: he owes a few hundred dollars to pay for drug treatment classes, and if he misses a payment a warrant will be put out for his arrest. The stakes are raised by the fact that Earn’s original charge, for possession of marijuana (“It was half a joint”), will be expunged if he isn’t arrested again during probation – and the fact that he has no money. Seconds later, we see Earn and Darius at that gas station, trading in shower-thought philosophy. “What flavor are flaming hot Cheetos?” asks Earn. Darius: “Hot.” The episode is gymnastic, shifting seamlessly between trenchant critiques of the justice system’s predation and tossed-off jokes about junk food.
The tonal flexibility of Atlanta continues into the central plot of “Alligator Man”, when Earn heads to his Uncle Willie’s house to mediate a domestic dispute between Willie and his girlfriend Yvonne. Their argument over a missing $50 dollars – Willie thinks Yvonne stole it from him – threatens to attract the attention of neighbors and Atlanta Police, until Earn arrives to sort it out. The sequence is inspired and odd, from the casting choice of Katt Williams as Willie, to the fact that Willie happens to have a full-grown alligator living in his house. Unsurprisingly, things turn toward bizarre chaos when cops arrive and are greeted by the Alligator Man’s alligator itself. But while the sequence might be remembered for the indelible image of an alligator waddling toward incredulous cops, it lands an emotional blow when Earn reveals his greatest fear to his uncle. He is terrified of ending up like Willie, as “someone everyone knew was smart but ended up a know-it-all fuck-up who just lets shit happen to him.”
The drama at Willie’s house is endured by Earn because he needs to crash at Al’s house, and figures that helping Willie (Alfred’s dad) might earn him a spot on the couch. After he agrees to hold a gun for Willie and heads back to Alfred’s house, Earn meets a bitter twist: a friend of Al’s, recently released from Jail, has already laid claim to Earn’s spot. As much as Earn has the self-awareness to fear ending up like his Uncle Willie, his is very much still a character beset by the universe around him. “Alligator Man” continues the trend Earn has spent most of Atlanta trying to break: things still just happen to him.