By Caleb Michael Sarvis
Season one of Atlanta opened in media-res, starting the series with a literal bang after Alfred (aka Paper Boi) pulls a gun out in the middle of a disagreement.
Season two returns to the model, but as one would hope, ups the stakes. Curtis and Droop, whom we’ve never met and won’t return to in the season two premiere, learn that ordering a number seventeen as Mrs. Winner’s, a local fast-food chicken spot, is the equivalent of ordering an eighth of weed. The two decide to give it a shot, and when the drive-thru voice confirms their order, they place masks over their heads, hop through the drive-thru window, and rob the place of its entire stash. This is Atlanta, though, and the manager pulls out an automatic rifle. A shootout ensues, the manager chases the thieves out the restaurant, and peppers the getaway car with bullets. The car stops, and a young woman we didn’t see before steps out the backseat. She’s covered in blood. She screams. The manager is visibly shaken by the casualty. The car drives off.
In a sense, the show picks up where it left off: willing to break the rules of story-telling. It stays true to its setting-based title, and its second-season subtitle (“Robbin’ Season”), but feels completely comfortable introducing us to unestablished characters. It feels expository, but that’s the end of it.
After the cold open, we return to Earn in the storage unit. His living situation’s been found out, and he has to go. Our messenger, perhaps the manager, rifles through and takes some of Earn’s stuff – because why not? Earn’s continued homelessness takes him to Alfred’s, who we learn is on house arrest, and is beefing with Darius. As it turns out, Earn, himself, is on probation for a minor drug possession. We’ve picked up where we left off, but there’s plenty we don’t know, and truthfully, I’ve come to learn it doesn’t really matter. Once again, we’re in media res, and the story moves despite our ignorance.
On Character Movement
Eleven episodes in, I’m trying my best to treat the episodes independent of one another. The characters are recurring, yes, but for the sake of workshop, the episodes should stand alone. Donald Glover (Earn, and showrunner) has written this episode himself, and immediately he has his characters on the move.
I attended the Douglas Anderson Writer’s Festival here in Jacksonville, Florida over the weekend. Headline writers included Poet Laurette of the United States Tracy K. Smith (who fucking rules, by the way), and the ever-brilliant George Saunders. My biggest takeaways, though, were probably from two of the smaller workshops I sat in: one on “scene” with Ira Sukrungruang, and the other on character movement with Laura Lee Smith. Both reminded me that the simple solution to writing an effective story is the people in those stories need to do shit. Getting them moving.
Donald Glover has done exactly that, he’s put Earn on the move. Episode 11 works in conjunction with Episode 10. Earn simply needs a place to stay. When Alfred, who owns his own house, asks him to go check on their uncle Willy (played by a surprisingly wonderful Katt Williams), Earn is acquiescent. Alfred is his only source of income, as well as hope for a place to sleep that night. The events that follow are all the result of a single decision: the character needs something, so he does something. I type that sentence out, feel like it may be unnecessary, but when you read for a literary journal, you learn that the mechanisms of story-telling aren’t as apparent to everyone.
On Staging a Scene
Uncle Willy’s home becomes the focal scene of the episode. The title of the episode, “Alligator Man”, is a reference to Willy’s nickname and the alligator (named Coach) he keeps locked in his house. Earn is here because Yvonne claims she’s been kidnapped by Willy. Willy’s locked her in a room (a different one than Coach) because he believes she’s stolen fifty dollars from him. Willy is the brother of Earn’s mother, and there seems to be some unresolved history concerning that dynamic, and Willy may or may not be Alfred’s father, that part is unclear. What is clear, is that Willy lives in a house Alfred owns, and doesn’t need the cops to show up – so here comes Earn.
The tools here are aplenty. We’re given a place (Willy’s home), stakes (a kidnapping claim, probation), history (Willy vs. the rest of the family), and a promise (Coach the alligator). Combine this with Earn’s aforementioned motivation, and all the pieces are there. Glover and the rest of the writing team, once they had all this in place, were probably able to let the scene write itself. It’s interesting how often I’m reading a story, or watching a show, and the writers end up limiting the scene because they wouldn’t arm themselves. An alligator locked in the house of an unstable uncle? Of course!
The cops show up. Willy is displeased with their presence. Earn is frustrated with Willy’s thoughtlessness. The cops learn about the gator. Earn attacks Willy’s character. The gator is let loose. It felt like destiny the moment Earn walked into the house. This is what good writing does: simultaneously surprises us and fulfills its promises.
Two things working for me:
Darius, as usual, is a little unhinged. He embodies the surreal of the show, and in his movements, his faith in conspiracy, provides a manifestation of everything operating underneath. His disconnect with Alfred mirrors Earn’s own anxieties, and his tale of Florida-Man, whom he describes as “Alt-Right Johnny Appleseed,” works in harmony with the events that follow. I’m also a huge fan of the end of the episode. Alfred has offered his couch to an old friend newly released from prison, despite his knowing that Earn has no real home, no place to sleep. His fear, that Alfred may leave him behind in his new fame, is palpable in this moment.
Two things I’m not sold on:
For the most part, this was a tight episode, as they usually are. Towards the end, right before Willy releases the gator, Earn allows the tension of the moment get the best of him, and tells Willy he’s doing his best not to be like him, someone that is intelligent, but only becomes a waste to those around him. He follows with an apology, that he meant it, but is still upset about some distant history between Willy and Earn’s mother. The vague wave at family beef didn’t quite hit, though Glover’s performance in the moment sells it. Secondly, Atlanta has proven it doesn’t feel the need to include every character in every episode, but in Earn’s desperation for a place to sleep, I could’ve used a scene referencing Van and their daughter. Why is this not an option? Or is it? A phone call, an off-hand comment, would have been enough to satisfy those questions.
Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Looney Purgatory or (i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith) (Carbon Books 2018). He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and received his MFA from the University of Tampa. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Saw Palm, Panhandler Magazine, Eyeshot, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @calebmsarvis