As the finale of Donald Glover’s Atlanta: Robbin’ Season nears, certain themes have remained consistent across episodes that would otherwise lack unity. There has been a number of falls from grace, rampant paranoia and fake love. In many ways, this season has mirrored the motifs of Glover’s 2016 album Awaken, My Love!
So in the spirit of Glover/Childish Gambino — who on Saturday dropped a thrilling and demonstrative music video for “This Is America” and hosted and performed on Saturday Night Live — I’d like to examine some parallels between the two to show how the album serves as a narration for Atlanta‘s second season.
Episode: “Alligator Man” | Song: “Have Some Love”
The season premiere finds the show’s protagonists — cousins Earn and Alfred (a.k.a. Paper Boi) and wonderfully weird comrade Darius — distanced from each other. Darius and Alfred aren’t speaking, and Earn is becoming increasingly fearful that Paper Boi’s also-increasing fame will outgrow him and his normalcy. The episode opens with two black teenagers robbing a chicken spot, where a young, black woman is murdered in the crossfire of retaliation. Later, Katt Williams appears as Earn’s somewhat deranged uncle, a smart but misguided man who cautions Earn against becoming a version of himself.
All of these dynamics seem to echo the sentiment to “have some love,” the second track off Awaken, My Love! The song’s affirming chorus — “Have a word for your brother/ Have some time for one another/ Really love one another/ It’s so hard to find” — is what’s missing from the portrayed communities and relationships.
Episode: “Helen” | Song: “Redbone”
The center of this episode is Van, the mother of Earn’s daughter. She carts Earn off to an annual German Oktoberfest celebration in Helen, Georgia, about an hour and a half from Atlanta. As someone who was born and raised in Atlanta, I can tell you any time you venture this far, you encounter the racism and stark Republicanism of the state. The episode explores this through microaggressions and macroaggressions (cue the blackface) toward the two of them.
Van gives the Oktoberfest-goers the benefit of the doubt, as some of them are her longtime friends, but Earn’s discomfort is evident. It might not be until this episode that we realize how unexplored Van is outside of her proximity to Earn. She points out that she’s goes to all his Paper Boi-related gigs, but he never involves himself in her interests.
“Redbone” (a slang term for a light-skinned woman like Van) is full of recurring paranoia that his girl will find someone better: “Stay woke/ N****s creeping.” Van isn’t seeing anyone else by the end of the episode, but she has detached from Earn and decides that they should only co-parent.
Episode: “Teddy Perkins” | Song: “Terrified”
In this episode, Darius goes to buy an old piano from Teddy Perkins, who’s either the brother of a musical prodigy he speaks of, or the musical prodigy himself (I’m still trying to figure it out). Regardless, the man appears to be white, when he is really black. He speaks of his father — who regularly abused him for the sake of extracting talent and hard work — with admiration.
“Terrified” ends with vocals from JD McCrary, who was 9 years old at the time. He sounds shockingly like a young Michael Jackson, singing “Oh, you can’t run from me/ You can’t hide from me.” The track’s haunting lyrics — “Do you misbehave?/ Haunt you to your grave/ I’m going to eat you alive” — could serve as a ghost of Joe Jackson everywhere, preying on their young, impressionable sons, or they could be the product of such abuse conversing with a star’s current self, threatening to consume him or her with insecurities such as anti-blackness and overall internalized turmoil.
Episode: “Champagne Papi” | Song: “Zombies”
Sadly, Champagne Papi himself does not make an appearance, but he doesn’t need to. The intensity of Drake’s super fandom, even in his absence, makes him out to be godlike (or 6 God-like).
The episode also centers on Van, this time with an all-black girl group, as they make their way to Drake’s house for a party. As they are climbing the front steps, one girl becomes hysterical when told she can’t come in. Van eventually finds Drake’s closet and is trying on his clothes. Two women have set up a hustle charging attendees for Instagram pics with life-size Drake cut-outs, so they can fake-stunt. The thirst is overwhelming even through the screen; one can imagine what Drake endures in real life.
“Zombies” speaks to this mindless greed for money and fame: “All I see is zombies/ Hear them screaming at her/ They can smell your money/ And they want your soul.”
Episode: “Woods” | Song: “Stand Tall”
Paper Boi has been struggling with fame all season (and in parts of last). He can’t cope with people sneaking pictures and expecting him to be something he’s not.
The episode starts with the rapper’s mother cleaning up his apartment, but she’s a figment of his imagination. Something happened to her, and we don’t know what. His day ends up being terrible when the girl he’s been hanging out with tries to force a relationship just for social media, and he almost gets robbed and shot by three “fans.”
He runs through the woods to escape, and meets an unstable man. At some point, the man says to Paper Boi, “Boy, you is just like your mama.” She’s a figure that obviously influences him, and it almost seems as though she is speaking through the man when he holds a knife to Paper Boi’s throat and commands him to find his way out of the forest.
“Stand Tall” is a mother’s ode to her son, to follow his dreams, to keep his head up: “Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall/ If you are strong, you cannot fall.” When Paper Boi finally makes it out of the forest, he jumps at the chance to take a selfie with a fan in a gas station.
There’s no way to know whether these parallels are intentional — they’re only theories. But knowing how calculated Glover can be, I would not be surprised if this season of his Emmy-winning show was, at least in part, crafted around his Grammy-winning album.