March 1st marked the return of the Emmy-award winning TV show Atlanta, written and produced by Donald Glover, also known in the music world as Childish Gambino. The hit show follows a young man, Ernest, or Ern, through his day to day struggles as he tries to manage the music career of his cousin, up and coming rapper, “Paperboi” also known as “AL”, played by Brian Tyree Henry.
The season two premiere episode, “Alligator Man” featured many of the same themes developed in season one such as struggle, poverty, and violence. However, it appears as if these themes will be heightened in the new season of Atlanta titled “Robbin’ Season” through its use of a heterogeneous soundtrack. With songs spanning from Tay K’s “The Race” to Curtis Mayfield’s “When Seasons Change”, sound acts as a vehicle which portrays intense emotions felt within this season’s opener.
With the distinct sound of bass drums, the episode begins with “The Race” by Tay K; a record about a young man who after committing a crime, runs from the police. It makes the viewer feel on edge for what is to come. The scene opens with an overwhelming sound of open gun fire as a robber burst through the drive thru window of a fast food restaurant toting a handgun, while his accomplice waits in the get-away car. After searching in a storage closet, the robber finds what appears to be a hidden stash of drugs then runs for the exit.
The “hopelessness” which drives those to steal, is highlighted through the concept of “Robbin’ Season”, later explained in the episode as the time leading up to Christmas. “Robbin Season”, is true survival of the fittest as everyone has to eat, and in this world, “you either eat or are eaten”. Following this scene, Jay Critch and Rich the Kid’s “Did it Again” is played, reflecting the level of poverty felt not only in Atlanta, but in America as a whole. Through their lyrics, “I go to work for them bands, see the scars” and “did he just hot another lick, damn”, our dog eat dog culture gains prevalence and permeates through the episode.
In the middle of the episode, Glover shifts away from contemporary music to the experimental rap/metal group, Death Grip. The song of choice by the Sacramento-based collective is “Hot Head”. The electric guitar riffs and cacophonous drum patterns play loudly as Ern is riding in the car with the best friend of his cousin Paperboi, Darius. For a moment, Ern lowers the music to ask Darius if there was space for him to stay with him and Paperboi, where Darius reluctantly responds, “You gotta ask Al”. The contradiction set between jarring sounds and pleading message convey the instability and confusion that accompanies homelessness, capturing the uneasiness felt by Ern as he battles financial woes.
The episode continues as Ern’s feeling of instability develops into a sense of yearning for a situation better than his own. This change in sentiment is reflected in the soundtrack as Glover pivots from experimental hip-hop to oldies and soul. The song Glover chooses is “Burning Up” by Donnel Pitman. The infectious chorus of “I’m burning Up” … “I’m burning for your love”, conveys this feeling of longing. This song is played in a scene where Ern confesses his fears to his uncle Willy. His uncle played by comedian Katt Williams, appears unstable and represents all of Ern’s worst fears in who he could become. In a heated exchange between Ern and his uncle he says, “What I am afraid of is being you, someone who everyone knew was smart but ended up being a know it all f*** up”. A few moments later, after things calm, Ern confesses that he is afraid of Al leaving him, as he does not need him anymore to be successful in the music. In response to Ern’s confession his uncle Willy states, if you don’t want to be like me get rid of that chip on your shoulder, it’s not worth the time”.
With this piece of advice, Ern’s yearning evolves to hopefulness as the song, “When Seasons Change” by Curtis Mayfield, plays in the background. In this last scene Ern chooses not to ask Al to stay with him and decides to solve his housing situation on his own. This change in the mindset to become self-sufficient and not become dependent on the success of his cousin defines a turning point in the episode. This sentiment of hope and self-reliance is echoed in the record, which features a slow drum beat under Mayfield’s soulful high-pitched vocals, as Mayfield sings “Don’t you know if you want a good life best look into yourself”.
This episode ends with hope and optimism, intentionally sending the message that hardship can be overcome from within. In our modern world of economic strife and discontentment, Glover shows that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, even through the darkest times. Although a cloud of intense violence and hardship shadows over this episode, there remains a sense of optimism and promise for episodes to come as the season further develops.