"Atlanta" might air on FX, but the most memorable episode yet took place in a BET-like alternate TV universe – complete with an animated ad in which a white cop brutalizes a cereal-stealing wolf as three black children look on in horror and anger, smartphone cameras in hand.
Unlike Trix, “Atlanta” isn’t for kids. The commercial spoof delivered one of the more jarring moments from a TV comedy that, like an invisible car, came out of nowhere in 2016 with a mission to keep things real – and surreal.
Donald Glover's show, by turns whimsical and searing, returns for a second season Thursday, offering the promise of another ride into the unknown.
The show centers on Glover's character, Earnest "Earn" Marks, a Princeton dropout trying to support his baby daughter by managing the budding career of his cousin, Alfred, an Atlanta rapper nicknamed Paper Boi. Meanwhile, an unresolved shooting ominously looms over their hopes.
That's a pretty straightforward set-up. But "Atlanta" veers into unexpected territory with show creator Glover using the camera as a prism to examine race, hip-hop, gender, drugs, guns and different forms of social striving.
Earn's harrowing stint in a jailhouse holding area tackles mental illness and cop misconduct. So does his search for his missing jacket, which ends in a police shooting.
In Earn's world, Justin Bieber is black and there's more than meets the eye to a celebrity's Instagram pictures of his invisible car.
"Atlanta" recalls "Louie," a past FX serio-comedy that pulsed with frequent tone shifts and occasional surreal moments. But Glover's show is rooted in its own reality, with a strong set of characters that includes Earn’s girlfriend, Vanessa, a.k.a. Van (Zazie Beetz), a teacher trying to move on with her life, with or without him.
Stoners Alfred/Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and his quirky autodidact pal Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) initially come off as a mix of action-drivers and comedy relief. But they're increasingly fully drawn young men with ambitions, foibles and challenges all their own (Darius' ejection from a gun range for shooting at a paper target of a dog spurred a succession of emotions, from laughter to incredulity to fear for his life).
The show also offers a view into the evolution of 34-year-old Glover, a dynamic entertainment force whose career already has taken him from "30 Rock" (Tina Fey hired him a writer straight out of college), "Community" (he played former high school football player/geek Troy) to music (as his alter ego, Childish Gambino) to Emmy and Golden Globe awards (for "Atlanta").
Glover is likely to reach a new level of stardom with his upcoming turn as the young Lando Calrissian in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” due out in May.
Season 1 of “Atlanta” ended with Earn finally making some money, which he gave to Vanessa before returning to the storage container where he now lives. It’s unclear where Earn is headed next in what’s been dubbed “Robbin’ Season,” but it’s sure to be a trip.