The Cast of ‘Atlanta’ on Trump, Race and Fame

LOS ANGELES — The debut season of “Atlanta,” the FX series created by the polymath Donald Glover, will probably be remembered for its most ambitious, inexplicable gags: an athlete’s invisible car; a mischievous child in whiteface; a black man playing Justin Bieber.

But the comedy, which was rapturously received by critics in 2016 and went on to win two Emmys and two Golden Globes, was also far from slapstick. It used its music-business trappings — a Princeton dropout tries to manage his drug-dealing cousin’s budding rap career — to get at distinctly American ideas about ambition and identity. At once trippy and pointedly mundane, “Atlanta” played in the space where the indignities of being black and poor meet the indignities of striving to get rich.

Nearly a year and a half later, “Atlanta” returns, on Thursday, to a different world. Donald Trump is president. The rap trio Migos, mascots for Season 1, are pop stars. And the show’s cast members are no longer underdogs, breaking out with roles in forthcoming productions like “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” “The Lion King,” “Deadpool 2,” the Sundance favorite “Sorry to Bother You” and the Kenneth Lonergan play “Lobby Hero.”

Led by Mr. Glover, who stars in “Atlanta” as the rookie manager Earn (and who will soon be known, alternately, as Lando Calrissian and Simba), the new episodes maintain the show’s knack for naturalistic storytelling. And they flesh out an ensemble that includes the rapper Alfred (or Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry), the blunted sidekick-philosopher Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and the straightwoman Van (Zazie Beetz).

Retitled “Atlanta Robbin’ Season” for its darker second run, alluding to the time of year before the holidays when “everybody gotta eat” (“or be eaten”), the show builds on an idiosyncratic foundation without becoming too predictable in its unpredictability.

Leaning into its lived-in sense of place — most members of the all-black writer’s room are Atlanta natives — the new season moves easily between Tarantino-esque (a scene-stealing Katt Williams and his domesticated alligator) and straightforward satire (a debasing visit to a Spotify-like tech company). It’s united by a quiet intensity and a true-to-life soundtrack. Also remaining from Season 1 is the distinctive visual palette, established by the onetime music video director Hiro Murai, that cuts dreariness with pops of color and aerial views.

Ahead of the show’s late-February premiere in Los Angeles, the cast, along with Mr. Glover’s brother, Stephen, a lead writer on “Atlanta,” convened to discuss following up an adored debut, the looming presence of Mr. Trump and how getting famous changes things, onscreen and off. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Since Season 1, you all have been very busy. When did you start conceptualizing what Season 2 could be?

STEPHEN GLOVER Not too long after the first season started airing, we had ideas that we wanted to do. But some of them were older ideas that we decided not to use once we nailed down a concept for Season 2.

DONALD GLOVER The show always feels like it’s changing a lot while it’s happening. Hiro always talks about how we want the show to be punk, so it has to be reactive. Punk doesn’t age well because it is reactive — it’s all emotion. A lot of things got thrown out because they felt almost too adult, too linear. We knew people were going to expect us to talk about Trump.

Did you sit down and have that talk? The finale was early November 2016, right before the election.

DONALD GLOVER I think it started with us asking: “Do poor people even care? Are poor people even being affected by this?” It’s not like oh, things were great for poor people under Obama, and now they’re way bad. If you’re poor, you’re still at the bottom.

STEPHEN GLOVER There’s something funny about the idea that when you’re poor it doesn’t matter who’s president. We talked about the possibility of doing a bit where you show the night Obama won and they’re super happy, and then you show later and everything’s exactly the same. Nothing ever changes.

How did “Robbin’ Season” become the overarching motif?

STEPHEN GLOVER The concept of “Robbin’ Season” just felt cool because we’d done a lot of summer stuff in the first season — it felt really hot. I started to remember what it’s like to live there during the winter time; the city just has a vibe that’s very dark. People think it’s a party city, but there’s this side where there’s a lot of crime and grittiness. I think that goes with the Trump vibe, too. People were just feeling a little less optimistic at the time. “Robbin’ Season” encapsulated all of that.

DONALD GLOVER We wanted to show character development in people having their backs against the wall. We talked a lot about how people — specifically white people — would be like: “Man, I want to hang with Paper Boi. He seems like a cool guy!” In real life, you wouldn’t hang with Paper Boi! There’s reasons you don’t, and we want to show you those reasons.

BRIAN TYREE HENRY They think he’s accessible. But you should probably not get that comfortable.

When we pick up, Paper Boi’s career has progressed, but all the growth happens offscreen and we just see melancholy parts of his rise: the lack of dependable income, bad fan encounters. As people who have been around the music business, is it important for you to puncture the fantasy of the quick come-up?

DONALD GLOVER It’s not important to me. I hate preachy shows, especially black preachy shows.

HENRY They always want to hammer us over the head.

DONALD GLOVER Like, Here’s what the N-word is really about. There’s a bunch of types of black people with a bunch of different ideas! There always has to be a lesson for somebody else. If I’m at the party with my mom, my aunt, Stephen, everybody here and my son, and my mom’s like, “Don’t say the N-word,” we’re not going to leave all being like, “We shouldn’t say the N-word.” I just might not say it around my mom. Or, if maybe I’m lit enough, I’ll be like, “I’m going to say nigga — it’s my house!” We all have different views. We never want anything to be “important.”

Since 2016, Atlanta rap has risen again in popular culture. The Migos cameo would play differently than it did back then. Do you think the show will be received differently now because people feel they know that world more?

LAKEITH STANFIELD I don’t care about expectations. Atlanta is constantly moving and changing. If expectations are a balloon, “Atlanta” is a knife.

ZAZIE BEETZ Deep. [Laughter]

Paper Boi’s career ascent tracks in some ways with what you all are going through in real life. People are starting to recognize him, but he’s still on moving ground.

BEETZ That story line means a lot to me, because I do feel that thing of like, “Are you going to choose your loss of privacy for your work, your career?” People are coming up to you, and yes, it’s great that they like your work, but you’re also having an argument with your boyfriend right now.

HENRY I live in Harlem, and I’ve lived there for seven years. There’s this dude who lives upstairs, and I’ve seen him all the time on the elevator. All the time. Never speak. And then all of a sudden, he’s like: “You live here? That’s really great — congratulations!” And then I find out that he posted on Facebook: “Just found out that Paper Boi lives downstairs from me.” I’ve lived here for seven years! And don’t tell everybody!

Season 1 ended up being this great poaching ground for the actors — you have Marvel movies, Disney movies.

BEETZ We all sold out. [Laughter]

Does making that leap from underground sensation give you a different understanding of this more intimate project, where you have your fingerprints on everything?

DONALD GLOVER For me, it’s about understanding death. Those big things are not trying to die. They’re fighting tooth and nail to stay alive and be relevant. I’m not saying they’re bad — sometimes they are. But they’re not sitting there like, “Is this movie good?” They’re like, “Is this movie going to sell blankets?”

That’s a lot of what this season is about — survival. Me and Hiro never talk about how we’re going to get to Season 7. We’re never worried. If FX canceled us tomorrow, I would be like, “Dope.” I really wouldn’t be sad at all. All these people would still be my friends. And we made good things.

Black popular culture is thriving right now, with “Black Panther,” “Get Out,” shows like “black-ish,” “The Chi,” “Insecure.” How do you make sure to sustain the momentum of this moment for black creators?

STANFIELD We don’t have to worry about that.

DONALD GLOVER That is not our problem. That is not our job. Our job is to make great things and happen to be black. That’s it.

Is it a moment of actual, lasting change?

HENRY When people say “moment,” that makes me twitch a little. I don’t want anything to be a moment. I want to be here and have our place in the pantheon. Avenues are finally open.

Because so many people latched onto the surrealist moments in “Atlanta,” did you feel the need to live up to them?

STEPHEN GLOVER Instead of chasing the idea of what the people want — the same thing — we thought of it as, people were receptive to these crazy ideas, so now we know anything is possible. Our ideas can be even more crazy.

You’ve had a run of great cameos — Migos, Jaleel White, Katt Williams in the new season. How many people did you have to turn down this time around?

STEPHEN GLOVER [Laughs] There were a lot of people who wanted to be in this season, of course. But it’s also one of those things where everybody’s saying, “Oh yeah, I’ll do it.” And then you’re like, “All right, be here at this time.” And it’s: “Oh, actually …” I remember Chris Rock told me, once people like him start asking to be on the show, don’t let anybody do it.

You also touched on a lot of sensitive debates in Season 1 — transgender issues, obviously race, police brutality, gun culture. In this moment, where even someone like Dave Chappelle is getting dragged for certain jokes, did you ever worry about what you can or can’t say?

STEPHEN GLOVER With our show, we talk about being real. With the Montague episode [a debate over race and gender on a Charlie Rose-like talk show], we were just trying to show a real thing, and it wasn’t about being preachy. It’s just reflecting the world we live in.

DONALD GLOVER To pretend like there is not racism, colorism, sexism, killing, all the worst parts of humanity in that area is doing a disservice to black people and humanity. If you don’t like some of the [expletive] that’s in the show, stop taking music out of our schools, stop making money out of our areas.

I just think that’s a problem millennials have — things should be this way. [Holds up iPhone] In order for you to even have this phone, a slave had to make it. Confront that. Deal with that. Don’t sit here and be like, we should censor it and make everything beautiful. Because it’s not beautiful out here.

That’s a white problem, to be honest. I don’t think any black person is watching the show being like, “You can’t do that.” It’s: “Yeah, that’s my uncle.” Or: “Yeah, that’s some real [expletive].” I don’t have to clean that up for you. You have to deal with the fact that that’s out there. I can’t change that, really. I can just show you.

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/27/arts/television/atlanta-fx-season-2.html by JOE COSCARELLI