(Caution: spoilers about the finale of Atlanta ahead.)
If you were feeling a little bit sad ahead of Atlanta's final episode for a while, it's totally understandable; as evidenced by critical reception, ratings and social media buzz, the FX dramedy is not only one of the best new shows of 2016 but like nothing else on TV thanks to its singular, cinematic look and quirky stories. It'll be missed, for sure. But who could have known we'd be feeling a little bit sad after the finale too?
Mid-way through the episode, Earn (Donald Glover), Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and Darius (Keith Stanfield) witness a gruesome, shocking shooting of a suspect by police that was jarring even by this show's standards. Though we've seen Atlanta's abstract, existential filter applied to "touchy" topics such as racism, transphobia, police brutality and more all season, seeing a man gunned down in front of a screaming infant took things to a whole new level. As the characters have done all season, they mostly shook off what they saw and carried on with their day...which is not to say the violence should be taken as casual at all.
"I don't think anything in Atlanta is put there by accident," said Zazie Beetz, who plays Earn's friend and co-parent Van. "It's definitely commentary," she told TVGuide.com in an interview, on both a "trigger-happy culture," and the obvious connotations in a year where killings of unarmed black men by police have been impossible to ignore. "It's too bad we villainize cops across the board, but the training is off. [Police in the episode] weren't looking for a murderer." That the heroes of the show acknowledge being only mildly rattled briefly speaks volumes about the traumas many people in some communities experience as a fact of life.
Beetz said that in reading the script for the episode, it "felt lighter" than it did when shooting it; she too was shocked to see it play out. She knew right away this episode wasn't funny — a point that mirrors people's perception of the show overall. Most everyone calls Atlanta a comedy but, "A lot of times I picked up on the darker tones, the more serious nature of it," she said. That's been one of the show's niftiest tricks, really: to remain optimistic and joyful even though its existence is marked by single parenthood, working class blues, drugs, guns and Earn's homelessness. "Everybody gets something out of it."
That said, this last episode felt slower than previous ones, culminating with Earn shutting off the light in the storage facility where he's been sleeping. While there are hints of what might lie ahead for Season 2 — Earn and Van get cozier and seem like they could make their relationship work; Paper Boi gets invited to go on tour, hinting at greater stardom for him — the season just sort of fades to black. "I like that it ends on a nice note with Earn in his comfort place and on his own," Beetz said. "You see this arc between him and Van choosing love over conflict. The show exists in this surreal place, not the linear nature of life. It's nice to end on a note where there's not a cliffhanger. It's just another day in the life. I feel like that last episode wrapped up the whole tone of the show."
So what is on tap for Season 2? It's too soon to say for sure, but with Glover cast as Lando Calrissian in an upcoming Han Solo film, the season will be pushed back. Writers are at work though, and she's talked with Glover about what she'd like to see when these characters reunite. "We've talked about what Van does in order to find work. We've talked about Van dating other people, and Van and Earn making it work. I hope they stay together. The season leads up to them finding some understanding with one another, and him knowing he has to play a bigger role in his daughter's life. And Van coming to terms with his dream being an accessible thing — that it's not just a fantasy but that people can be creative and support their families. I hope it continues to grow in that direction. I think it's nice to have families together."