Early on in the first episode of Atlanta’s new season, we’re treated to a kind of fable. Earn (Donald Glover) has just told his friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) that his parents are going on a trip to Florida. “Make sure you tell ’em to watch out for Florida Man,” Darius replies.
“What’s Florida Man?”
Darius is incredulous that Earn’s never heard of him. “Florida Man is responsible for a large percentage of abnormal incidents that occur in Florida,” he tells Earn (and us). “Think of him as an alt-right Johnny Appleseed. No one knows his true identity, date of birth, what he looks like. That’s why headlines always say ‘Florida Man’: ‘Florida Man Shoots Unarmed Black Teenager.’ ‘Florida Man Bursts Into Ex’s Delivery Room and Fights New Boyfriend as She’s Giving Birth.’ ‘Florida Man Steals a Car and Goes to Checkers.’ ‘Florida Man Beats a Flamingo to Death.’ ‘Florida Man Found Eating Another Man’s Face.’”
As Darius recounts each of Florida Man’s exploits, we get nightmarishly vivid cutaways to a man in a yellow trucker cap, his face not fully visible, performing them. Darius ends the speech on a note of stoner paranoia: “Him, the state government, in fucking cahoots.”
“Why would anyone even do that?” Earn asks.
“To prevent black people from coming to and/or registering to vote in Florida, Earn,” Darius answers, as if his friend has missed the most obvious of connections. “Come on!”
This scene isn’t typical of Atlanta—indeed, part of the joke here is the usually laconic Darius delivering such a long monologue to begin with—but it reflects something of the show’s ambition and its variety of registers. The scene is funny, surreal, frightening, and closely observed, all at the same time.
“Florida Man” is a meme borrowed from Twitter; it may be that Darius has seen the joke account of that name and taken it for reality. Then again, it is a kind of reality: The headlines that the account gathers are all real, even if they obviously don’t refer to the same man. In that sense, “Florida Man” really is someone to watch out for, and while Darius’s conspiracy theory about him is ridiculous, it’s not as ridiculous as it ought to be—or as it would have seemed in September 2016, when Atlanta premiered.
Atlanta was created by Donald Glover, who also stars as Earn, a Princeton dropout who is struggling to make a living managing his cousin Alfred’s rap career. (Alfred goes by the name Paper Boi.) The show is ostensibly a sitcom—the episodes last half an hour, and there are always jokes—but individual scenes have an unsettling unpredictability that floats free of genre: At any given moment, Atlanta can feel like a crime show, a family drama, a Southern Gothic horror story, or sketch comedy.