“The artist is meant to put the objects of this world together in such a way that through them you will experience that light, that radiance which is the light of our consciousness and which all things both hide and, when properly looked upon, reveal. The hero's journey is one of the universal patterns through which that radiance shows brightly.” —Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation
I. The Call
In 1949, famed mythologist Joseph Campbell studied the origins of various religious and mythological figures and distilled them into one universal story: the hero’s journey. While this led to an industry of writers following the same formulaic structure, it also inspired some of the greatest stories ever told—FX’s Atlanta being the latest example.
The hero’s journey starts with a call to adventure. According to Joseph Campbell, it is an invitation to “a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight.”
In the world of Atlanta, the call to adventure is “Paper Boi,” a song that forever changes the lives of characters Alfred, Darius, and Earn. From the joy of Alfred hearing this song for the first time on the radio to the altercation that ensued straight after, the pleasures and perils of fame are instantly apparent.
The first season navigates across this spectrum and it’s propelled by Alfred’s fluctuating responses to his newfound celebrity. Whether it’s his failure to get a reporter’s attention or his unsuccessful attempts at putting an internet troll in his place, the first season mirrors Alfred’s growing ambivalence with his change of circumstances.
Throughout the first season, Alfred refuses the call to adventure. As soon as his notoriety starts to interfere with his personal life, Alfred immediately pushes back and returns to his comfort zone. The low stakes of the first season could afford Alfred these privileges, but Robbin’ Season shows that it is no longer a viable option. Sooner or later, Alfred needs to come to grips with the oncoming changes in his life.
II. Refusal Of The Call
“Am I gonna sell drugs or am I gonna be a celebrity…You can’t be a famous drug dealer. I mean, you can, but it’s not gonna work out well.” —Donald Glover, Why Atlanta Season Two Is Called Robbin’ Season, Vulture
When the hero refuses the call, Campbell warns that it “converts the adventure into its negative… Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death… All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration.”
In the trailers for season one, the recurring theme song was Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” As mentioned in a previous DJBooth article, that song exemplifies the constant back-and-forth that goes through a person’s mind before they are in a position to change. It was this push-and-pull dynamic that powered season one and gave Atlanta its Cowboy Bebop quality. However, just as there was a distinct shift in tone and structure midway through Cowboy Bebop, there was also a noticeable difference in Atlanta once it returned for its second season.
The first trailer for Robbin’ Season hinted at a change in environment. The moody vocals of Sonder’s “Too Fast” signaled an element of danger hovering over these characters’ lives. The various thefts that happened in the background reinforced the importance of minding your surroundings; one look in the wrong direction and everything you held dear was gone in an instant.
Multiple times throughout Robbin’ Season, Alfred was confronted with the consequences of not changing his ways. He was robbed at gunpoint in “Sportin’ Waves” because he still wanted to keep his old job as a drug dealer, and he became an accessory to a hit-and-run in “Barbershop” because he refused to get a barber that would accommodate his new lifestyle.
As much as Robbin Season was a season about theft, it was also a parable about the dangers of success. To whom much is given, much is expected. To whom much is given, much can be taken away.
Success requires you to play the game. Success requires you to pay the price of fame. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, the music industry has often been likened to a jungle and, in order to succeed, you have to learn how to survive amongst the lions, tigers, and bears.
III. The Abyss
“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” —Joseph Campbell, Reflections on the Art of Living
For Campbell, the abyss represents the moment when the hero opens himself up to “terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast ruthless cosmos are completely validated.”
The abyss is the breaking point. It is the crossing between two worlds: the old world in which our hero dies and the new world in which our hero is reborn into a better self. Atlanta visualizes this process in the standout episode “Woods.”
“In a hero’s journey, there’s always a point where our hero, Hercules or whoever, goes and has a brush with the underworld or hell or whatever that may be…That’s emotionally and physically what’s happening with the woods…He goes in one way and comes out different, and has a brush with something surreal.” —Stefani Robinson, ‘Atlanta’ Writer on Paper Boi’s Heartbreaking Loss, ‘Teddy Perkins,’ and Life After ‘Deadpool’, IndieWire
In literature, the woods have often been used as a symbol of terror and transformation. In the woods, Little Red Riding Hood got eaten by the Big Bad Wolf. In the woods, Siddhartha Gautama found enlightenment. The woods are a metaphor for the remarkable change we all experience at some point in our lives.
“He walked to the centre of the open space and listened. It was the call, the many-noted call, sounding more luringly and compellingly than ever before. And as never before, he was ready to obey.” —Jack London, The Call of the Wild
Alfred comes out of his woodland experience a changed man. As he breathes a sigh of relief in the cold Atlantan air, we see the remnants of his old self evaporate in the mist. His encounter with the fan at the gas station is an example of Alfred finally heeding the call he ignored for so long. A call that is bound to get even louder in season three.
IV. Show Me A Hero
At the end of the hero’s journey, the hero is expected to share the lessons of his voyage with his fellow man. In the Robbin’ Season finale, we see Alfred do just that as he reminds Earn, and by extension the audience, about the importance of self-preservation:
“N*ggas do not care about us, man. N*ggas gonna do whatever they gotta do to survive cause they ain’t got no choice. We ain’t got no choice either.”
Like its predecessor, the second season of Atlanta did not shy away from the harsh realities of life. It presented its themes in a visceral, dreamlike manner that consistently held our attention. Through Brian Tyree Henry’s masterful and nuanced performance as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, we became painfully aware of the cost of success and can use those lessons as we embark on our own journeys.
If that’s not the definition of a hero, I’m not sure what is.
“I call them our heroes because that's exactly what they are. They've been champions for us, they're the ones going out there in the streets and really trying to figure out who the hell they are, and suffering lots of losses for little gain…there's a desperation, of survival, in this season. And people need to know that people go through that, with success.”—Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta Robbin’ Season Is Brian Tyree Henry’s Most Dangerous Performance Yet, GQ