Among those up-and-comers is Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), a hot new artist going under the rap name Paper Boi, who is trying to understand the line between real life and street life.
He is managed by his cousin, Earnest "Earn" Marks (Glover), who gets caught up in the local rap scene and his cousin's career after returning home to Atlanta. Earn does whatever he can to try to get Alfred's career to the next level. Darius Epps (Lakeith Stanfield), the rapper's right-hand man and visionary, is also in Alfred's entourage.
When Earn isn't busy managing his cousin's career, he spends much of his time with ex-girlfriend Vanessa Keefer, who is also the mother of his daughter.
Atlanta provides examples of the following tropes:
- Absentee Actor: The only characters who are likely to be in every episode are Earn, Alfred or Darius, and it's not a guarantee that they'll be in the episode all together. In Season 2 this is even more common, with several episodes only starring one of the main characters.
- Actor Allusion: In "Teddy Perkins," Teddy takes a picture of Darius, who then says he doesn't like pictures too much.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Antoine Smalls (a.k.a. Harrison Booth), the trans-racial character in "B.A.N.", seems like a mean-spirited caricature of transgender people, but people who claim to be "trans-racial" actually do exist.
- Ambiguously Brown: Zan, the internet personality trolling Paper Boi. Lampshading this becomes a Running Gag in the episode "The Streisand Effect"; every time he's mentioned, characters ask something along the lines of "Isn't he Dominican?", "Is he Asian?", or (after he casually uses the N-word) "Are you even black?"
- Amicable Exes: Van and Earn, to the point where they are barely exes, such as in "Helen" when Earn accompanies Van as her lowkey date.
- Becoming the Mask: Downplayed. The episode "The Woods" is all about Alfred's stubborn refusal to give into the rapper persona and preference to "keep it real." His refusal to do so leads to him striking out on his own, nearly getting killed, and going through an intense odyssey of questionable veracity wherein Al becomes just a little bit closer to accepting the trappings that his fame is bringing him, in conjunction with letting go of the past he's been holding onto. After all this, Alfred runs into a fan of his music, and he decides — rather than push him away or react with annoyance — to take a picture with his fan.
- Both Darius and the viewers are led to believe this is the case with Teddy, wherein either he or Benny were created personalities of an insane person. Ultimately, it's subverted, though it's debatable which would've creepier.
- Breather Episode: "Champagne Papi" is a much, much, much needed one after "Teddy Perkins."
- Bottle Episode: Among other things, "Teddy Perkins" fits this bill as well. Aside from the opening, the episode is mainly set in one mansion, with the only characters being Darius, Teddy, and Benny, with Alfred having a speaking role.
- Brick Joke: In "The Club," Darius notes how cool it is that Marcus Miles has an invisible car. Alfred, sensibly, calls BS. One can guess what happens at the end of the episode.
- Brilliant, but Lazy: Deconstructed with Earn. While he's is best at finding shortcuts and scraping by, there isn't much he's good at because he hasn't bothered to learn anything. The Season 2 episode "FUBU" shows how Al has always bailed Earn out when he's gotten into trouble and that Earn always relies on others to do the same.
- Butt-Monkey: 9 times out of 10, Earn just cannot catch a break.
- Call-Back: The investment that Darius sets up in Season One episode "The Streisand Effect" is paid back the following season in "Sportin' Waves."
- Calvin Ball: One of the traditional Oktoberfest games Earn and Van play in "Helen" is something called "Hootz-Kutz" which involves people sitting in a circle and passing ping-pong balls around and tossing them at a cup in the circle. No one ever explains to Earn when or why you're supposed to pass or shoot and he amazes the crowd by just leaning forward and dropping the balls in the cup (apparently something no one has ever thought of).
- Caustic Critic: Paper Boi's music gets a harsh negative review from a caustic YouTuber, prompting him to unwisely fire back at him.
- Celebrity Paradox: The rich white man mentioned under Foreign Culture Fetish has an album collection that includes Childish Gambinos own album Awaken, My Love!
- Cerebus Syndrome: The second season of the show, while maintaining semblances of a wackier tone, is notably darker and more intense than the first. It only gets worse (or better) with the inclusion of not just one, but two exceptionally dark Mind Screw episodes separated by a Breather Episode, then immediately followed up by a similarly intense Origins Episode about the pro and deuteragonist.
- Chain of Deals: Darius convinces Earn to pawn his phone for a samurai sword instead of cash, insisting he can get a better return for it. He then leads him on a wild goose chase bartering the sword for other things, finally delivering a dog to a farm. That's when Darius reveals the recipient is a dog breeder and they won't get their return until the puppies are born in several months.
- Chekhov's Gun: Two, interestingly enough.
- The first is during the episode "North of the Border" wherein there are many, many antique flintlocks in the white frat house hanging upon the wall. Later, as the crew are driving back, Tracy's aiming a (unusable) gun he got as a souvenir at Earn is what pushes Earn over the edge to challenge him to a fight.
- The second is the gold pistol that Earn's uncle gives to him in the second season premiere. Earn still has it before he and Alfred are preparing to board their plane with Clark County.
- Cool Car: NBA star Marcus Miles has an invisible car. Paper Boi is skeptical as it's shown with Marcus showing off pictures & selfies standing around with nothing. At the end of the episode there is a shootout at the club, and Marcus drives off, running several people over with the only thing you can see being him driving. This also averts Visible Invisibility.
- Curbstomp Battle: Happens three (or technically four) times with Earn in Season 2.
Van: "It's Michael Vick."
- Earn decides to challenge Michael Vick, ex-NFL player and codifier of the running quarterback style of play, to a footrace. We don't see the race, but it goes predictably bad for him.
- In "Helen," Earn and Vanessa enjoy a game of ping-pong while at Oktoberfest upon which Earn's (potential refusal of) participation in the festivities rides. Van beats him mercilessly. Now forced to participate in the festival, Earn expresses his intense apathy at something Van cares about, which leads to a second curb stomp ping pong battle where the stakes are the pair's relationship.
- After the craziness of "North Of The Border," Earn challenges Tracy to a fight in a blind rage. Tracy, being an ex-con and having a good 6 inches on him, kicks the crap out of him.
- Daddy Issues: Oh, Teddy Perkins has 'em. He's planning a whole museum to ambitious fathers, in tribute to his own father who abused him when his piano wasn't good enough.
- Day in the Limelight:
- "Value" is focused solely on Van, with Earn and Paper Boi making small appearances.
- "Barbershop," which is entirely about Paper Boi, with no appearances from any other lead.
- "Teddy Perkins" is focused on Darius, with Earn and Alfred having minor appearances.
- "Champagne Papi" is another Van-focused episode, with Darius appearing near the end of the episode.
- "Woods" is another Paper Boi-focused episode, with Darius having a minor appearance in the beginning and Earn appearing off-screen in a phone call to Paper Boi.
- Denser and Wackier: While the pilot is the most grounded, the series has been, with each passing episode, increasingly unusual.
- Dream Intro: "The Woods," though it's a bit hard to spot. In it, Alfred's mom is speaking to a sleeping Al in the background. However, earlier in the series it was already established that she died.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Actually inverted. Season 1 is much more grounded in a lot of ways, with episodes that are very realistic and have no magical elements at all. Episodes like 'Value', where Van goes to dinner with an old friend, seem more off-kilter than the wacky hijinks they get up to later in Season 2.
- Foreign Culture Fetish: When Earn and Van visits one of her old school friends in a Juneteenth-themed party, they meet the woman's husband, a rich white man who loves and praises African-American culture. Even all of the couple's friends are prominent and rich black people.
- Freudian Trio: Darius is the superego (grounded, passive, more than a little odd), Alfred is the id (but more from necessity in his role as a increasingly famous rapper), and Earn mediates between them as the ego.
- Genre Roulette: Although every episode is still comedic, they switch from dramedy to Magic Realism to outright satire ("B.A.N."), sometimes within a single episode.
- Handcuffed Briefcase: Darius takes one to a drug deal... and forgets to bring the key to the handcuffs. The drug dealers decide they're going to get their money anyway... by opening the briefcase and putting the money in another bag. That was easy.
- Hypocritical Humor: Antoine Smalls, a black teenager who identified himself as a white man named Harrison Booth and wants people to accept his white trans-racial identity, does not accept transgender people and same-sex marriage.
- Literal Metaphor: "Put your foot in it" is a black Southern expression that means "do something well," usually cooking. When Darius says it, however, he means it literally, and proceeds to put his actual foot in his pasta while making it.
- Magical Negro: Atlanta is an odd show for this trope to appear. Indeed, Ahmed White (the stranger on the bus) turns out to be some sort of subversion, parody, or both.
- Magic Realism: Given how Atlanta is sold as "Twin Peaks with rappers," this is fitting. While the invisible car is a very blatant example, we get other examples of strangeness (black Justin Bieber.) A driving point of the show is how surreal Earn's life in Atlanta can be. The most benign example is how many times he's mistaken for other men by well-intentioned white people.
- Meaningful Name: Earnest "Earn" Marks. A mark is a form of currency, and Earn is doing his best to ensure he and Alfred get rich.
- Mood Whiplash: In the episode "Streets on Lock," everyone (expect for Earn) has a good laugh at an insane perp in the holding station for drinking toilet water out of a cup. However, it gets dark very abruptly when he spits water at a cop and gets beaten and restrained as a result.
- New Season, New Name: The show's second outing gets the subtitle "robbin' season".
- Nice to the Waiter: Earn quickly befriends the janitor, Prince, at a radio station when he wants to gain access without his friend who works there realizing.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Teddy Perkins seems to be an analogue for Michael Jackson, being an idiosyncratic former musician with serious Daddy Issues. The framed photograph Darius looks at of his brother Benny — or possibly "Teddy" himself — meeting Chuck Berry is an altered version of Jackson and Berry together at a Grammys party in 1978◊.
- Noodle Incident: While Uncle Willie chastises Earn for his fear of being cut off from Alfred, Willie mentions how some of his family members were in a similar situation in the music business. No other specific details are brought up apart from how it ultimately left the relationship of those two in shambles.Willie: Now they don't even talk no more, 'cuz you find out family is business.
- No Such Thing as Bad Publicity: In-Universe example. After Paper Boi's arrest in the first episode "Big Bang," he's gets a large following of fans who consider him a real gangster. Also appears to be deconstructed somewhat in the following episode "Streets on Lock," since Paper Boi seems to grow increasingly uncomfortable when part of the recognition of his music is also tied to his arrest.
- Another example in season 2, when a white suburban mom makes a video denouncing Paper Boi for explicit lyrics, drug references, and praising Colin Kaepernick, his single goes Gold.
- N-Word Privileges:
- In the first episode, Earn seeks out an old white friend that he wants a favor from and has to force a grin as his "friend" unabashedly uses the n-word as he tells a story. After they separate, Earn asks the black janitor who works at the building if he normally speaks like that, and the janitor says that he never does, especially not around him. Later, Earn pushes his friend into repeating the same story, this time with Alfred and Darius with him, and stares stone-faced as his friend awkwardly self-censors himself.
- Alfred explicitly asks Zan "Are you even black?" when Zan casually uses the word. Zan says that yes, he is.
- Oh, Crap!: In season 2, Van and Earn go to a German festival where, she warns him, people sometimes show up in blackface. When they arrive, a woman goes up to Earn, gushing about how great he looks. She then goes to rub his face... and realizes he isn't wearing makeup. There is an uncomfortable silence before she quietly apologizes and walks away.
- Only in Florida: Darius speaks of "Florida Man" as if he's an actual, otherworldly being of weirdness.
- Police Brutality: In the season one finale, Earn, Alfred and Darius go to their Uber driver's house to get Earn's jacket back, only to find that said Uber driver is wanted by the police. The police then shoot him to death when he runs out of his house (wearing Earn's jacket).
- Race Lift:
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: When Earn is being mocked by Uncle Willie for being scared of Al cutting him off and leaving him without any support, Earn fires back with what is implied to be years' worth of frustration with Willie.Earn: What I'm scared of is being you. You know, someone everybody knew was smart, but ended up being a know-it-all fuck-up jay that just let shit happen to him.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Inverted. Earn is friends with a DJ at a radio station and wants him to play Paper Boi's song, but the friend tries to claim that all decisions go through the station manager and he charges $500 to listen to a song. Realizing that his friend is just going to keep the money for himself—and maybe won't even pass the song along at all—Earn befriends the janitor at the radio station and gets him to let him into the building through the back door. Once inside, Earn just slides the CD under the station manager's office door and it winds up on the radio later that night.
- Sell-Out: Clark County is implied to be this, doing Yoohoo! commercials and singing about drinking and smoking all the while being sober, which earns him mainstream appeal; compared to Paper Boi, who has a lesser mainstream appeal due to him not conforming to the same standards as Clark. At one point, Darius and Earn both agree that he is an industry plantnote during a conversation in the episode "North of the Border."Darius: You know that Clark County dude?
Darius: [He's an] industry plant.
Earn: Yes! I've been saying that!
Darius: I mean, it's obvious.
Tracy: I mean don't get me wrong, it's a funny show but... the way they dive into depression and especially after what he did to her daughter, like, can I even feel bad for this horse anymore?
- The janitor that Earn befriends in the first episode is named "Prince," and Earn has to ask if he is serious when first told.
- Alfred is incapable of getting a finished haircut in "Barbershop," to which an onlooker describes his hair as "looking like a Super Saiyan's." A later episode has the younger versions of Al and Earn directly reference the anime, and discuss a particular character's notoriously unfortunate design, without mentioning the character by name.note
- According to director Hiro Murai, Darius' outfit from the "Teddy Perkins" episode was based on the clothes worn by James Caan in Misery.
- In the episode "Sportin' Waves," we come into the middle of a conversation where Tracy is talking to Earn about a certain animated show:
- Stepford Smiler: The Ahmed White advertisement in "B.A.N." implies that Ahmed's clients are either this or just Bad "Bad Acting".
- Surreal Horror: Pretty much the entirety of "Teddy Perkins," which is essentially just the story of Darius being held captive by a psychotic Michael Jackson Expy.
- Wham Shot: In the finale of Robbin' Season, when mere INCHES away from an airport security checkpoint, Earn discovers he never took his uncle's gold-plated pistol out of his backpack.
- For the more scrutinizing viewer, what comes after when we see Clark County on the plane with Earn and his crew counts as well, considering the only place Earn could've stashed the gun was in Clark's bag. Moments later, we discover that Clark sold out his own man by putting the gun in his bag.
- White Like Me: Played to both hilarious and bizarrely unsettling effect with Tobias Walner, who disrupts his class by coming into school wearing "whiteface" (as in, ghostly clown-white foundation) and a secretive little smile that almost dares his teachers to try to make sense of it.
- Whole Episode Flashback: "FUBU" flashes back to when Earn and Al were in middle/high school in The '90s.
- World of Weirdness: A common structure is that the characters will do something that should be relatively normal (go to a party, go pick up a piano) and things will go From Bad to Worse.