In last night’s Atlanta season finale, Earn, Darius, and Al are late for the flight that will be taking them on their first official Paper Boi tour. As they hustle through the airport, Earn shoos away two men in suits attempting to sign him up for a rewards card, as he doesn’t have time for them. The moment is a clear gesture to the series pilot, released back in 2016, in which Earn is the one dressed in a suit bothering travellers with somewhere important to be. When we met him back then, he was stuck. A college dropout and a young father, the opportunity to manage his cousin Al — aka the rapper Paper Boi — was presented as his key to turning it all around.
Fast forward to the finale: Paper Boi is still very much on the verge of blowing up, Darius is still living in his own world, and Earn, despite having become his cousin’s manager, is still broke. His relationship with his ex and co-parent is still ambiguous and rocky. He is still very much on the bottom rung of the industry he is working in. And most of all, Earn still seems to be underperforming despite the promise that his music industry pivot once held.
Following the finale, many speculated that the episode was the end of the entire show. (Especially following a tweet from Lakeith Stanfield, who plays Darius, suggesting as much.) There’s no definitive answer from production but should the show finally be over, it would be a refreshing change to the idea that TV shows must continue on through popularity until viewers eventually get sick of it. Most of all, the Season 2 ending challenges the unspoken mandate that a show’s protagonist must be radically different by a show’s end.
Not that Atlanta featured no progression. This season, we got to watch as business considerations strained Al and Earn’s relationship. We also saw Earn and Van working through the amorphous quality of their relationship, and how they saw themselves as individuals nevertheless bound together by the care of their daughter. When it comes to Earn as a person, we saw him grow harder and more desperate over the course of the show too, but in more subtle ways than the extreme character shifts that happen in a show like Breaking Bad or Parks and Recreation.
Rather, the culmination of Earn’s character progression comes when he decides, at the airport in the Season 2 finale, to plant a gun he has accidentally brought with him on a fellow rapper on the tour. When his quick move is revealed, we see just how eager to move forward Earn has become. We don’t know if his choice will finally pay off, by attaining the financial stability and Atlanta music scene clout that he so badly needs. Whether or not that happens is beside the beauty of the show, as one of the most stunning parts of Atlanta is how the community and personal relationships have been explored without any of the characters’ lives feeling extraordinarily different.
Sometimes great shows end after a season or two because of business considerations that have nothing to do with the show’s plot (My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks). Other times, a show ends when it feels narratively “natural,” like the exit of a main character via death or a cross-country move. But should the Season 2 finale of Atlanta really be the show’s end, it will be doing something rare and even beautiful: exiting the lives of these characters just as abruptly as we entered them, a feeling much closer to life.