Atlanta’s refusal to explain its in-jokes and references, and the pace at which these allusions are made, is part of what makes watching the show a rich and textured experience. If you blink for a second, Atlanta will leave you behind, and whether you catch its references or not, Donald Glover still shirks most requests to explain his surrealist TV series, which made its long-awaited season 2 premiere Thursday night. In this way, Atlanta has positioned itself as a show that consistently rewards a close reading.
There’s a lot to unpack in this new season of Atlanta, beginning with its new name: this run is called Atlanta Robbin’ Season, and it opens with a dark assessment of the realities of life in the Atlanta sprawl and an armed robbery gone bad. Robbin’ Season—the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas where crime is high because the holidays are a strain on budgets—has begun.
When Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) requests that Earn visit his Uncle Willy (played by Katt Williams) to quell a domestic violence dispute that may involve the police, Earn acquiesces and joins Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) on a journey to Willy’s house. What he doesn’t know is that Willy is called the “Alligator Man” by the neighborhood kids, due to the fact that he keeps a giant (likely illegal) alligator in his house. As trippy and absurd as it is to watch that giant alligator roam out of Willy’s house and down the street at the end of the episode, the “Alligator Man” is not the most surreal aspect of this season’s opener. The most interesting moment actually occurs about one third of the way through the episode, when Atlanta brings us to the state of Florida.
While they’re in the car, Darius—who we learned last season is not always the most reliable narrator—tells Earn to remind his parents to heed the legend of “Florida Man” while they travel down south to visit a sick relative. Darius’s reference to “Florida Man” takes Earn by surprise—he’s a smart, well-connected guy but he’s never heard of this character. Like many of us who forget that some of our friends actually are capable of living a life untainted by each myth and memes born and bred on the internet, Darius shoots Earn an inquisitive and disapproving glance before describing the meme we have come to know as Florida Man.
“Florida Man is responsible for a percentage of abnormal incidents that occur in Florida. 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,” Darius explains.
What follows is a nightmarish montage of a nameless, faceless white man in a yellow hat, tank top, and jorts, committing demented crimes across the state of Florida, with a voiceover from Darius listing the various headlines to match.
Darius riffs, spitting imaginary “Florida Man” headlines as examples to make his point—that absurd, unexplainable, heinous crimes are committed all the time in Florida by men, hence the designation “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.”
Earn, naturally, looks incredulous. Darius, who insists he is telling the truth, goes on to assert that Florida Man and the state government are in cahoots “to prevent black people from coming to and/or registering to vote in Florida.” He says it so matter-of-fact that you just have to believe him, and Earn knows better than to dispute it.
And if you google “Florida Man,” you’ll see that Darius has a point.
In 2013, when news headlines that referenced an unnamed “Florida Man” and his ludicrous crimes began to pop up all over the web, the Twitter account @_floridaman was born, and dedicated itself to the bonkers headlines referencing Florida Man. It became a meme, widespread enough to be written into the fabric of a television series like Atlanta five years later.
“Florida Man Found Eating Another Man’s Face,” in fact, is likely a reference to the Miami cannibal attack that took place in 2012, where a nude zombie-like Miami resident named Rudy Eugene, or Florida Man as he was of course referred to in headlines, attacked a homeless man named Ronald Poppo by chewing off most of his face. The video of the cannibalistic attack went viral. For nearly two years after the incident it was speculated that bath salts caused Eugene to attack Poppo, but toxicology reports later ruled them out, which means that no one has ever gotten to the bottom of this particular Florida Man’s modus operandi.
Florida Man, naturally, isn’t just one man—that’s just the genius of Atlanta‘s writing room at work. Florida Man is really meme that acts as a catchall term for the sadistic behavior of several men in the state of Florida as reported by various news sources, and he has become a cult figure on the internet. There’s even an entire website which consistently aggregates Florida Man headlines and sells merch commemorating the “world’s worst superhero.” Florida Man could be anyone from a cannibal under the influence to a corrupt politician.
Jokes and references to Florida always tend to lean towards the pejorative, but Atlanta never reaches for the low-hanging fruit, and the writing couldn’t be more prescient. The first Florida Man headline Darius cites to Earn is “Florida Man Shoots Unarmed Black Teenager,” and it is unfortunately all too close to the news right now, with Parkland still in the air. Glover recently told the New Yorker, “It was important to me that we see him shooting an unarmed black teen first, that you get the sting of that before we see him beating a flamingo to death, which is just funny.”
The murder of a 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman occurred in Sanford, Florida in 2012, almost exactly six years before Atlanta‘s season two premiere. In November of that same year, another 17-year-old named Jordan Davis was shot and killed by Michael David Dunn in Jacksonville. By painting Florida Man as an unhinged “alt-right Johnny Appleseed” who murders unarmed black teenagers in cold blood, Atlanta fearlessly force-feeds the realities of racism in America to its audience one moment, then tells an absurd joke about Florida Man killing a flamingo the next. It doesn’t soften the blow, but it just throws us in the loop in another direction. That’s what watching this show is like.
After strapping yourself in for the chaotic ride of this season premiere, two things become clear—Atlanta‘s absurdism has always been intentional and imperative to the ethnographic work the series does as a whole, and while Earn may wave Florida Man off as nonsense, Florida Man is indeed very real.