LOS ANGELES — Recapturing the magic of a stellar first season can be a daunting task.
“Atlanta” didn’t even try. The FX comedy, one of the more critically acclaimed series of 2016, picks up Thursday where it left off, with Paper Boi adjusting to fame in the rap world and his cousin/manager Earn continuing to scrape together enough money to pay the rent.
But the sitcom has mainly abandoned the experimental approach of its rookie year — one entire episode was set on a Charlie Rose-like talk show — to embrace a more conventional form of storytelling. That doesn’t diminish creator Donald Glover’s ambition to explore the lives of black Americans from various economic backgrounds, searching for status in an urban environment.
“We didn’t really look back at Season 1,” said Glover, who earned one Emmy for playing Earn and another for directing. “I feel if you do that, as a producer of television or any sort of art form, you tend to be risk-averse, which I really think is bad for art. We never went into it thinking, ‘Let’s give the audience what they liked the first season.’ We went into it like, ‘Yeah. How do we make another season of a show I would want to watch?’ ”
Not that the show has become so formulaic that it could be mistaken for “Law & Order: Atlanta.” By the third episode, one character has been the victim of the most polite stickup robbery in Georgia history.
“I think part of our game is just constantly making ourselves a little uncomfortable,” said Hiro Murai, the series’ principal director. “We thrive best when we slightly don’t know what we’re doing. So even though the stories feel a little more cohesive this season, I think we got to try a lot of weird stuff.”
Murai and the writers insist that much of their inspiration came from “How I Spent My Vacation,” a 1992 collection of “Tiny Toons” cartoons in which Buster Bunny and Byron Basset are chased by an escaped convict and engage in a psychedelic version of “Dueling Banjos.”
You may think the reference is a joke — until you watch Thursday’s opening scene in which the robbery of a fast-food joint shifts from a comedy of errors into an American horror story. Later in the episode, Earn gets trapped in a house with an alligator owned by his paranoid uncle, played by Katt Williams, stand-up comedy’s equivalent of the Tasmanian Devil.
In a future installment, a temporarily flush Earn slowly transforms into Daffy Duck as he finds it increasingly impossible for anyone to accept his $100 bill. Even the season’s official title, “Atlanta: Robbin’ Season,” could be interpreted as a nod to the Looney Tunes classic “Hunting Trilogy,” in which Elmer Fudd almost has an aneurysm trying to figure out if it’s truly “wabbit season.”
“ ‘Tiny Toons’ was our favorite as kids,” said Glover, nodding to his brother Stephen, who serves as a writer and producer on the series. “It’s a really good show.”
When he wasn’t binge-watching old cartoons, Donald Glover was recording under his rap name, Childish Gambino, and filming his role as Lando Calrissian in the highly anticipated prequel “Solo: A ‘Star Wars’ Story.” His hectic schedule delayed the return of “Atlanta,” but did nothing to quell the excitement among fans, particularly in the Atlanta area, where most of the filming takes place.
Returning to the area as cast members of a hit series — the first season averaged 5.3 million viewers a week, making it the highest rated comedy in FX history — was a mixed blessing.
Like almost everyone in the cast, Zazie Beetz was largely unknown when she snagged the role of Earn’s girlfriend, Vanessa. She knew her world had changed when she attended the city’s Afropunk Festival in October.
“Usually, if I’m walking around, a couple people will recognize me, but at Afropunk it was back to back to back to back. I wanted to dance, I wanted to express myself, but I felt like I couldn’t,” said Beetz, who has been cast in the movie “Deadpool 2” as mutant Domino.
Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Paper Boi, found that his own adjustment to fame mirrored the challenges faced by his character, who finds out in Season 2 that being popular can make it hard to score weed.
“Every single person you can think of called me Paper Boi,” Henry said.
“I want to go to Lenox mall. Nope. I cannot do that. I want to order GrubHub [a food-delivery service]. Nope, then they’ll know where you live. I have so many friends in Atlanta I had to say, ‘We can’t roll here right now because I don’t want to take away from the environment you’ll be left with when I go.’
“There was just a sense of understanding that at the end of the day, the world is different, and we have to go and create characters who are also navigating the world in a different way.”
Getting stopped on the sidewalk for selfies may become a less frequent occurrence if Season 2 doesn’t click with viewers. But Glover is brimming with confidence.
“I tried to do what Q-Tip said he tried to do with A Tribe Called Quest,” he said. “Like, after that first album was a big hit, he’s like, ‘I’m trying to kick the sophomore slump in the ass.’ So let’s do that. Let’s just try to make something better.”