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‘Atlanta’ Was an Attitude

With ‘Atlanta’ ending its four-season run on the highest of notes, Brian Tyree Henry, Stephen Glover, and others from the team behind the series reflect on what ‘Atlanta’ was

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Despite a geographical return to its namesake for its farewell, Atlanta had little interest in nostalgia. The official poster for its fourth and final season, which concluded last week, featured the cast with peaches covering their eyes and a teaser included references to defining moments from the show’s past: an invisible car, a piano and an ostrich egg, an alligator—even Zan, the irksome influencer. Characters such as Uncle Willie (Katt Williams) and Tracy (Khris Davis) returned for cameos during Season 4, as did Raleigh (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Gloria Marks (Myra Lucretia Taylor). Those gorgeous aerial shots of the city were back, as well. For viewers put off by Season 3’s divisive trip to Europe, the homecoming represented a comforting, surface-level return to form—assuming they stuck around to see whether Atlanta stuck the landing. But comfort was always an enemy to Atlanta, which reinvented itself each season.

In Season 2, subtitled Robbin’ Season, a darker tone was introduced as Atlanta reckoned with the myriad things life stole from people, be it time, love, dignity, or opportunity. New setting aside, Season 3 sidelined the main cast during four stand-alone episodes that explored how whiteness plagues both white and Black people. Season 4 brought Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover), Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Zazie Beetz), and Darius Epps (Lakeith Stanfield) back to Atlanta following Alfred’s European tour, but showed that they could never go “home again” in lieu of success and all the perplexing baggage accompanying it. The season premiere, titled “The Most Atlanta,” found Darius being pursued by an allusion to Target Jennifer after trying to return an air fryer amid random looting. (The episode-long chase fuses horror with The Fugitive, “I don’t care” and all.) Earn and Van ventured to Atlantic Station, only to realize that it was a limbo where time stood still, past romantic partners were trapped, and Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” played on loop. Meanwhile, Alfred’s existential dilemma grew more intense after learning that one of his favorite rappers, an MF DOOM analog named Blue Blood (who was voiced by DOOM fan Earl Sweatshirt), had died months prior despite the news just going public. Clues embedded in Blue Blood’s lyrics guided Alfred to a humble memorial service for the rapper, forcing him to finally confront his mortality, legacy, and unanswered questions about what he actually wants out of life. This set the tone for Atlanta’s conclusion: Nothing could ever be the same—nor was it supposed to be.

Twin Peaks with rappers” was how creator Donald Glover jokingly characterized Atlanta ahead of its premiere, but that always felt like a sexy tagline to entice critics. By the time Season 1’s “B.A.N.” broke out into a news segment about “transracial” identity in between a series of strikingly realistic TV commercials, it was clear that Atlanta’s purview was far wider than two cousins navigating a nefarious industry. Atlanta’s eccentricities may have seemed inexplicable in a vacuum, but they made perfect sense within the context of the show’s fever-dream atmosphere. There was a method to the madness, even during “What the fuck?!” moments like Season 2’s cold open. Atlanta proved that it could be anything (a look at the vexing aspects of nightlife, Southern gothic horror, or a detailed mockumentary about the creation of A Goofy Movie) from week-to-week in its effort to deglamorize fame. For Season 3, the writers dared to alter its composition on the heels of 16 Emmy nominations and a four-year absence. “It was a reminder to people of how punk the show and our creative sensibilities are,” says writer and executive producer Stephen Glover.

For Atlanta’s writers and producers, the goal was less about making “the best show of all time” than making the show they wanted to make, even at the expense of the audience’s satisfaction. To that end, they succeeded. No matter the format, Atlanta was a creative ethos, an attitude, and a worldview about the disorienting nature of success.

In a 2018 interview with The New York Times, director and executive producer Hiro Murai explained that the seemingly impractical was Atlanta’s North Star. “We’re always looking for what we call ‘dream logic,’ something that feels right, but doesn’t necessarily have a logical throughline,” he said. A MARTA bus and a Nutella sandwich were the gateway to Atlanta’s dreamlike aura. As Earn reflected on his dire financial situation in the pilot, a stranger who would later be identified as spiritual adviser Ahmad White (Emmett Hunter) sat next to him and offered encouragement via a snack. “Resistance is a symptom of the way things are, not the way things necessarily should be,” he told Earn before commanding him to bite the sandwich—a metaphor for taking command of his life. After a sharp camera pan and blaring police siren, White exited the bus offscreen and disappeared into the woods, which would become a disconcerting but illuminating transitional setting in subsequent seasons. This was an early indicator that everything was on the table in Atlanta, which excelled at mixing humor and unease, often in the same scene.

In the opening moments of Season 2’s “Sportin’ Waves,” Alfred, who was still selling drugs for supplementary income, was robbed at gunpoint by his apologetic plug amid small talk. In Season 4’s “Crank Dat Killer,” paranoia about a serial killer hunting people who posted videos of themselves doing Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” dance erupted into open-carry chaos at the Greenbriar Mall. While Alfred was running for his life, Earn and Darius tried to purchase rare sneakers from a man who promised to give them away for free if they kissed while he played K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” inside of his van. When Earn finally acquiesced, the man was killed by a stray bullet. Atlanta perfected an atmosphere where, at any given moment, it felt like something hilarious could happen or someone could die. “I think all of that is part of the story and ethos of what Atlanta is supposed to be,” says writer and producer Janine Nabers. “It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable because it’s an uncomfortable place.” Atlanta took that feeling abroad in Season 3 as its dream logic became nightmare logic. In “New Jazz,” Alfred’s deepest fears about the state of his career manifested as a hallucination brought on by a Nepalese space cake in Amsterdam.

Oddball flair wasn’t all Atlanta had to offer. “Can we get away with this?” was always the show’s guiding principle, but that rule-breaking spirit evolved through the years. The final season featured episodes Atlanta couldn’t have pulled off during its earlier days, either because of a lack of cachet or capability. “Snipe Hunt,” for example, was surprisingly touching. Now wealthy and assertive, Earn took Van and Lottie (Austin Elle Fisher) on a family camping trip for the latter’s sixth birthday. Van assumed the expensive ordeal was just a way to sway her into following him to Los Angeles. There’s some truth to that, but Earn was finally able to express his love for her and his desire for them to be a family. Lottie, who’d been hot and cold the entire trip, noticed the change in her parents’ interactions and smiled in the final shot. From Murai’s intuitive direction to the Sade songs bookending the episode, it was quiet, subtle, and beautiful. And where it also felt like a spiritual successor to “Helen,” which slammed the door closed on Earn and Van’s undefined relationship for the time being, “The Goof Who Sat by the Door” felt like an evolution of “B.A.N.”

The episode, which was presented as a Black American Network (B.A.N.) documentary, told the fictional tale of Thomas Washington (Eric Berryman), a nerdy animator from East Atlanta who became Disney’s first Black CEO thanks to a mistake by the board of directors. Aware that his time in the C-suite was likely limited, Washington set out to make a wide-reaching film about Black pride and liberation: A Goofy Movie. Taking cues from arguments that the 1995 film is a Black pop culture artifact, the episode (which takes its title from Sam Greenlee’s novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door and its film adaptation about the first Black CIA agent) was equally absurd and impressive. It incorporated illustrations, archival footage, original Disney footage, and appearances from the likes of The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham, comedian Sinbad, and singer Brian McKnight to confront Disney’s racist history and explore the plight of Black creatives before culminating in Washington’s tragic demise. Like “Teddy Perkins,” it was audacious by way of pure spectacle, but it relied on detail instead of shock value. It was a straight-faced presentation of something unserious. Still, both episodes wrestled with how the pressure many Black artists feel can become such a burden that it ultimately destroys them. Both were also examples of Atlanta’s cynical outlook on success. “I think you guys are just feeling our catharsis,” says writer and producer Taofik Kolade.

Atlanta positioned fame as something to be wary of once Alfred made a name for himself after shooting someone. His Paper Boi alter ego was an albatross, regularly placing him in taxing, awkward, or flat-out bizarre situations. Whether he was touring the world or back in Atlanta struggling to enjoy his wealth while draped in Louis Vuitton, success never brought Alfred joy or peace of mind. Atlanta was a collision of harsh realities and surrealism. It used the latter to emphasize the abject ridiculousness of fame. “I always think about the scene in Season 1 in the second episode when the guy shows up with the Batman mask on and asks, ‘Does Paper Boi live here?’ and then he just runs off,” Stephen Glover says. “That’s what being famous is like.”

Alfred, thanks to Henry’s A1 verbal and nonverbal communication of exasperation, was the perfect mirror. “It took me a long time to realize that this is the only show that is putting that perspective on blast,” Henry told me earlier this year. “Taking these absurd stories that we deal with and the absurdity of living in this country and elsewhere, and putting it under this microscope for us to really go, ‘Oh man, did you see that? Did that shit really happen?’” As Alfred is reminded when he sees a crowd of fans in blackface ahead of a show in Amsterdam, fame is uniquely bewildering for Black people no matter the location. Despite the privileges, it can feel like the world is taunting you. Living in a fishbowl, particularly when you’re in public, is the tradeoff for success. It can make your life easier; it can also feel like the world is playing in your face. “There’s never a moment that I’m in it that I don’t go, ‘This is the weirdest thing that I have ever been a part of,’” Henry, whose career took off as Atlanta did, said.

It’s also dangerous. Atlanta made sure to show that Alfred was no safer as a millionaire than he was as a low-level drug dealer. Random encounters with so-called fans put his life in jeopardy. In “Crank Dat Killer,” the person shooting at him was just someone he had beef with in high school. Even after taking Soulja Boy’s advice and buying a “safe farm,” he was nearly killed by a tractor and a feral hog in the penultimate episode. The title, “Andrew Wyeth. Alfred’s World.,” was inspired by Wyeth’s renowned 1948 painting Christina’s World. Murai re-created the image as Alfred tried to crawl to safety after the tractor crushed his foot. Safety was in view, but still out of reach. For Black people, money isn’t guaranteed insulation from danger. The overarching idea was that nowhere is safe, be it the lush Georgia countryside or the city of Atlanta. But Alfred survived the ordeal and came out the other side bleeding from the mouth and forever changed, similar to how he emerged from the forest at the end of Season 2’s “Woods.” “I think the moment of calm that Alfred reaches at the end of the episode is just him understanding that the bullshit is always going to come, but he can deal with it,” says Kolade, who wrote “Andrew Wyeth. Alfred’s World.”

Naturally, Atlanta’s slant on fame was the product of its writers’ perspectives and experiences. As the show’s creator and biggest star, Donald Glover’s were foundational. Even as Atlanta became his crowning achievement and gave him new validation within Black culture (while his position within it remained fraught), he grew increasingly jaded and skeptical of the spotlight. “You walk into the party and realize you are the party,” he told The New Yorker in 2018. It’s a weight the infamously sensitive elder Glover didn’t want to shoulder, but understood that he had to due to his growing profile. “He told me that after he booked Star Wars, he probably wouldn’t be able to go to the grocery store anymore,” Kolade explains. “Seeing how people treat celebrity is a strange, strange thing to be a part of,” Stephen Glover says of being around his brother. “I think it is a very surreal experience.” This all informed the self-referential Atlanta’s approach.

Still, Atlanta was not without flaws. The show never quite figured out what to do with Van and critics drew a straight line between that shortcoming and Donald Glover’s complicated history with Black women. “Sometimes it happens that you write this TV show and a character that is not necessarily the main focus is so brilliant and wonderful, and you just want more of that character,” Nabers said. In addition, Atlanta was wobbly when it got on its high horse, as it often did during Season 3. The overall success of that season hinged on whether viewers found its commentary on “the curse of whiteness” to be incisive. The bigger issue with Season 3 wasn’t that the main cast mostly didn’t appear in four of the 10 episodes, but that the bar was higher when they were absent and those episodes didn’t always clear it. And the writers did care about the critiques, it just never impacted the creative process. “Something we would always express amongst ourselves is that there’s an Atlanta episode for everybody, but also that same person should have one episode that they hate,” says writer and producer Jamal Olori. Love Atlanta or hate it, there was never a dull moment.

The series finale, “It Was All a Dream,” closed the show in the most Atlanta way imaginable. Convinced he’s in the middle of a lucid dream, Darius rescued Earn, Alfred, and Van from the menacing master chef at Atlanta’s first Black-owned sushi fusion restaurant. They peeled off in a pink Maserati that Darius said he stole and, miraculously, there was Popeyes for everyone. The final scene offered a last supper of sorts and one more couch moment for the road before Darius stared into a TV screen, waiting for the image of thick Judge Judy to let him know whether he was still asleep in a sensory deprivation tank. It doesn’t matter whether it was a dream or not, but in true Atlanta fashion, the reality would be unbelievable. True to form, Atlanta went out as it began, thrived, and erred—completely on its own terms.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.