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The ‘Atlanta’ Syllabus

Before Season 3 premieres on Thursday, a list of the show’s key reference points—some intentional, some unconscious

FX/ABC/HBO/Disney/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Don’t Look Now, but the trailer for Season 3 of Atlanta makes a European excursion look like a horror movie—a good sign for a show that’s always integrated funny and freaky on a subatomic level. Because of the extra-long, COVID-connected gap separating this new cycle of episodes from the last batch, Atlanta has vanished from the discourse, but chances are it’ll be back with a vengeance: Few shows are so obviously designed to be talked about. Or annotated: Over the years, Donald Glover and the rest of the show’s creative team have told anybody who will listen about an extensive list of influences—some obvious, some arcane, some more convincing than others. Consider the list below a kind of Atlanta syllabus, including a few key stated reference points, and some that may be more unconscious or incidental but resonate all the same.

The Counselor

The conceptual joke of the first-season episode “Nobody Beats the Biebs” is that the behavior of Ontario’s finest would look—and be taken—very differently if he weren’t a white kid appropriating hip-hop culture. The episode plays provocatively with ideas of racial identity, not just via the spectacle of the Black Justin Bieber (Austin Crute) but through a subplot in which Earn gets mistaken for another African American man by a white agent (Jane Adams) who ends up telling him—apropos of nothing—that he’s going to “die homeless.” What does Ridley Scott’s much-maligned 2013 thriller about a lawyer mixed up in the Mexican cartel trade have to do with one of Atlanta’s most acclaimed episodes? The connection makes sense to Stephen Glover, who told Vulture that The Counselor served as inspiration due to its warped, genuinely WTF atmosphere—the same enigmatic quality that saw it panned upon release and then reclaimed almost instantly on the internet as a cult classic. “Our show’s super-grounded in reality, most of the time, and we’re able to play [that],” he explained. “What would happen in a real way if something’s just changed slightly?” Translation: There’s a better-than-zero chance that somebody has sex with a car this season.

Florida Man

Every era gets the urban legends it deserves, and the meme of the “Florida Man”—an avatar of inverse Darwinism testifying to every instance of all-American idiocy concentrated in the Sunshine State—became a cautionary tale for the Trump era. “Think of him as an alt-right Johnny Appleseed,” Darius explains in Atlanta’s Season 2 premiere, and the brisk montage depicting Florida Man’s variably horrifying and petty crimes (including one blugeoned flamingo) is the show at its best—a swift (and thoroughly Swiftian) satire that simultaneously reshapes and reveals some larger social reality.

Get Out

The give-and-take between Atlanta and Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning send-up of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has been consistent for the show’s duration; in an excellent essay for Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién explained how Glover and Hiro Murai mine the visual vocabulary of horror for style as well as substance, arguing along the way that Season 2’s “Helen”—a two-hander between Earn and Van that juxtaposes their relationship struggles against the incongruous backdrop of a Germanic cultural festival in small-town Georgia—is even “more prickly and complex” than Get Out. There’s also a direct visual homage to Peele’s film in Season 2’s “Sportin’ Waves” when Earn and Alfred travel to the offices of a streaming company with an all-Caucasian staff, who are depicted in one memorable image as stoic, motionless mannequins considering the intruders in their midst.

Hi, Mom!

Early reviews of Season 3 hint that Atlanta will extend its queasy fascination with racial masquerade even further than the dark conceptual jokes in “Helen”—in which Earn is mistaken by a partygoer for a white man made up as a Moor—or “Teddy Perkins,” with its disturbing, dessicated spectacle of whiteface. One possible primer for the show’s gutsy satire is Brian De Palma’s 1970 comedy Hi, Mom!, whose immortal centerpiece sequence depicts a group of bougie New York theatergoers attending an experimental performance in which they’re roughed up, slathered in grease paint, and subjected to racist abuse by Black performers hiding behind artificially pale complexions. The title—and devastatingly double-edged thrust—of the show is “Be Black, Baby!” and like all of De Palma’s finest provocations, the scene is designed to push characters and audience alike outside of their comfort zones and into the line of fire. The brilliant punch line: After being hectored, harassed, and threatened with arrest by real-looking cops, the patrons express gratitude for their fleeting glimpse at how the other half lives … before heading back to their brownstones.

Takeshi Kitano

“I couldn’t tell if these weird, meandering scenes were supposed to be funny or dramatic or melancholic,” says Murai of his teenage discovery of the films of Japanese master Takeshi Kitano. The answer, of course, is that Kitano’s work is all of these things simultaneously, and in the 1990s, the filmmaker looked poised to be a crossover figure in international cinema, fusing crime-thriller tropes to theater-of-the-absurd techniques that turned films like Sonatine and Fireworks into cinephile favorites. As an actor, Kitano has maybe the best stone face since Buster Keaton, and yet, as Murai says, his movies almost always access deep, surprising reservoirs of emotion. His influence is palpable in Murai’s carefully framed compositions and bone-dry command of tone; there’s also a bit of Kitano’s polymathic versatility in Glover’s commitment to working on multiple fronts as a writer-director-star. That said, until Childish Gambino hosts his own gauntlet-style game show, he’s got some catching up to do.

David Lynch

“I just always wanted to make Twin Peaks with rappers,” Donald Glover said in 2016, dropping the same gauntlet as so many creators before him. (The history of shows trying to be “Twin Peaks With [X]” is long and crowded with pretenders.) Part of the problem with calling Atlanta “Lynchian” is that, at this point, the term has lost its meaning, used mostly as a catch-all for anything recognizably surreal rather than specifically akin to the films of Missoula, Montana’s, favorite son. So while the various nonsequiturs lurking around the edges of Atlanta’s universe are surely striking, freaky, and funny—think of the lurking alligator, or the glowing chicken wings, or the invisible car—they’re tonally distinct from Twin Peaks, which is fundamentally a study of small-town life. If anything, Atlanta’s urban dreamscape feels closer to Lynch’s unofficial Hollywood trilogy of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire—showbiz cautionary fables sketching the intersection of art, celebrity, and psychosis. Lynch does love his mysterious guru figures, though, and the bus passenger who treats Earn to a bite of his Nutella sandwich in Atlanta’s pilot has the same spirit-guide vibe as Twin Peaks Log Lady or Mulholland Drive’s Cowboy—and like the latter, he keeps popping up when you least expect him.

Kanye West

Donald Glover’s willingness to style himself as an iconoclast suggests a genuine, thin-skinned kinship with the artist currently known as Ye. The first time Donald Glover covered his idol was on 2011’s terrific single “Break,” which sampled the triumphal melody of “All of the Lights”: “After this I hit the highway; I’m headin’ West like I’m fuckin’ blowin’ Kanye.” By the time Atlanta premiered, the star and his collaborators were dropping hints of a deeper, ongoing homage. “If the first season [of Atlanta] is The College Dropout, [Season 2] is Late Registration,” said Stephen Glover in 2018; the same year, Donald explained that the upcoming batch of episodes felt like Graduation: “Our most accessible, but also the realest … the most enjoyable, like the third album.” The long delay for Atlanta’s third season has significantly recontextualized these comments: Ye’s fantasies remain as dark and twisted as ever—just ask Pete Davidson—but the beauty has faded, replaced by a reactionary insularity that feels like something Atlanta’s creators would sooner critique or satirize than emulate.

“Norf Norf”

It’s been pointed out that one of the funniest running jokes on Atlanta—a show ostensibly about the chart-topping success of a Dirty South–style rapper—is that we never really hear any of Paper Boi’s music. But we do get a rundown of the lyrics to one of his singles in “Money Bag Shawty” when an angry woman recites them on Instagram—a parody of the “Christian Mom” who went viral in 2016 denouncing Vince Staples’s “Norf Norf.” Considering that Staples has collaborated and toured with Childish Gambino, the reference is made affectionately, while the moment when Alfred proposes to celebrate his hit with a toast to “white tears” is in line with the show’s usual sociological jiujitsu—a reminder that the history of hip-hop is full of artists weaponizing mainstream racism against itself for fun and profit.

“Pine Barrens”

The genius of the classic Sopranos episode “Pine Barrens” lies in how it recontextualizes the behavior of its characters. We’re used to seeing Christopher and Paulie operate in an urban context where their mobbed-up status and connections give them the advantage on other people; relocated to the wilds of New Jersey and stranded without cell service or any kind of backup, they revert to scared, feral fuck-ups huffing ketchup packets. There’s a similar sense of displacement in Atlanta’s Season 2 standout “Woods,” which writer Stefani Robinson described as a riff on Alice in Wonderland but feels equally indebted to “Pine Barrens.” Styled deliberately as a detour away from the show’s major ongoing plotlines, “Woods” finds a depressed Alfred wandering through the forest, pursued by a homeless man who may or may not be a projection of his anxieties about his sudden fame: not a flesh-and-blood rival like the hard-edged Russian of “Pine Barrens,” but an ephemeral twin. By turns creepy and lyrical, “Woods”—like The Sopranos before it—demonstrates how Atlanta often finds itself by letting its characters get lost.

Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Nineties kids remember Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Summer Vacation as one of the great direct-to-video cartoon epics. “Epic” is a relative term considering the film runs barely 80 minutes. But the multi-narrative movie, following the show’s characters as they go their separate ways at the end of the school semester, is so dense with plotlines and jokes—including a killer theme park parody of all things Disney called HappyWorldLand—that it felt massive, which is why Glover says it provided a reference point for Atlanta’s second season. “And we kind of took that idea—a whole story, but being told in a bunch of different parts,” Glover told The Hollywood Reporter. “You enjoy them more when they’re all together, but you can also enjoy them in little bits.” Beyond its atomized storytelling, How I Spent My Summer Vacation also provided a model for Glover and Co.’s occasional forays into cartoon logic; the bit where Buster, Babs, et al. escape certain doom (and a Jason Voorhees–style menace) by falling through a “plot hole” looks, in retrospect, like a template for Atlanta’s casual refusal of cause-and-effect reasoning.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Robert Aldrich’s camp classic about a pair of aged, resentful sisters ritualistically tormenting one another in a Gothic mansion was one of the strangest Hollywood movies of the early 1960s, stranding a pair of Golden Age stars in a scary—and scare-quoted—sibling pathos play. Besides inaugurating its own cycle of “hagsploitation” horror movies, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is deep in the DNA of Atlanta’s bizarre and altogether amazing “Teddy Perkins,” which also contains trace elements of Get Out and The Shining. (This interview with Murai breaks it all down.) The titular recluse incorporates elements of Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder, but the scenario of a former child star wasting away alone in luxurious decay is pure Baby Jane, and so is the way “Teddy Perkins” toes the line between empathy and exploitation. The common denominator is the theme of obsolescence, and while Aldrich’s film derived a lot of its subtextual heft by having its antiheroines played by past-their-prime divas Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, the fact that Teddy is played by a heavily made up—and uncredited—Donald Glover suggests Atlanta’s creator reckoning with his own fame, as well as the possibility that his success as a crossover artist (like MJ before him) has something to do with pandering to white audiences.

The Who Sell Out

The Who’s third studio album takes the form of a pirate radio broadcast interspersing singles and jingles; in lieu of his usual stadium-sized anthems, Pete Townhsend cultivated an insidiously trivial catchiness that doubled as a commentary on how easily art can metastasize into commodified product. There’s an echo of the Who’s conceptual gambit in Season 1’s brilliant “B.A.N.,” styled as a 30-minute block of television programming—commercials included—on the fictional Black American Network. The talk-show segments that find Alfred sparring futilely with a transgender activist are funny and uncomfortable, but it’s the commercial breaks that make “B.A.N.” a classic, especially the animated spot for “Coconut Crunch-O’s,” which features an anthropomorphic coyote being brutalized by police officers after stealing a box of cereal. Critics weren’t sure what to make of The Who Sell Out, and because “B.A.N.” came fairly early in Atlanta’s run, it also came off as slightly baffling. In retrospect, it’s one of the show’s finest, most concentrated satirical gestures, holding a cracked mirror up to the contemporary mediascape and reveling in the distorted reflections.

Zola

Before director Janicza Bravo made her feature breakthrough last year with the vital, viral-Twitter-thread comedy Zola, she helmed Season 1’s devastatingly funny “Juneteenth”—Atlanta’s version of a bottle episode, set in a lavish mansion owned by an interracial couple whose white half is so ostentatiously woke as to seem unbalanced. Between writing poems interpolating the lyrics to “Strange Fruit” and painting impressionistic canvases inspired by Martin Luther King, Craig (Rick Holmes) is as much a caricature of racial confusion as Riley Keough’s cornrowed-and-blaccented antagonist in Zola. Bravo’s mastery of a very particular kind of comedy-of-awkwardness gives “Juneteenth” and Zola a shared sense of kamikaze momentum. In both, it somehow seems like the core situation couldn’t possibly get more embarrassing—even as the chances it will get better are less than zero.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.