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‘Atlanta’ Season 3 Arrives Assured and Self-referential

The opening episodes of the FX hit’s third season quite literally take the show to new places. Yet they also show how ‘Atlanta’ is now mature enough to start revisiting familiar themes.

Hulu/Ringer illustration

Atlanta has always felt like the future, so it’s a striking mark of time’s passage that it already feels like a throwback. Donald Glover’s ambitious, surreal, unpredictable half-hour returns on Thursday after nearly four years off the air. In that time, hardly anyone involved has been idle. Star Brian Tyree Henry is now a Marvel superhero who’s worked with Barry Jenkins. Breakout performer Lakeith Stanfield is an Oscar nominee. Director Hiro Murai set the visual style of Station Eleven, the lush postapocalyptic series envisioning art after the end of the world. Glover, ever the polymath, has remained hard at work. Together with much of the Atlanta brain trust, he released the special Guava Island on Amazon Prime Video in 2019, coled by Rihanna; later this year, he’ll costar in a reboot of Mr. and Mrs. Smith for the same streaming service.

After Atlanta’s rapturous acclaim rightfully supercharged all their careers, it’s downright disorienting to watch the cast resume their roles as supporting players in the greater rap scene. (Henry plays Alfred, an ascendant rapper who performs under the name Paper Boi; Glover plays Earn, Alfred’s cousin and questionably effective manager.) The characters are the same, but so much in the real world is different—including where many viewers will even watch the show. Following the acquisition of Fox’s entertainment assets, including Atlanta network FX, by Disney in 2019, FX has been largely integrated into Hulu’s catalog. There, you can now watch all 21 of Atlanta’s episodes to date leading up to this week’s double-episode premiere.

The Streaming Wars geared up in Atlanta’s absence, but the culture also advanced in less tangible ways than distribution. No show has yet to replicate Atlanta’s chameleonic tone: part social realism, part satire, part dream logic, part horror. Still, plenty of networks seem more inclined to take big swings on projects that shrug off conventional structure and channel historically marginalized points of view. In 2018, HBO aired the first season of Random Acts of Flyness, the experimental variety show from artist and filmmaker Terence Nance; Atlanta’s own FX has since produced Reservation Dogs, a bleak-yet-lyrical sitcom about Indigenous teens coming of age in Oklahoma. These shows clearly walk in Atlanta’s footsteps, though never in its shadow.

There’s also the uncomfortable influence of events outside the scope of mere TV. Glover has described the goal of Atlanta’s creative team—a tight, fixed group that includes Murai, Glover’s brother Stephen, and executive producer Stefani Robinson, among others—as “to show people how it felt to be Black.” Following the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests that erupted in its wake, that feeling has become the object of increasingly mainstream interest. Subjects like police brutality long predate Atlanta’s existence, and will continue after it goes off the air. Still, the last two years have left the distinct impression of a culture, or at least parts of it, finally acknowledging what creators like Atlanta’s have known all along.

Atlanta faces the sky-high hype of an adored enterprise that managed to vanquish a sophomore slump. Placed in the same situation last year, even Succession began to show signs of strain. Given that snowballing pressure, it may be for the best that Glover has signaled he doesn’t intend to keep topping himself forever, or even attempting to: Atlanta will end with Season 4, which was shot concurrently with Season 3. In a sense, Atlanta is already over. Just when we’re most excited to welcome it back, the show has begun its long goodbye.

Though not technically an anthology show, Atlanta thrives on novelty. There’s no telling which character an episode might spotlight (Alfred’s loyal sidekick Darius; Earn’s ex-girlfriend Van), or where it could take place (Drake’s mansion; a haunted house), or what genre it might assume (screwball caper; breakup drama). As a result, it’s a difficult show to review in advance, lest this writing spoil Atlanta’s central appeal.

Still, Atlanta is clearly aware its own reputation precedes it, and the first episode of Season 3 both ups the ante and toys with our assumptions. Atlanta has left behind its core cast before, most notably in the ’90s flashback episode “FUBU,” which follows Earn and Alfred as clout-chasing high schoolers. But it’s never left behind its core characters entirely as it does in “Three Slaps,” a kind of topical creepypasta that takes its plot from a real-life nightmare scenario in which a white lesbian couple abused their Black foster kids.

In some ways, “Three Slaps” is a testament to how Atlanta is still recognizably itself—funny, melancholy, a little perverse—even when it isn’t charting Alfred’s rise to fame. But refusing to give us the Earn-and-Al update we’ve been waiting for is also an undeniable troll. The episode’s own description quips: “I mean, I like this episode about the troubled kid but we waited 50 years for this?” As much as the tension in “Three Slaps” derives from the young protagonist’s attempts to escape his torment unscathed, the episode gets an extra boost from our gnawing anxiety over what happened once Earn planted a gun on the headlining act for Al’s European tour. We know they made it onto the plane unscathed, but what then? What about Van, or her and Earn’s young daughter?

But of course, Atlanta has never been driven by its plot. Among the shrewdest, most surprising moves Glover and his collaborators made was treating Al’s increasing success almost like an inevitability. Paper Boi’s career is something that happens in the background and mostly exists to enable the absurd scenarios Alfred and his circle end up in. Regardless, FX doesn’t make us wait long to find out; perhaps knowing fans might riot if forced to wait another week, the network programmed “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town” immediately afterward. Except for the fact that it’s technically the second chapter of the season, “Sinterklaas” is every bit the traditional premiere “Three Slaps” is not, following the gang on a trip to Amsterdam about a year after Al’s first time overseas. This time, it’s him who’s the headliner.

“Three Slaps” and “Sinterklaas” quite literally take the show to new places, whether the Atlanta foster care system or the canals of Amsterdam. (Atlanta may love to break the mold, but a trip overseas is a classic late-period flex. It’s like Carrie going to Paris!) Yet they also show how Atlanta is now mature enough to start revisiting familiar themes. “Three Slaps” has the same sense of creeping unease as “Teddy Perkins,” the masterpiece in which fame and abuse produce a literal monster; in its use of the eponymous folk figure and his problematic sidekick Zwarte Piet, “Sinterklaas” recalls the eerie German festival that Van and Earn visit in “Helen.” Both episodes use European iconography to portray white people as exotically and bizarrely as Black culture is frequently framed in popular media.

These echoes don’t mean Atlanta has resorted to playing the hits; no show that begins by thumbing its nose at expectations the way “Three Slaps” does can be accused of crowd-pleasing. They do, however, suggest that not every episode will shock and disarm in the vein of, say, “B.A.N.,” an entire stand-alone installment of a fictional public access talk show. Atlanta’s body of work is now large enough to dip into the self-referential. Even as so much of pop culture attempts to take after it, Atlanta still wants to be most like itself.