Atlanta is a well-produced show about … I’m not sure what anymore, exactly, based on the Season 3 premiere. The show turns the idea of prestige television on its head by refusing to take even its own rules seriously, and we love Atlanta for that: its invisible sports cars, its red herrings, its snide, high-concept execution, its Craig. But Thursday’s bait-and-switch was more tedious than anything. The premiere was a two-parter, and though the first installment, “Three Slaps,” is the more ambitious of the two—well constructed, societally aware, and begging for dissection—you get the sense that Donald Glover and Co. rescued themselves by airing two episodes at once. Hopefully we won’t look back on this as the moment the series’ dedication to subversion felt like it stopped having much of a point.
We open with two men—one white, one Black—out on a skiff by a lakefront at night, catching no fish, avoiding their wives, and shooting the shit about critical race theory. Being white is a state of mind; Armenians are white people too, things of that nature. The white man claims that the state government constructed a dam that flooded a thriving, self-governed Black town. “Anyone who didn’t leave drowned,” he coldly says. The settlement lies at the bottom of the lake, he adds, and now the whole place is haunted.
It turns out that this conversation doesn’t happen in Atlanta’s established universe, and neither do the events of the ensuing half-hour. Normally Atlanta would ground us in its world and catch us up with its characters before lifting off into the stranger stuff. This time, that’s happening in reverse. I’ll explain:
After a bizarre sequence in which the Black man is sucked underwater by the ghosts of the submerged town, young Laquarius—a boy we’ve never seen before—awakens in school, only to find out his class is going on a field trip to Black Panther 2. (In the real world—like, our actual real world—Black Panther 2 has yet to be released, a subtle giveaway that something’s off in this episode.) Laquarius is thrilled about the news and dances on his desk despite his teacher’s pleas to stop—conduct that lands him in the principal’s office. After receiving harsh discipline from his mother and grandfather—including three slaps across the face, hence the episode’s title—Laquarius calls Child Protective Services. That turns out to be a grave mistake, as he lands himself in something like a wellness sweatshop run by a white lesbian couple … who eventually in a suicide pact careen their minivan into the very same lake from the beginning. They would’ve killed Laquarius and his adopted siblings, too, were it not for the kid’s quick thinking to escape in time.
“Three Slaps” is a relatively quiet episode with music only filtering through a car radio at the very end to bring levity to everything that’s happened. There are few laughs throughout, maybe a laugh, singular. We have never met any of these characters before and are not likely to see them again. It has been four years since Atlanta was last on the air, and a century of current history has occurred in that time—including the literal plot line of this episode. If there is any specific reason or message behind this gotcha return, this corruption of a provocation, it is buried beneath layers of referential irony, and unretrievable to me. Further, no thoughtful reimagining of Black domestic life could ever touch the original “Black Moms Be Like” video.
Earlier this month at South by Southwest, Donald Glover detailed a looser writing process for Atlanta than with any of the show’s prior seasons. The creative team more or less sat around a hotel room somewhere in Central Europe and tossed out short story ideas until something stuck, stuff that Glover himself would want to watch. It’s easier to imagine how the Season 3 cold open came into being than to pin down what we’re supposed to get out of it: What if there was this kid, right? This kid with a really buh-lack name, like Laquarius, who was kidnapped into a minacious odyssey through some of this past decade’s most decontextualized images of Black children—the kid dancing on his desk for free tickets to Black Panther; the kid hugging the cop while wearing that weird fedora—but then, he made it home in time to fix himself supper. And get this: The punch line is an emotional reading of “It’s some ’sghetti in there.”
Anyway, after this winding fever dream, Earn (Glover) startles awake in a hotel room (Christopher Nolan would be proud), and so begins what we’ll call the premiere proper. Taken with the first, Episode 2 feels like a long exhale after a held breath. Earn, in Copenhagen, hair pressed to the sides of his head, looks like he’s been on a sick one, but the rest of the crew—Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Al (Brian Tyree Henry), and Van (Zazie Beetz) are posted up in Amsterdam. “Robbin’ Season” concluded with our ensemble striking out on the road: Paper Boi was gearing up for the first leg of his first European tour; Earn miraculously managed to get rid of a gun in the TSA line; Van had a life to sort out, potentially back in her parents’ house; and Darius, well, was on his eternal journey to find his bliss—but on the flight to Europe nonetheless.
This show began as a farce about modest rap stardom, and things in that regard are going well, by all passing signifiers: They know Paper Boi’s lyrics out in the Netherlands now. They hold “I Love You” and “Free Him” signs outside the window of his luxurious jail cell day and night (the result of some minor charge he caught off-screen). Earn gets an envelope of cash up front from a venue owner with few questions asked; Al throws most of it to the fans when he makes bail. Throughout this story line there’s a blackface gag that just about pays off—Al and Earn encounter scores of locals in the offending makeup due to Holland’s Zwarte Piet tradition around Christmas time. The Dutch heap a lot of Old World condescension on the pair for being so nonplussed by the sight, but it’s not funny until an aggrieved venue owner mistakes someone in blackface for Earn, beating him to a pulp, screaming “You fuck me” in broken English. And even then, not until you see the mixture of relief and satisfaction play over Glover’s face.
Darius and Van’s side adventure, in the meantime, is a good reminder of what this show can be at its lean, spontaneous best: Because Earn is in a different country, the two have some time to kill in a foreign city together. They catch up (she has a boyfriend now), they get high (it’s Amsterdam), they see where the day takes them (to a thrift shop, and then to a seance). Atlanta took two simple premises—Van has time to kill and Van is cold— and turned them into a delightful, zany escapade, culminating with Darius and Van finding Tupac, and promptly becoming accessories to his euthanasia. It’s also worth noting how beautiful all of these shots are, thanks to longtime director Hiro Murai, Darius’s scruffy blond dye job, and the auburn Gucci top coat he wears, which blends well with the cobblestone scenery and stands out against a room full of alabaster-clad Heaven’s Gate members. One of them notices, I think, that Van and Darius are not who they say they are (a medium and a photographer, respectively), but perceives something more urgent, which is that Van is lost, in the cosmic sense. This person is a magical white lady, as opposed to a magical negro, if you will. They have a short, earnest conversation while sharing tea on a window sill: about Van, but about the show, really. She doesn’t know where she’s going. She doesn’t know why she’s here. Then the white lady says, “You want to know what I think? I think you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”
Van smiles, somewhat nervously.