When Atlanta emerged in the fall of 2016, it made an immediate dent in the cultural stratosphere in a way very few shows can ever hope to achieve. The brainchild of polymath comedian, musician, and writer Donald Glover along with his creative team, Atlanta was a perfect storm: a Southern Gothic drama, a hyperspecific regional portrait of the current capital of hip-hop, a vision of Twin Peaks–ian offbeat humor about the Black experience, and maybe most importantly, a brilliantly casted and unquestionably hip version of the American sitcom. The series premiered with two episodes, which helped to properly contextualize the kind of show it wanted to be: There was an introductory pilot establishing the people and place involved, and then an outlandish second episode that took a strange, sometimes horrific, sometimes absurd detour into the prison system. Beyond just being a memorable hour of television, it established the dark, enigmatic, and surrealistic tone of the series. It could be anything at any time.
Atlanta wasn’t the first show to bring Lynchian weirdness and avant-garde filmmaking to television, but similar to shows like Fleabag and The Young Pope, it produced a unique vision for its specific era of TV that was novelistic, dense with ideas and themes, and feigning toward “high art” while still proving to be highly popular and functioning with the constraints of the medium. The biggest shows of this era were either big-budget, ambitious adventure programming and thrillers (Westworld, Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, American Crime Story) or end-of-the-Obama-era comedies (Silicon Valley, The Good Place, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Atlanta had more in common with shows like Mad Men and Louie, which had seen their more esoteric nature and glacial pace fall out of favor. Also, television as a visual medium or director’s playground hadn’t fully taken hold yet, and certainly Hiro Murai’s stylized portraiture for Atlanta played a part in pushing this idea.
When Atlanta first premiered, Glover and Co. said that part of the driving force behind the series was that they “wanted to show white people [that] you don’t know everything about Black culture.” The idea of needing to prove anything to the white gaze in the first place is pretty suspect to any discerning Black viewer, and Donald Glover is well-known for having his share of complex, underwhelming issues around race. All of this though, only underscores how unexpected much of Atlanta’s brilliance felt at the time. The show was like a warped, fun house mirror of the Black experience—the comedy, the horror, the politics involved. Typically, when Black life shows up on television, it is either fantastical wish fulfillment or an “important” misery-filled melodrama; Atlanta, instead, was interested in the absurdity of what it is to be Black, and although not without many flaws, it has been able to capture it well. By the end of that first season, Atlanta had branded itself as an inventive, masterfully made, occasionally poignant, occasionally maddening exegesis on Blackness, America, the South, class, and racism. Not bad for a show about rappers.
More than anything else, even besides the filmmaking and playfulness of the writing, the show is elevated by its cast. It’s of great benefit to the show that in many ways Glover—a bona fide star and the show’s main protagonist, Earn Marks—is probably the least interesting thing about it. Brian Tyree Henry is at the forefront—his performance as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, the rapper at the show’s center, was an absolute revelation. He has the same magnetism and menace that James Gandolfini brought to Tony Soprano and can express so much just in the twitch of his eyebrows. Lakeith Stanfield was an interesting side-character actor in films like Short Term 12 and Straight Outta Compton before fully breaking out as the show’s weirdo Nigerian prince Darius. Zazie Beetz was another breakout performer as Van, Earn’s sometime girlfriend and the mother of his child. Even in 2016, the idea of getting high-profile Hollywood names for a major prestige television series had started to take hold in the industry, while Atlanta did things the old-fashioned way and turned their main cast into bigger stars.
By the time of Atlanta’s second season in 2018, the television landscape had changed quite a bit. The idea of visionary filmmakers crafting one cohesive narrative throughout a season of television or using the format to mess around with different storytelling modes was in abundance. Cary Fukunaga made Maniac for Netflix this year, Succession began its ascent to the upper echelons of televised programming, Bill Hader pushed the concept of the dramatic sitcom into even darker terrain with Barry, Phoebe Waller-Bridge brought an inventive spin to the action thriller in Killing Eve, and David Lynch had returned to television the previous year and completely broke the medium with Twin Peaks: The Return. Atlanta may not have reinvented TV, but it functions as a beacon for all the things television can do, and in the years since, more shows have disoriented audiences. And Atlanta has certainly affected Black people on television, with more experimental shows like Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, or Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad. Issa Rae’s show about Black millennial life Insecure premiered around the same time as Donald Glover’s and certainly reflected the same brand of coolness if not necessarily the inventiveness.
If Atlanta had changed at all, it was probably a little too impressed with itself. The years of accolades and praise couldn’t help but inform the way the second season came out.
In its second go-round, Atlanta actively commented on itself—numerous episodes, like “Alligator Man” and “Money Bag Shawty,” dealt with how newfound success affected the chemistry of the group or forced the characters to flaunt how well they were doing; an episode like “Woods,” in which Alfred gets lost in the woods and has a vision quest about his grief following his mother’s death, seemed to acknowledge Henry’s real-life loss of his mother. The show also constantly tried to push past entertainment in search of some sort of profundity in all of the nonsensical. At its best, it could be euphoric, but at worst, it felt like the team was mass-producing its idea of genius like a cheaper assembly-line product rather than finely crafting it. The episodes, though always in conversation with each other, were barely threaded together storywise. The closest thing to an overarching narrative was the distance growing between Earn and Paper Boi, as the latter started to build a bigger profile and look for more professional management. Much of the season, however, played like Southern Gothic horror mired in abstractions and themes: violence, greed, authenticity, celebrity, and the way America drives Black people literally insane. How well it worked depends on your stomach for the esoteric, but while most shows are trying to entertain you, for better or worse, Atlanta seemed to want to move beyond the bounds of entertainment or good and bad TV. It wanted to be better in tune with the infinite.
The New York Times’ Wesley Morris said it best in his review of the second season, writing Atlanta was “increasingly about itself” and “what’s possible for the twinned comedies of race and status. It knows the assorted bars a half-hour ‘sitcom’ faces and sets out to raise, vault over and demolish them, to prioritize ‘sit’ over ‘com.’” Ultimately, this worked in the show’s favor because, as Morris wrote, “TV in general right now resembles no TV that’s come before it.”
Atlanta’s latest season arrives four calendar years since the last. The cast have become genuine stars, with Henry and Stanfield throwing their hats in the ring to be the definitive actors of their generation. Hiro Murai got to make another memorable, idiosyncratic television series in Station Eleven. The third season experienced delays because of their busy schedules and COVID, and it returns to the television landscape as appointment viewing and suddenly event TV (due in part to how sporadically the seasons come). But that landscape is even more varied and fractured than it was in 2018. The number of streamers and shows needed to fill those streamers multiply like rabbits on a yearly basis, and it takes something super disorienting or inventive—like a Squid Game or Succession or even Euphoria—to get enough of a foothold in the larger public consciousness. But even in this landscape, as Donald Glover’s Twitter account is happy to inform us, there are very few shows that operate quite like Atlanta. That can lead to magic, or it can be maddening from episode to episode.
That thrill of finding out whether a weekly installment is magic or maddening has become part of the joy. As Atlanta’s season premiere episodes show, the show is still dedicated to its style and audaciousness, even when it can be off-putting—as it is in the first episode of the season. In that we get a subversive horror short film called “Three Slaps,” which painfully alludes to the Devonte Hart story. It’s the tale of a kid we’ve never seen before and probably won’t see again named Loquareeous, who is smart but disruptive and comes from a tough home environment and inevitably ends up being taken by child protective services to a white lesbian couple’s home as their last adoptee with their three other Black children. As a troll, it’s amusing; as an actual episode, it reeks of the overconfidence that occasionally finds the show flying too close to the sun. By the second episode, the crew is actually featured, with everyone reuniting in Amsterdam for Paper Boi’s second European tour. That episode is a potent reminder about what made the show so great to begin with: It’s really fucking funny and audacious, with its blackface festival and the re-murder of (maybe?) Tupac.
Despite the tonal shifts and wild swings, Atlanta is still confident that viewers will come along for the ride, even after so many years away. Perhaps it’s a good bet—many are returning to the TV shows that comfort them most in the face of so much choice and variety. Atlanta, by turn, is more than happy to keep giving more of what audiences have come to expect: the unexpected.
Israel Daramola is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, BuzzFeed, and Rolling Stone.