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On ‘Atlanta,’ Everything Changes and Stays the Same

Season 3 has found the show’s core cast enjoying more success than ever. As the installment’s unorthodox storytelling exemplifies, fame makes the Black experience that much more confounding.

FX/Ringer illustration

In his first appearance of Atlanta’s third season, the often exasperated rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) is confined to a Dutch jail cell that looks more like a brand-new dorm room. He places a very specific lunch order—potato mash, bean soup, Coke with ice cubes instead of crushed ice, and some hot sauce—with a guard who is more servant than enforcer, but before it can arrive, he’s told that his bail has been paid and he’s free to leave. He opts to stay a little longer: “Just wake me up from my nap when it get here, aight?”

On the outside, the sense of refreshment Alfred had gained thanks to pleasant prison guards, warm soup, and a moment of tranquility is quickly thwarted. En route to their Amsterdam hotel, he and his cousin turned manager, Earnest “Earn” Marks (Donald Glover), are greeted by a baby in blackface in homage to Zwarte Piet, a contentious Dutch tradition (to say the absolute least). Later that evening, as Alfred surveys the crowd eagerly awaiting his performance, he sees a sea of fans—also in blackface. As always, there’s no masking Alfred’s frustration. When it comes to Atlanta, the scenery may change, but some things never will.

And yet, the third season of Atlanta, which concludes on Thursday night, has been vastly different from its predecessors. Four years have passed since the second season ended, and nearly the same amount of time has elapsed in the show’s world. Since then, Alfred has reached a new level of fame (he’s headlining his own European tour), Earn has developed legitimate managerial competency, and significantly more money—and so much more Gucci—has been injected into everyone’s lives thanks to both. The season has ventured to Amsterdam, London, and Budapest, just to name a few locations. But the European backdrop isn’t the primary reason that Atlanta has felt foreign. Beginning with the season premiere, “Three Slaps,” four episodes have been anthology-style installments that haven’t featured the main cast until the very end or at all. While the primary story line has focused on Alfred wrestling with his celebrity in unfamiliar settings, each stand-alone episode has positioned whiteness as a blight on society, cursing those who benefit from it as well as the Black people who suffer as a result. The approach, which toes the line between ambitious and self-indulgent to varying degrees of success, has divided Atlanta’s audience.

But high-art deviations aside, Atlanta’s key focus remains the same. Whether the main characters are getting high on that couch outside of Alfred’s apartment in Atlanta or strolling through the streets of London, Atlanta is still concerned with the interpersonal and psychological effects of fame. While Atlanta’s second season leaned into psychological horror, forcing Alfred and Earn to reckon with ennui and the threat of squandered potential, Season 3 probes the darker side of success for Black people—particularly Black artists. “To me, sometimes success is horrific for Black people,” says Henry, who plays Alfred to aggravated perfection. “There’s really no going back.” Atlanta was never going to glamorize stardom; that would be an uncharacteristic move from a show that, among many other absurdities, has now made Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Zazie Beetz) and Darius Epps (Lakeith Stanfield) witnesses to 2Pac’s assisted suicide. Instead, the show’s most recent episodes have peered behind the veil of stardom and shown how taxing and downright frightening it can be, especially for those who are unprepared for it.

Keep in mind that Alfred never had any serious aspirations as a rapper. It was something he did on the side to supplement the money he and Darius made as low-level drug dealers. Then it became something he felt like he had to do because, as he once acknowledged, he scares people at ATMs. Still, the Paper Boi alter ego represented the primal nature of man and the ultimate commitment to authenticity. Alfred’s career, which has always been somewhat in the periphery, found direction after Earn intervened, which also placed him in situations that only intensified his skepticism and discomfort. At one end of the spectrum, he found himself squaring off with an obnoxious, alt-reality Justin Bieber at a local celebrity basketball game. At the other, he wound up fleeing from undergrads only to find refuge in a frat house with naked pledges and a Confederate flag. Being a rapper-slash-working drug dealer was already a precarious gambit. The increased notoriety not only led to constant violations of his privacy, but also life-threatening encounters: Season 2 saw him robbed at gunpoint by his plug and a trio of youths who approached him as fans. Faced with the possibility of death or wasted opportunity, Alfred gave up on being the “sweaty nigga in a polo and cargo shorts” and acquiesced to being Paper Boi.

But in Season 3, Alfred has discovered the harsh reality that success can only protect you from so much. In some instances, it lands him in even more absurd circumstances. “We always want to create a certain level of discomfort with him,” says writer and producer Jamal “Swank” Olori. “We’ve just seen that with a lot of rappers, especially the ones who sold drugs and everything else. They kind of get put in these spaces they were never supposed to be in and don’t have any of the tools to navigate them.”

The season’s third episode, “The Old Man and the Tree,” drops the gang in London to visit a billionaire investor’s (Daniel Fathers) lavish home, which is obscured by a grimy facade. After indulging in the mansion’s in-house Nando’s, Alfred finds himself engaged in a high-stakes poker game with a group of wealthy white men. Alfred obliges the game’s $20,000 buy-in, but each of his monied opponents—including the home’s owner, Fernando—vanish when it’s time to part with the money that Alfred eventually wins. Aware of his surroundings, he tries his best not to lose his composure, but ultimately resorts to tactics similar to those he had to employ in Season 1 when a janky club promoter tried to screw him out of an appearance fee. By the episode’s conclusion, he’s taken a chainsaw to a tree in the evasive Fernando’s backyard and claimed several people’s food as compensation.

This season’s European backdrop amplifies the bizarre nature of the characters’ experiences. According to Henry, the tour Alfred embarked on at the end of Season 2 was the first time he’d left Atlanta, let alone the country. So even though this isn’t a new experience for him, he’s at a place in his life where the distance from home highlights how far away he is from who he knows himself to be. It’s also a reminder that, for Black people, certain things are consistent regardless of location. “It’s just that he’s there with different white people who might speak a different language, but he’s still navigating as a Black American man,” Henry says. Henry, who in the span of Atlanta’s run has gone from an unknown to starring in a Marvel movie, says he can relate. “It’s all weird,” he says of fame. “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,’ especially navigating fame while Black.”

In “Cancer Attack,” Alfred’s phone mysteriously disappears following a show in Budapest. Suspecting the venue manager’s nephew, Wiley (Samuel Blenkin), Alfred, Earn, and Darius put him through rounds of interrogation. He insists he doesn’t have the phone, but an incensed Alfred is unconvinced—primarily because Wiley appears to know intimate details about Alfred’s past that were included in unreleased music he kept on his phone. More importantly, Alfred is suffering from writer’s block and unable to find inspiration, but aware that he’s responsible for everyone around him. “What happens if I’m not inspired anymore? What happens if I don’t have another hit song?” Henry says. “There’s also that horror of trying to enjoy the success, but always thinking about, ‘What if the success is taken away from you?’ Is there ever a place or a healthy medium where we can find true satisfaction in success, and just lean back, kick your feet up, and be like, ‘Oh, I’m all right’? I don’t really think Alfred ever really gets there.”

Change of scenery aside, downtime in the middle of touring has given Alfred the space to reflect on his current position. In between the blur of experiences abroad, he mulls over what he actually wants out of life now that he’s ascended to a new plateau in his career. In “White Fashion,” he’s asked to join the diversity board for Esco Esco after the fictional LVMH-inspired luxury brand creates a streetwear line (including, embarrassingly, a vintage FUBU-esque jersey) inspired by the Central Park Five. Understanding that he’s the commodity in this scenario, Alfred tilts it to his favor, requesting customs suits, years worth of free clothing, and, of course, free tailoring as well. He’s unconcerned about how filling the role of Black apologist will look to his core audience because the legend of Paper Boi is built on crimes he’s (allegedly) committed. The streets know about the dirt he’s done.

But after taking Earn’s advice and attempting to create a vague initiative to support Black people—what does it actually mean to “invest in Black communities” and why would any reputable fashion house do that?—he receives a rude awakening about the futility of capitalism-as-activism. Already mired in an existential rut, this experience leads to more questions about his purpose. “Alfred is probably a different person than he thought he would be by the time he’s become one of those fashion house–adjacent rappers,” says writer, director, and producer Ibra Ake. “I don’t think it means what he thought it would. You get to these milestones or things you’ve dreamed of and it’s almost like a genie giving you a wish, but there’s a sinister aspect to it. You keep achieving all these things, but you keep questioning whether they’re the reward you imagined.”

Alfred’s doubts spiral into hallucinogenic fear in “New Jazz.” Annoyed by Darius’s financial reliance on him, Alfred still elects to indulge his friend’s eccentricities and wander around Amsterdam under the influence of a Nepalese space cake. The two are soon separated as the drugs take hold—then Alfred is pestered by the cutting Lorraine (Ava Grey), who belittles his purple fedora, offers her sharp opinions about art and the music industry, and interrogates him about whether the people in his circle have his best interests in mind. She’s the embodiment of his insecurities, but also a manifestation of his deceased mother, pestering him with annoying but valid questions. “It’s being drilled into him: ‘Can you trust the people around you? Are they supporting and helping you?’ And on a certain level, he’s like: ‘I haven’t even been thinking about that,’” says Olori. It’s a callback to Season 2’s “Woods” episode, which began with Alfred imagining his mother’s nagging presence and ended with him leaning into his rising star after being confronted with his own mortality and the prospect of underachievement.

Echoing one of Season 3’s major themes, “New Jazz” suggests that the more success you attain as a Black person, the further it can distance you from your Blackness. “It’s also the physical removal from the actual place of Atlanta, which is something [Alfred’s] wrestling with while he’s overseas, and something that the anthologies really deal with in toggling back and forth between this theme of whiteness as a curse,” says writer and producer Jordan Temple. “The more successful you get, the closer you get to the idea of whiteness—but actually, you’re Black the whole time. It’s you questioning yourself, people questioning you, and you questioning your relationships, and how that lost sense of identity warps your reality.”

So what is Atlanta removed from Atlanta and removed from the grind that defined Alfred’s unlikely ascent? It’s a question the writers have forced its audience to consider. The show’s strength has always been its presentation: a collision of surrealism and audacity. It has reinvented itself each season, and how you feel about this third, divisive installment depends on whether you think its approach is coherent, insightful, or ultimately effective.

But no matter the setting or structure, Atlanta has the same focal point. It has taken the shine off of success and revealed its nightmarish facets while examining the exploitation of Black art and broader questions of Black identity. The clothes have gotten nicer, but for Atlanta’s core characters, money can’t soothe loose ends, unresolved trauma, and jarring reminders of where you stand in society.

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