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‘Atlanta’ Ends Its Bizarre, Experimental Third Season With a Bizarre, Experimental Finale

“Tarrare” is a story about Van—or at least some version of Van. What does it mean in the larger context of the season?

FX/Ringer illustration

The third season of Atlanta ended similarly to how it began: bizarre, experimental, and a little confused. Thursday’s finale, “Tarrare,” took a detour to give us a Van story, or at least some version of Van. The episode starts with three women at a Parisian restaurant, seemingly enjoying a girls trip that was evidently paid for thanks to the proclivities of a rich paramour of one of the ladies, Candace, who was also in the Season 2 episode “Champagne Papi.” Candace recognizes Van in the middle of the lunch, but Van is calling herself “Tarrare” and donning a curly black wig (perhaps the one she may have stolen in the episode “White Fashion”) and speaking like a caricature of a French model. Van invites Candace and her friends to have drinks in the apartment that she has in Paris along with a partner she’s apparently been seeing. What unfolds in the ensuing 30 minutes is a chaotic French adventure that’s like an approximation of Jean-Luc Godard directing Top Boy, with Van well-versed in the grimier aspects of the Paris streets, beating people up with baguettes, working as a delivery mule, and blackmailing Alexander Skarsgard for fun and maybe kink purposes. The episode culminates with Van and her mystery partner serving up deep-fried severed human hands to rich white people at their exclusive restaurant as part of some sort of wealthy-people delicacy experience. Throughout the episode, Candace tries to make Van recognize how out of control the life she’s leading is, but Van seems perfectly happy in this new world, away from Atlanta and her loved ones back home. It isn’t until Candace mentions Van’s daughter that she begins to snap out of the existential crisis she’s been living through all season.

If Atlanta had a theme for this year, it would probably be “identity.” Not simply “who are you”–type questions, but much thornier ones about who we want to be and how our environments and contexts shape that. About half of this season has been geared toward one-off vignettes, racialized horror stories that feel more akin to what we’d expect from a Jordan Peele–helmed The Twilight Zone (instead of what we got from the actual Jordan Peele Twilight Zone) than anything resembling the show’s previous seasons. A story of reparations being paid for by the beneficiaries of slavery; a tale of a mixed-race kid performing whiteness until it no longer benefits him; an episode about a white child who identifies more with his Trinidadian nanny than his own parents; and a near re-creation of the Devonte Hart story. All of these stories aimed to tangle the complicated tapestry of race and identity that was created by white people and which the show seems to say will also be their undoing. These episodes were a mixed bag overall; Donald Glover and his creative team went for a lot of obviousness and speechifying, perhaps because they had only a short amount of time in these episodes to get their point across. These diversions were also complicated because Atlanta has some of the best working performers in Hollywood in its main cast, and the more time spent away from them, the less exciting the show becomes. Glover has a penchant for trolling and provocation that gets tiring quickly, but regardless of whether you find these episodes successful, their overall themes of identity and whiteness as its own kind of racial prison are interesting, and there are plenty of moments throughout that are funny and even brilliant, though they don’t really amount to anything whole.

This season’s excursion to Europe allowed the show to stretch out a bit and move with the pace of an art film at times. There was plenty of insight to be gleaned from watching Paper Boi’s ascent and these young Black characters experiencing the wider world and the ways racism unfolds away from the U.S. There were also moments when the seams began to show and it became apparent that Glover and Co. don’t have all that much more to say about these characters. Perhaps that’s the burden of success—at this point in the show, Paper Boi, a.k.a. Alfred, is becoming a real star and getting recognized a lot outside of America. Earn has settled into being an actually competent manager, and Darius is still just happy to be there. It’s a successful time for them, but that success also creates a bubble that encloses them, and there’s not much for them to do within it beyond occasional parties and drug trips. The eighth episode of the season, “New Jazz,” finds Alfred and Darius getting high together and Al splitting away to go on a paranoid journey with a young lady in which they venture into a club for canceled celebrities. It recalls some of the beats to Season 2’s “Woods,” which focuses on another Alfred spirit quest that revolves around his missing his dead mother. The third season is good at times, but it does feel like the show is spinning its wheels a bit.

Speaking of clubs for canceled celebrities, there is clearly something going on with our Black artists. From Atlanta to Dave Chappelle’s stand-up to the new Kendrick Lamar album, our most famous and successful Black celebrities are obsessed with “cancel culture” to an almost uncomfortable degree. Even if you want to pretend that there really is a culture of cancellations affecting people’s ability to make provocative art, the obsession with addressing it in some sort of winking manner comes off as self-righteous and navel-gazing. The cancel club of Episode 8, and the ensuing Liam Neeson cameo, is cute but feels geared to play to Twitter by referencing something I’m not sure that even many online people remember without Googling. I’m sure Glover, like Chappelle and Kendrick, believes he is fighting for his right to freely speak about whatever is on his mind, but in practice, it comes off as another rich person who feels entitled to receiving no criticism or pushback. There’s no real threat of his losing anything; the only people who have come close to being “canceled” are people who have been convicted of actual crimes. And even that is up for debate: Kodak Black is featured heavily on the new Kendrick album, and you can’t even get all DJs to agree on whether to play R. Kelly music. If there is less “challenging” art being made because people are afraid of getting a bad reaction on Twitter, that says more about an obsession with Twitter. (It’s more likely that a decrease in adventurous works has more to do with the lack of opportunity to make art about anything that isn’t established IP.)

Despite the middling response to this season of Atlanta, if you know enough about Donald Glover, then you know this show is operating at its ideal wavelength. It has plenty of room and equity to be whatever it feels like at any given time. Obviously there are the short films about race, but even in the main story line, Glover and Co. had fun and took to task things like scamming within art circles, the prison of fame, the snake-eating-its-tail nature of gentrification, #streetwear, the way white brands thrive off the backs of Black people who could never buy their stuff, and how weird wealthy white people can be. There are times when it’s obvious that certain scenes and jokes were written years ago—whether it’s the 21 Savage joke from “The Old Man and the Tree” or the Liam Neeson bit from “New Jazz”—and there are moments when the writing is too internet-pilled, but overall Atlanta’s absurdist comedy still works and serves as the proper canvas for Glover to exorcise his demons. The decision to take the season on the road was smart, but it does highlight a concern about whether the show has outgrown its namesake city. At this point in the Paper Boi timeline, another season set in Atlanta would feel too small unless it’s completely centered on its “Ghetto Hollywood” side.

Ending Season 3 with a bottle episode featuring Van was probably the most curious one of the entire run. The show has never really been great at finding a place for her, and for as adventurous as the series can be, the decision to bring Van along to the tour felt like the most obvious constraint of a long-running television series—as if they had to find a way to include her since she’s part of the cast regardless of whether it really made sense. As a result, they’ve had Van essentially float around the margins since Episode 2, when she meets a magical white woman during a cult ceremony for a man who looks suspiciously like Tupac, which sets Van off on a spiritual journey of her own. (This show is big on spirit quests.) Every now and again, she pops in like a magic pixie light-skin girl acting like a ghost that moves about the world with no worries or preoccupations as Earn frets over her well-being. It’s not exactly rich in character development, but you could argue that it was building to this season finale, which is one of the best episodes of the season. But I feel no closer to understanding Van beyond someone who feels like she’s barely a person in her own life. Part of me wishes the show would’ve just doubled down on this new life for Van in the finale, because then at least she’d be a real character.

But ultimately these are minuscule complaints in the grand scheme of the show. For however mixed and jumbled its messaging and attempts at controversy may have been, there’s still enough that makes Atlanta appointment television. Whatever story line the show claimed to be starting from back in Season 1, it has since transitioned into fully visualizing the id of its creative mastermind and his collaborators. This is Donald Glover’s ride and we’re all just along for it, wherever he decides to go next.

Israel Daramola is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, BuzzFeed, and Rolling Stone.