In the eighth episode of Atlanta’s second season, Paper Boi, née Alfred, gets advice from a female friend; has a violent encounter with young male fans; and experiences an existential breakthrough while lost and alone, a series of events obliquely linked to the memory of his late mother. In the eighth episode of Atlanta’s third season, history repeats itself.
“New Jazz,” the latest chapter of Donald Glover’s shape-shifting half-hour, is not a beat-for-beat remake of “Woods,” its clear predecessor. Al is in Amsterdam now, having left his hometown behind for a headlining tour in Europe. The order of events is slightly scrambled; Al flees a menacing crew of British hooligans before he meets Lorraine (Ava Grey), a gregarious font of unsolicited advice. Liam Neeson shows up. Still, the episode is clearly meant to evoke an earlier entry in Atlanta’s canon, right down to its place toward the end of the season.
After a four-year absence, Atlanta’s third outing is a radical departure for a show that already allowed itself near-total freedom. Several episodes are completely stand-alone, eschewing the main cast entirely for isolated vignettes about race, family, and the weight of history. The episodes that do follow Al’s rap career, the ostensible core of the show, take place thousands of miles from the city that gives Atlanta its name. The season has the feel of a thought experiment: What’s Atlanta without Atlanta?
At the same time, Atlanta has never seemed more self-reflexive, constantly referencing its own past even as it pointedly breaks from it. “The Old Man and the Tree” is set entirely at a wealthy man’s house party, just like “Champagne Papi”; “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town” played on the creepy, racist feel of old European iconography, just like “Helen.” “New Jazz” is only the most extreme example of Atlanta echoing its former self. Maybe that tactic is how Glover and his creative team want to weave their deliberately scattered parts into a cohesive whole; maybe it’s a structural nod to how our past haunts our present, from the childhood trauma of “Teddy Perkins” to the uneven playing field “The Big Payback,” before full-blown reparations smooth it out. Atlanta loves its ambiguity, so the answer is likely a little of both.
Despite starring as Earn, Al’s cousin and manager, and directing “Trini 2 De Bone,” a New York–set story about a Black nanny’s lasting impact on her white clients, Glover has been surprisingly absent from Season 3’s script credits. “New Jazz” marks his return, and it’s a fitting one. Callbacks aside, Atlanta’s latest incarnation has otherwise eschewed one of the show’s prior hallmarks: spotlight episodes that focus on a single character, whether Earn (“The Jacket”) or his coparent Van (“Value”) or, most often, Al (“B.A.N.,” “Barbershop,” and now “New Jazz”). Only four of this season’s first seven episodes even featured the main cast at all, and when they did, it was always as a group.
That absence makes “New Jazz” a much-needed opportunity to check in on Atlanta’s core tension: Al’s fundamental ambivalence toward his career, despite—or, rather, because of—the fame and fortune it’s brought him in spades. Thanks to the events of “Cancer Attack,” we know Al is suffering from writer’s block; instead of feeling inspired by his new surroundings, he’s cut off from the source of his inspiration. Al’s contentious relationship with entitled, overeager fans is longstanding. But in the first minutes of “New Jazz,” Atlanta introduces a wrinkle into the once-pristine fabric of the show’s purest friendship. When Al asks Darius to split the bill at a coffee shop, Darius simply thanks him for the treat, laying bare the transactional nature of what may be his closest relationship. Earn may be his manager, but Darius, too, is effectively on his payroll.
Letting bygones be bygones, Al opts to join Darius on his latest adventure: snacking on “Nepalese space cakes,” a mysterious drug Darius speculates is likely “weed mixed with Nepalese hallucinogenic honey,” though no one but a few monks in Denmark truly knows what they contain. On the way, Al spots a man in a Disney-issue Goofy hat slumped in a doorway, having some kind of episode. “That’s a tourist,” Darius shrugs. “Al, don’t be like him.”
Undeterred, Al takes the cake, but he barely gets a few minutes of blissed-out strolling to Stereolab before the real world harshes his buzz. He loses Darius somewhere in the Red Light District, where a sex worker takes a picture from her window without his consent. Then the Brits show up. Al flees into a museum, though he doesn’t realize at first that the sobbing woman inside is doing performance art. That’s where he meets Lorraine.
It’s clear from the start Lorraine isn’t just your average stranger clamoring for time with a rap star. For one thing, she says she hates rappers; she also manages to actually stick by the side of someone who’s grown adept at dodging people he doesn’t want to be around—i.e., most people. After calling out Al’s fancy, wide-brimmed hat, which Darius complimented a few hours earlier, Lorraine offers him a Goofy one instead—the same cap he’s seen on tourists around town, including the man in the door. “Become what you fear,” she advises.
From the museum, Lorraine brings Al to the namesake “new jazz” club, where he encounters Neeson at the bar. Neeson then pontificates on the bizarre interview he gave in 2019, in which he described his response when someone close to him told him she was raped by a Black man. This season of Atlanta keeps coming back to the way racism scars and warps not just Black people but also white people, and Neeson is no exception. “The best and worst part of being white is, we don’t have to learn anything if we don’t want to,” he tells Al.
When Al and Lorraine leave the club, it’s suddenly light out. (While they were in the museum, the sun abruptly went down; those Nepalese space cakes appear to bend time.) That’s when she gives Al a talking-to she shouldn’t have the knowledge, let alone the right, to dispense: “Your friends, they let you wear that shit hat,” she says. “They don’t pay for shit. You got family handling the most important parts of your fucking finances, your future. All of them, all of them got a vested interest in you not seeing the truth.” She sounds not unlike the old man Al once met in the woods—the one who told him he’s just like his mom.
Sure enough, Al’s mother once again proves the skeleton key to his latest vision quest. In “Woods,” he hears her voice when he first wakes up; in “New Jazz,” he collapses on the street in the Goofy hat, becoming the very mess Darius warned him to avoid. He wakes up in his hotel room, just like Earn did at the end of the premiere, and asks for Lorraine. “Your mom?” Earn responds.
The reveal is a bit of a groaner, as is the use of Lorraine—this Lorraine, at least—as a kind of magical spirit guide. (Fans have long scrutinized Atlanta’s use of female characters; using one of the show’s few trans women largely to develop a male protagonist only adds to critics’ case.) But unlike the stand-alone plots, this twist is rooted in the larger story of Al’s ascent and what it means for his self-image. In the Season 2 finale, Al committed to Earn as a manager, reasoning that family alone could be trusted to watch his back. Now, Earn may have risen to the occasion a little too well. When Al asks who owns his masters, Earn promises that Al does. It’s not clear we’re supposed to trust him.
In a season that’s otherwise pushed the show in new directions, “New Jazz” feels like Atlanta getting back to basics, not to mention its larger plot. We still don’t know what’s up with Van’s strange behavior, or whether Al will get his creative mojo back. But “New Jazz” does articulate the tensions that come with the crew’s acclimation to its new altitude. Now a smooth operator, can Earn hold on to the loyalty that made Al keep him close in the first place? And if Al can’t rely on Earn or Darius to tell it like it is, who’s left to keep him anchored? These are questions Atlanta has mostly deferred this year in favor of larger observations about Blackness and culture. Just in time for the home stretch, they’re finally back at center stage.