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‘Atlanta’ Comes Home in Location, but Not in Spirit

The FX series has fundamentally changed since it premiered in 2016, with the final season confirming its predecessor was not an anomaly—even if things feel a bit more focused this time around

FX/Ringer illustration

Atlanta loves to play with the audience’s expectations, a tendency its third season elevated to extreme sport. Despite a four-year absence, the premiere briefly reunited us with only one member of the core cast, a preview of several detours to come. When Al, Earn, Van, and Darius did appear onscreen, it was on a European tour, an entire ocean away from Atlanta’s ostensible setting. Even the episode descriptions had a prickly, playful vibe, almost daring fans to take issue with the abrupt overhaul: “Wow it’s been a minute…we waited 50 years for this?”; “This one was cool…Season 1 was better”; “Sometimes shows just be over my head acting fake deep.”

Despite the devil-may-care attitude, Atlanta made at least one concession to those put off by the sudden change. Led by creator and star Donald Glover, Atlanta’s production team wrote and shot the show’s final two seasons as a single block. Season 3 was polarizing, and deliberately so; it could also afford to be—not just because of the show’s prior track record, but because it wouldn’t stand alone for long. Just four months after Van declared her intention to leave Paris behind and return to the States, Atlanta is back, and back in Atlanta.

It’s in gambling’s nature to not always pay off. With some distance and the perspective that comes with it, we can admit that Season 3’s naysayers weren’t just knee-jerk reactionaries put off by change. It turns out that big swings are easier sells when made by faces we know, telling stories we’re attached to. But even beyond the Black Mirror–esque anthology episodes, Atlanta’s typically sharp edge could be disarmingly blunt. For every “The Old Man and the Tree,” a classic caper set at a billionaire’s house party, there were episodes like “White Fashion,” which featured a clumsy commentary on cultural appropriation. (Darius introduces a white woman to jollof rice; minutes later, she’s selling it herself. The subplot makes a fair point, but in a straightforward way that undercuts Atlanta’s typically oblique MO.) The stars’ real-life fame could also mingle awkwardly with Atlanta’s cynical look at stardom: Brian Tyree Henry recently shot an ad for Citi that seemed to echo an in-show commercial meant to skewer faux-progressive corporations.

By returning to its home turf, Atlanta sets up an easy, simple narrative: by going back to the place and people it knows, the show goes back to the humor and storytelling that made it a phenomenon. But if there’s any show that resists simple narratives, it’s Atlanta, which avoids linear plotting like the plague. So it’s fitting that the reality is a bit more nuanced. The three episodes screened for critics in advance suggest the fourth season of Atlanta is more consistent and focused than the third, though it retains some of the choppy, disjointed feel of its journey abroad. It’s not that Season 3 was an anomaly; it’s that Atlanta’s back half is fundamentally different from its first, a split that appears increasingly entrenched as the show heads toward its conclusion.

The shift reflects the circumstances of the characters. When Atlanta began, Earn was a college dropout working at the airport, Al a dealer with a single gaining minor traction. With its invisible cars and Black Justin Biebers, Atlanta has always had a surreal streak. (Glover famously billed the project as “...Twin Peaks with rappers.”) But that surrealism was always an accent to the grinding all-too-realism of everyday subsistence. Van spends an episode scrambling to pass a drug test to keep her day job as a teacher, because her daughter’s other parent doesn’t have a reliable income; Earn spends the Season 1 finale searching for the key to the storage unit he’s illegally occupying. Atlanta juxtaposed these struggles with celebrity basketball games and bashes at Drake’s house, but these interludes were exceptions to the norm, capturing the contradictions of life on the come-up.

Starting in Season 3, though, glitz and glamor are no longer the exception. Al can afford to put down tens of thousands in cash on a casual bet, while Earn seems legitimately competent as a manager, handling problems in seconds that would previously take entire episodes. This remains the case in Season 4, where we get more of a sense of what the gang’s new lives are like off the road. Al says he now headlines arena tours, a scale of success even bigger than the venues he played in Europe. Earn is in therapy, which Al scoffs is an obvious sign of “how rich I’m making you.” The only one unchanged is Darius, who attempts to return an air fryer to a Target being looted in the premiere’s opening scene.

Such developments account for the show’s shifting tone. Earn’s and Al’s lives are increasingly absurd, and so is Atlanta, whose humor has grown bigger and broader with time. The show now operates under a kind of cartoon logic—not that cartoons are anything new on Atlanta. A B plot where Earn and Van encounter their exes at a haunted mall doesn’t even try to sneak up on us; in later episodes, Al and Earn run intricate schemes that condense months of time into mere minutes. Notably, these stories often lack the suspense and surprise of the first two seasons, a quality that seems to reflect our heroes’ jaded points of view. They’ve adjusted to their new altitude, and barely bat an eye at what used to shock them.

Yet Atlanta’s highs are higher once it’s back on terra firma. Al’s scavenger hunt in pursuit of a deceased rapper is a delightful rabbit hole (the QR code tattoo is a brilliant touch) that still addresses the epidemic of performers who have passed before their time. Putting Earn in a professional context as one talent manager among many at a mid-sized firm allows for the return of Glover’s impeccable reaction face: incredulous, understated, and unable to express the full scope of his exasperation. Season 4 retains some of the anthological energy of its predecessor, even if it isn’t officially an anthology; much of the second episode follows a character who connects to the main action only in the final minutes. For the most part, though, these plotlines build on one another without the threat of a sudden break in momentum, making this season more immersive.

There are off-screen factors that could account for Atlanta’s evolution: the extended hiatus after the Season 2 finale; the global pandemic, which affected everyone in unexpected ways; the sheer difficulty of staying ahead of the curve for over half a decade, enough time to give the rest of culture a chance to catch up. But Glover and his collaborators, from director Hiro Murai to writer Stefani Robinson, have always emphasized their intentionality. Whatever Season 3’s perceived faults, the Atlanta team clearly anticipated some pushback and chose to follow through. For their final act, they continue to proceed on their own terms. Atlanta isn’t what it was, nor does it want to be.