Season two of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” ended in 2018, leaving many fans of the comedy drama out to dry for the past four years. In the first two seasons, the show loosely follows Earnest Marks (Donald Glover), an aspiring manager for his cousin, Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), also known as Paper Boi. The show’s early reception was generally positive, making waves with its wit and unabashed social commentary. However, the show’s unique strength lies in its ability to evoke feelings of the uncanny. The surreal atmosphere of isolation that surrounds the main cast owes as much to the acting and script as it does to Hiro Murai’s phenomenal directing. The show uses absurd and disquieting settings (racist frat houses, aged mansions, a massive expanse of woods, etc.) to emphasize the vast, out-of-place feeling that follows Earn, Al, Darius Epps (LaKeith Stanfield) and Vanessa Keefer (Zazie Beetz) wherever they go. Critics praise the first two seasons for giving a nuanced portrayal of the Black experience in mainstream media that is accessible and entertaining without shying away from the dark and uncomfortable.
The much-anticipated season three has finally arrived, releasing new episodes every Thursday at 10 p.m. EST since March 24. Season two ended with Paper Boi and the crew leaving on a flight to do a tour in Europe. Season three opens boldly with a double dream sequence, starting with the mysterious “white Earnest” giving a haunting monologue about whiteness. This scene jump-scare transitions into the life of Loquareeous, based on the true story of Devonte Hart. Loquareeous’ story sticks to the core events of the real-life account but takes serious liberties to emphasize a dreamlike progression with dark humor. There are some concerns as to whether the satirical and surrealistic portrayal of the events does justice to the gravity of the true story. Loquareeous and his siblings survive, while all the children in the Hart family were abused and died horrifically. While this is a welcome change compared to another display of Black pain and death in media, the Hart family story feels somewhat co-opted for thematic and aesthetic purposes. Whether these purposes justify altering the real-life incident is debatable. “Atlanta” has a style that often leaves interpretation and further consideration largely in the hands of the audience but always seems to achieve the effect of lasting shock and prolonged contemplation of racial and social issues.
Earn wakens at the end of episode one with learned indifference, numb to the absurdities of racism and violence that constantly surround him and the rest of the main characters. Episodes two, three, five and six follow Earn, Al, Darius and Van through their European tour, expanding the world of “Atlanta” beyond the United States. These episodes manage to delicately balance humor, character development and social commentary while maintaining the unnerving atmosphere characteristic of the show. Each substory and circumstance seems to test the limits of the characters in an expertly tailored way.
Darius, a mellow, comedic character, is pushed to the limits of his passivity. In episode three, Darius meets Socks, who twists a misunderstanding with a woman into an egregious act of racism. In episode six, Darius inadvertently leads a woman entrepreneur to buy a local Nigerian restaurant and displace the original owners. The show seems to use Darius’ relaxed approach to life as a contrast to the hyperawareness and absurdity of the world around him. Beyond his well-timed humor, Stanfield’s character embodies an almost spiritual attitude of passivity important for survival and sanity. In this way, Darius serves as a sage and support system for other characters in the show, most notably Al.
Henry is a huge standout, showing a range of full-blown anger to intense vulnerability throughout season three. Despite his outbursts, Al’s character develops further toward the vulnerability and goodwill established in seasons one and two. In episode five, writer Jamal Olori explores Al’s intimate past through a lonely, obsessed Paper Boi superfan. The episode provokes discussion on the possibility of empathy across racial lines while unveiling a struggling and desperate side of Al. In episode six, Earn inspires Al to use apology money from a racist incident at a European fashion label to start a “reinvest in your hood” campaign. Though Al resists complacency and holds to his values, he learns the difficult lesson that a true initiative for equity must be built with his own money and efforts.
Earn’s character continues to become more morally complex after slipping a gun into his rival manager’s carry-on at the end of season two. He scams the stage manager in episode two, makes a deal exploiting his friend in episode three and fabricates a lie for hotel security in episode six. Earn seems uncharacteristically tuned out and businesslike with all his dealings, except for with Van. Beetz makes her character seem elusive but extremely human, leaving the audience in suspense about her inner life and leaving Earn anxious and lonely. It would not be a surprise to see a future episode featuring Van’s perspective.
In episode four, the show takes a detour to make a satirical commentary on reparations, although it seems that the episode attempts to go much further than that. The show flips its surrealism to create a “white man’s dystopia” in which descendants of enslaved people can sue descendants of slave owners. Marshall Johnson, a well-to-do father and the first white protagonist of any episode in “Atlanta,” watches his life slowly fall apart due to a woman threatening to sue him for $3 million. Frantic ancestry research and extreme stereotyping push the episode further into the absurd, exploring the complications of reparations in practice. The second encounter with “white Earnest,” or “E,” throws off expectations in true “Atlanta” style. Viewers’ interpretations of this episode are entirely dependent on how much they pay attention to detail and how much credit they give to the writers and director. While E seems to be a voice of reason, his words are tainted with unnerving superstition and his jarring suicide. While someone could argue that the show’s mystification of the issue of reparations is unproductive or problematic, the show certainly makes a point to avoid oversimplifying it. If anything, the producers of “Atlanta” succeed in raising social and ethical questions and making people uncomfortable. The danger in the ambiguity of the episode is that an imperceptive or biased viewer may interpret the satire as a complete dismissal of the concept of reparations. More likely, the episode is yet another scathing critique of white liberalism and complacency, while expanding on the concept of whiteness addressed by E in episode one.
The start of “Atlanta” season three succeeds in making another entertaining and thought-provoking set of episodes that captivates its audience. Despite its brilliance, there is something to be said about choosing aesthetic or shock value over clarity and tastefulness. The show takes risks with some of its satire and surrealism in diminishing or convoluting its well-intentioned messages. However, regardless of controversy, “Atlanta” season three is worth watching to provoke laughter, fear and existential crisis.