Atlanta” isn’t in Atlanta anymore. But it’s still just as good.

by | Jun 27, 2022 | All, Reviews

Atlanta has always been a genre-defying show. The pilot episode leads you to believe otherwise, that the series is a straightforward comedy-drama following the rise of Atlanta rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and his cousin/manager Earn (series creator Donald Glover) Quickly, though, the series establishes an almost plotless rhythm. We know that the lives of the main characters are changing, but we don’t see it on screen. What we do see is the characters thrust into ludicrous situations, allowing the series to get increasingly experimental and to dabble in a whole array of genres ⁠— satire, horror, stream-of-consciousness. Throughout those first two seasons, though, the roots of Atlanta were always in absurdism.

The plotlessness of Atlanta makes that clear. Absurdism as a movement emphasizes the incomprehensibility of life and the feeling of being stuck in a world that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In Atlanta, somehow things are constantly happening to the characters, but nothing ever really changes. They’re just stuck. That “stuckness” manifests itself most clearly in the form of racism and the Black experience in America. Even as the characters’ lives are altered around them, they still have to constantly deal with the same racial prejudice over and over again, as if nothing of substance has actually changed at all. In the hands of different creators, these themes may have felt over-emphasized, but Atlanta pulls it off largely because of the writers’ adept understanding of satire and comedy for making those points.

Atlanta (the place) serves as an important backdrop for the series and its themes throughout the first two seasons. Atlanta is a city of paradoxes, where the ultra-rich and ultra-poor ⁠— where white and Black communities ⁠— exist both together and separately, often just a few blocks from each other. The city itself is both a setting and a symbol of the systems of racial prejudice that leaves the main characters feeling so stuck.

The show’s third season  has taken four years to get to screen. Glover’s star has risen, and the rest of the cast has been busy on the other projects. Throwing a global pandemic in the mix to further complicate matters it’s actually a miracle we’ve got this at all.  This season abandons Atlanta as a setting in favour of Europe. It begs the question, if Atlanta represents the physical space these characters have been literally and figuratively stuck in for so long, what happens when they escape?

The first episode of Atlanta season 3 is a brilliant standalone episode based on a disturbing true story.

The first two episodes, taken together, provide an answer. The season premiere is largely a standalone episode ⁠— a horror story about Loquareeous, a young Black child who’s taken away from his home after a white school counsellor sees his grandfather slap him. But the home he’s taken to, that of a white lesbian couple who live a very “alternative” lifestyle, is worse, and he is eventually forced to escape back to his initial home. It’s symbolic in a lot of ways, as various white people try to act as saviours for him, only for him to end up right back where he started. Like the main characters in Atlanta, systematic racism has trapped him in a cyclical horror story.

That all turns out to be a nightmare, though, one from which Earn wakes up in Copenhagen, a year after we last saw him. The nightmare, at first, appears to symbolize his previous life in Atlanta, before Paper Boi reached his new level of success. Now that he’s woken up from it, he’s escaped out of that cycle, right?

Atlanta’s third season quickly establishes that the absurdism that kept the characters stuck extends far beyond Atlanta ⁠— far beyond America even. They have now literally “made it out,” but they continue to find themselves dealing with the same absurdist situations as before, and the same absurd racism as before ⁠— blackface, negative stereotypes, white saviorism, etc.

The episode set in Amsterdam is one of the best of the season.

In one episode, Al (Paper Boi) gets high in Amsterdam and is swept from location to location by a mysterious stranger who at first seems to be imparting wisdom. In the end, though, he literally ends up right back where he started. What you might expect to be a life-changing experience is anything but. In another episode, Earn’s ex Van (Zazie Beetz) escapes for a new life in Paris ⁠— in the style of Amélie ⁠— only to realize that as hard as she tries, her former life isn’t as escapable as she might want. In multiple episodes, Paper Boi and Earn meet Black “activists” who seem more interested in taking advantage of rich white people than they are in enacting real change. At the same time, though, Paper Boi and Earn feel unable to enact real change themselves.

Atlanta explores all of this with the same clever and hilarious satirical nature it’s always had. In its third season, though, it pushes its experimental nature even further, and while it never gets truly scary, horror as a touchstone re-appears consistently throughout the season.

Those elements of horror are most clear in the season’s four standalone episodes. Each explores a facet of Blackness or race relations in a more obvious way than the main plotline. They’re all effective in their own right, but besides the season premiere, which has a clear connection to the second episode, the other standalone stories don’t feel quite as connected. In some ways, they feel more like recommended reading that compliments the themes of the series but doesn’t have a clear necessity. It’s also a simple fact that the standalone episodes take away almost half of the season from the main plotline, and with such a compelling main cast, it’s difficult to justify that as a creative decision.

Overall, though, Atlanta’s third season continues the impressive creative streak set in place by the first two and takes it to new settings and new genres without ever losing what made it effective in the first place.

Atlanta is available in the UK on Disney+

Jakob Cansler

Jakob Cansler

27/06/2022

Jakob Cansler is a writer of all things pop culture and politics based out of Washington, DC. He's also an avid crossword player and bagel consumer.

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