Atlanta Review

Story by Will Chappell

This is the type of show that keeps its audience guessing as to what might be coming next week to a degree rarely seen, keeping us on the edge of our collective seat with anticipation.

After a four-year hiatus, Atlanta has returned to FX for season three, airing on Thursdays at 10 ET/9 CT. Two episodes in the third season continue to deliver the same mix of comedy, surrealism and cultural critique that made the first two seasons captivating television.

Atlanta follows the career of rising Atlanta rap star Paper Boy aka Alfred Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), his cousin and manager, Earnest Marks (Donald Glover), and his best friend Darius (LaKeith Stanfield.)

The show spends an almost equal amount of time using show creator Donald Glover’s reality-adjacent, surrealist version of Atlanta as a backdrop for the cast to embark on adventures that explore deeper questions about identity and belonging in 21st century America.

One episode in the first season was devoted to Paper Boy’s appearance on a fictional talk show, complete with fake ads lambasting the hollow stupidity of modern marketing. Another in season two was devoted to an Atlanta-area recluse styled after domineering show-business parents, like Joe Jackson, and questioned the demands of success and the complications in familial relationships dominated by the pursuit of it.

The third season starts with one of these episodes, clearly inspired by the real-life story of two Oregon mothers who neglected and abused their adopted, Black children before driving the entire family to their deaths off a cliff in California.

In the episode, Black middle schooler Loquareeous is taken from his family after a teacher at school witnesses his grandfather slap him three times following an in-class disruption. Child services deposits him in the home of Amber and Gayle, a kombucha-making couple with three other adopted Black kids and an odd problem with washcloths.

Throughout the episode, it becomes clear to Loquareeous and the viewer that something is very wrong in the household as Amber and Gayle’s finances and mental state begin to unravel. Loquareeous tries to appeal to authority figures for help, but in the end, his fate rests in his own hands.

The episode offers a rebuke of the white savior complex as well as a stinging critique of the racism inherent in the education and child protective systems. As in the real-life case of the Harts in Oregon, multiple warning signs and cries for help are ignored by white authority figures, who instead laud the parents for their racially diverse family.

Issues lurking behind the façade of white “wokeness” clearly are top of mind for Glover while making this season. After the first episode is revealed to be an extended nightmare of Earn’s, the second takes us into a bizarre day for Earn, exploring the same themes with Amsterdam is the backdrop.

After waking up in Denmark with a random woman, Earn is immediately thrown into crisis management mode upon learning that Paper Boy has been arrested in Amsterdam.

Four years after Paper Boy was an up-and-coming but tenuously successful rapper of local fame in Atlanta, he has emerged as an artist with international appeal. Rather than scrounging for money, Earn is now hiring vans for the entire crew, staying in luxury hotels, seamlessly coordinating the international transfer of a left-behind laptop
and demanding twenty thousand euros from a concert promoter to bail Paper Boy out of jail.

To begin, everything in Amsterdam seems copacetic as Paper Boy is treated like a hotel guest in jail, and fans cheer for his release. But as the episode goes on, racist undertones begin to emerge when Earn and Alfred begin to see a Dutch child on the back of a bicycle in full-on black face. This refers to the traditional Dutch Christmas character of Zwarte Piet, Santa’s helper, who has long drawn ire from international observers. Alfred and Earn’s driver explains that the character’s face is covered with soot, which both dismiss facetiously as “good rebranding.”

Throughout the day leading up to the show, more and more Dutch characters appear in black face, with issues coming to a head at the night’s performance.

So far, the season’s message seems to be that those who wish to be allies in the fight for racial equality ought not to be above questioning, as they may be harboring their own set of issues and threats to those they ostensibly aim to help.

Like the first two seasons of Atlanta, the third delivers entertainment in a way that is akin to nothing else on TV. Hiro Murai has directed the first two episodes and brings a chilling horror movie aesthetic to certain scenes and a sumptuous cinematographic quality.

This is the type of show that keeps its audience guessing as to what might be coming next week to a degree rarely seen, keeping us on the edge of our collective seat with anticipation.

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