The long-delayed third season of Atlanta just ended, a good four years after the series’ renewal, and unsurprisingly it’s well worth the wait. While definitely a more erratic season, it’s also more ambitious and every bit as thought-provoking, steering the show further into an unbalancing Twilight Zone anthology format as a means of amplifying its potent social commentary. Not every experiment works, but the show absolutely deserves plaudits for conducting them, and they have a distinct cumulative impact.
Season two ended with Earn (Donald Glover), Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) jetting off to Europe for Paper Boi’s first international tour. Joltingly, season three lands the crew in Europe, but years later. Paper Boi’s star has risen, propelling him to a celebrity status that has leveled up Earn’s problems managing his career. In many ways, success hasn’t changed the group: Earn is still the hustling organizer, Paper Boi the eye-rolling, no-bullshit rapper, and Darius the ecletic free spirit drifting quirkily on the periphery. But success isn’t without costs or transforming effects, and the trio’s next-level problems play out in intense, unpredictable ways against the fish-out-of-water backdrop of metropolitan Europe.
Forgive me for resorting to baseball metaphors, but they’re just too useful here: if Atlanta made a name for itself with consistent, exciting contact hitting, season three swings for the fucking fences. Occasionally it rings one off the foul pole or gets picked off sliding into third, but wow, there are plenty of home runs. Based on the headlines I’ve glimpsed over the past several weeks, there’s been plenty of talk – mostly griping – about Atlanta’s recent over-commitment to the anthology format. Indeed, four of the ten episodes here either downplay the principal characters or don’t feature them at all. These episodes do tend to be didactic, but they’re also inventive, memorable, and fascinatingly integrated into the season’s mosaic strategy. Most successful of the standalone tales is probably the opener, “Three Slaps,” which sets an unnerving, dream-like tone with an opening scene right out of Stephen King before detouring into the insigthful story of Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar), a young student whose harmless over-enthusiasm unexpectedly thrusts him into the foster care of opportunistic white liberal parents. It seems an odd way to resume the series after long absence, but it turns out to be a smart move, preparing the viewer for the surreal roller-coaster that follows. Atlanta’s first two seasons broke new ground, but season three aims to break it yet again, and the one-off episodes – which feel a little like Jordan Peele horror movies or Black Mirror epsiodes – are part of its unusual strategy.
Meanwhile, what about the gang? Their exploits in Europe calculatedly situate them in unfamiliar territory, giving the racial issues new cultures to clash against. “Sinterklaas is Coming to Town” delivers Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) to Amsterdam, only to hook up with Darius on a bonkers, roll-with-it adventure with a shocking climax. “The Old Man and the Tree” pits Paper Boi against a petty billionaire in his secret luxury compound. My personal favorite is probably “Cancer Attack,” which takes place in a Budapest music venue; there, Paper Boi’s phone is stolen, leading to a quasi-procedural investigation to retrieve it. This one perfectly mixes Atlanta’s oddball humor with subtle messaging, and features a bravura guest appearance from Samuel Blenkin as the chief suspect in the theft. Rounding out the year, though, is the incredible “Tarrare,” which finally resolves the running mystery of Vanessa’s aimless European vacation – an ongoing question mark throughout the year. Lurching wholesale into surrealism, “Tarrare” is an outrageous escapade during which Van runs into old friends in Paris while affecting the persona of Audrey Tautou’s character in Amelie. It’s an outre, dream-like metaphor that brilliantly ties together the loose ends of Van’s story this season – and, as a bonus, features a hilarious celebrity cameo from Alexander Skarsgård.
All told, Atlanta’s third season – which detractors might rightfully describe as perverse or uneven – is also intense, shocking, frequently unexpected, and consistently funny and insightful. This season really goes for it, and as such may ultimately wind up being Atlanta’s most memorable.