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The last new episode of FX’s Atlanta aired back in May of 2018.
Of all the extended hiatuses caused by COVID, production overhauls and general creative eccentricities, this one feels the longest. That’s probably because no other show on TV is doing the thing that Atlanta does, with its doses of humor, surrealism, horror, travelogue and hip-hop as genre-blending starting points for an uncomfortable exploration of racial identity in America. Even shows that have justifiably evoked comparisons to Atlanta — remarkable FX sibling Reservation Dogs comes to mind — represent more the potential to be the next Atlanta than occupying a place of actual peerage.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Thursday, March 24 (FX)
Cast: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz
Creator: Donald Glover
The uniqueness of the conversation Atlanta is having — or perhaps more appropriately, the uniqueness of the way that Atlanta is having that conversation — is evident in the first two episodes of the show’s upcoming third and penultimate season.
Those episodes, premiering at SXSW ahead of next week’s FX launch, could exist as part of no show other than Atlanta. They’re disturbing, bizarre and hilarious, but hilarious in a way in which no two people watching them are likely to laugh at the exact same moments or even think that the exact same moments are intended as humorous. But the episodes are also familiar — not because they feel derivative of any other piece of pop culture, but because they feel like they fit in with episodes that the show’s braintrust delivered in earlier seasons. And even then, the familiarity isn’t an example of self-plagiarism or creative fatigue, but rather the product of a show in conversation with itself, taking its own tones and ideas and recontextualizing them to different effects.
While creator/star Donald Glover said that the second season, with the subtitle “Robbin’ Season,” was inspired by the “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” episode of Tiny Toon Adventures, I took it more as an unnerving version of The Odyssey or The Inferno. The main characters — Glover’s Earn, LaKeith Stanfield’s Darius, Zazie Beetz’ Van and Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred/Paper Boi — spent most of the season stepping out of their respective comfort zones and having separate adventures in alienated and alienating environments where initial feelings of strangeness gave way to terrifying dread, coarse silliness, sheer absurdity and other sensations grounded in the experience of contemporary Blackness.
Shot largely in Europe, the third season seems poised to continue that journey.
But not at first.
The first episode back, “Three Slaps,” combines the fermented childhood innocence of the flashback “FUBU,” the encroaching eeriness of stone-cold classic “Teddy Perkins” and hints of the predatory white gentility of “Juneteenth,” mixed with the institutional distrust that has only grown during the show’s absence.
It includes maybe five seconds of our main characters, and it’s one of those episodes where both its funniest and weirdest bits will play better the less you know. Whether it’s actually a standalone episode or if elements will return later in the season, I can’t say; all I’ll reveal is that it focuses on a young kid unfairly thrust into the foster care system with freaky results. Jamie Neumann and Laura Dreyfuss deliver great guest performances and, as with “Teddy Perkins,” the episode features standout production design relating to a menacing house and a very gross use of poultry.
In both episodes, director/producer Hiro Murai shows his impeccable eye for finding the absurdity and the dread in the seemingly banal (and this feels like a good time to mention that if you still haven’t watched HBO Max’s Station Eleven, you’re overdue.
The second episode, smartly airing in tandem with the opener, begins the season’s European journey, centered mainly in Amsterdam, where you won’t be surprised to discover Darius feels very much at home. Because of weed.
In the episode, it’s up to Earn to prevent a Paper Boi performance from going wildly astray, while Van and Darius go on an adventure with surprising twists and a shocking conclusion. The episode includes shades of “Helen,” the Van-centric season 2 episode in which the European celebration of Fastnacht causes unexpected racial tensions in Georgia; here, American cultural experience causes problems amid a [racist as hell] celebration in Europe. Plus, the episode includes a crazy celebrity allusion reminiscent of how the show previously utilized “Justin Bieber” and “Michael Vick.” It’s much funnier than “Three Slaps,” but “funny” has never been the best way to judge a half-hour — well, more than a half-hour, since both episodes are 30+ minutes without commercial breaks — spent with Atlanta.
Two episodes are an insufficient sample size upon which to adequately review a season of Atlanta, but they’re more than sufficient to make one giddy at having Atlanta back. I missed Glover’s resigned incredulity, Stanfield’s dazed wisdom, Henry’s expressive exasperation and just about everything Beetz does with a part the creative team knows they can underwrite because she’ll fill in the gaps. This is the happiest I’ve been to have a long-absent show return since Better Things, and I don’t expect to be this grateful again until Barry next month. Man, entirely too many shows were gone for entirely too long.
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