Welcome Back, ‘Atlanta’

As the groundbreaking FX show returns after a four-year hiatus, we look at where it’s been and where it’s going.
Atlanta Season 3 Stanfield Beetz

What do you do with a show that’s already changed the medium completely? If you’re Donald Glover and the team behind Atlanta, you just keep making it better. FX has only provided press two episodes of the show’s 10-episode third season ahead of its premiere, not nearly enough to pass judgment on the season as a whole. But we don’t need to: we already know Atlanta is among the best and most innovative television the 21st century has to offer.

Still, after nearly four years off the air, these small windows into Atlanta Season 3 are a reminder of everything the show is. The episodes are edgy, unpredictable, and darkly funny. They’re profound in their explorations of race, mortality, and the absurdity of modern life. With Hiro Murai behind the camera, they’re technical marvels that make the practice of watching other, less artfully made TV shows feel a little bit like staring at a mud puddle. They’re uncomfortable. They’re scary.

The trailer for this season of Atlanta features a repeated, disembodied chant: “It’s after the end of the world: don’t you know that yet?” Though the refrain doesn’t echo through these first two episodes, I found myself thinking about it all day after watching them. Glover and his team — which includes his brother, Stephen Glover, and in the new season, an expanded writers’ room — have always written Atlanta as if the world was ending.

Season 1’s “Juneteenth” is a perfect exercise in alienation, a hilarious and unnerving indictment of rich, exploitative white people that feels like it’s in conversation with Get Out despite dropping months earlier. In Season 2, the show went full-tilt into horror with “Teddy Perkins,” a Whatever Happened To Baby Jane-inspired outing that aired with no commercial breaks and left viewers breathless and dumbfounded. The show has always incorporated sudden spurts of violence, and it trades in sudden tonal changes that make it far from a relaxed viewing experience, by design. Atlanta knows that, for its Black characters navigating this deeply racist, deeply weird modern society, any moment could bring the end of the world.

By Season 3, all these undercurrents have become overtones. Danger, destabilization, and outright horror don’t feel like the exception for Atlanta anymore, but the rule. A man tells a ghost story, then turns into a ghoul himself. A boy gets punished for dancing and ends up in the middle of a dread-inducing plot that pulls details from a real-life tragedy. A celebration of life in the middle of Amsterdam suddenly turns into something like a death cult. “It’s after the end of the world: don’t you know that yet?”

The season is set to follow rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), his cousin and manager Earn (Donald Glover), Earn’s ex Van (Zazie Beetz), and their friend Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) on a tour across Europe. It’s a little bit unusual to see a story picking up just weeks after a plot point we last saw an entire presidency and pandemic ago, but the European setting seems like a perfect conduit through which to filter these bizarre recent years. The footage available for screening is riddled with both small and significant moments of alienation. Earn has a cold, and all his sneezes are met with bizarrely aggressive “Gezondheids.” Al’s attempt at romance begets a sudden girl-on-girl brawl between two women who only speak Dutch. A European Christmas tradition turns out to be an excuse to participate in mass Blackface. Every moment feels sharp and uncanny.

Atlanta will soon wind down; its fourth season, already filmed, will be its last. Yet the show has already left a massive imprint on its medium. The series has never felt the need to explain anything about itself, from the intricacies of the Atlanta rap scene in which it’s set to the existence, in Atlanta’s world, of invisible cars and a Black Justin Bieber. Other bold, excellent shows have appeared since, rooting themselves in singular perspectives and refusing to hand-hold ignorant white audiences who are used to being the default. Atlanta has also toppled the long-crumbling border between comedy and drama shows, throwing in several other genres for good measure along the way.

The show has done what few shows can these days, shaking up a medium that’s been trucking along for the better part of a century. It’ll be hard to say goodbye, but it’s also thrilling to realize that — with that fourth, final season coming this fall — this small screen miracle is only halfway over. Welcome back, Atlanta. You’ve been missed.

Atlanta Season 3 premieres on FX and Hulu on March 24th.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)