Ekt’s hard to remember now, but back when Donald Glover’s peerless series first aired on FX in 2016 – a time before the release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out or Trump’s presidency – people thought they had a handle on it. A TV show named after a city famous for its music tradition, about an up-and-coming rapper named Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and his aimless cousin Earn (Glover), Atlanta (Disney+) looked set to be the Black version of country music soap Nashville. Or a quirky sitcom take on hip-hop melodrama Empire? Or like Lena Dunham’s Girls, but for boys?
In plaas daarvan, Atlanta has evaded expectations, rejected the norms of episodic television and generally roamed far and wide from its nominal home town, without ever crossing state lines. It is four years since the season two finale aired – a long gap even by post-pandemic standards – and Atlanta’s third season strays further than ever: Paper Boi and his entourage are touring Europe.
Eerste, wel, a standalone episode centring on a character we’ve never seen before: a schoolboy called Loquareeous. We don’t even meet him until after an opening scene, featuring two men – one white, one Black – floating on a dark lake in a fishing boat. It plays like a fable on America’s wilful obliviousness to its own history of racial violence. Toe, at the climactic moment, the action switches to a classroom where Loquareeous is asleep at his desk. He wakes to the happy news of a school trip to see Black Panther 2, “in an effort to promote more Black history in the curriculum”, but an overexuberant response lands him in the principal’s office. This sets in motion a chain of inept state interventions that lead to Loquareeous being taken out of his Black mother’s care and placed in the home of two apparently nurturing, white hippy women. Daar, the stench of brewing kombucha masks something far fouler.
These nightmares-within-nightmares have a surreal quality – Glover once jokingly described Atlanta as “Twin Peaks with rappers” – but are firmly rooted in historical fact. Lake Lanier, 50 miles north-east of Atlanta, really does hide beneath its waters the site of Oscarville, a former thriving Black community turned into a ghost town by KKK “night riders”. En, horrifically, in 2018, two white women really did drive their six Black adopted children off a cliff in an incident known as “the Hart family murders”. Their Facebook friends remarked on what a happy, wholesome family they seemed.
That’s how Atlanta is. Just when you think you’re watching a whimsical stoner-comedy, it grabs you like a dead hand reaching up from a haunted lake, and reminds you of the absurdist horror lurking beneath. Opening a new season with such a narrative non-sequitur would be a bold move for any other show, but here it makes perfect sense. This is television as likely to take inspiration from internet memes and 90s kids cartoons as from a Palme d’Or-winner’s canon.
Earn and the gang do turn up eventually, in appearances interspersed with more standalone episodes. Their encounters with the “Zwarte Peit” blackface tradition in Amsterdam, overzealous white allies in London and semi-cancelled Irish actor Liam Neeson (playing himself) promise to make this season a bracing watch for any non-Americans who smugly assumed “real racism” was a Trumpland-only phenomenon.
Character continuity has not lost out to these bigger themes. Earn has developed impressive professional self-assurance, though an embarrassing incident at airport security might be his karmic retribution for the season two finale. Van (Zazie Beetz), intussen, is on a quest for purpose, accompanied by mystic sidekick Darius (LaKeith Stanfield). When they find themselves at a Midsommar-esque deathbed vigil, surrounded by whispering people in white, Darius argues the dying man must be Tupac, while Van has her existential anxieties soothed by a beatific “death doula”. But only temporarily.
Outside the world of the show, Atlanta’s cast members have ascended to a higher realm. Henry is a Marvel superhero, Stanfield is Oscar-nominated and Beetz is in Brad Pitt’s latest, Bullet Train, while creator-star Glover has signed a deal with Amazon’s Prime Video that may see him get his own channel and announced that Atlanta is over. The fourth season, already filmed, will be its last. Not to come off too much like a Tupac-worshipping Dutch cult member, but the end is nothing to fear. Atlanta’s impact is such that it is sure to live on with us for ever.