After two critically acclaimed installments and a four-year hiatus, the third season of the FX series “Atlanta,” created by and starring Donald Glover, debuts with what one might imagine to be impossibly high expectations. But the endlessly clever series wastes no time in reasserting its dominance as one of the boldest shows on television. After all, “Atlanta” sets precedents, it does not follow them—not even its own. Subverting expectations has always been a key characteristic of the series, and of creator-star Donald Glover’s remarkably distinctive brand of humor, and that’s precisely how the new season avoids the lengthy shadow of its own accomplishments: coming entirely out of left field.
In a sense, the story at the core of “Atlanta” is the same as it ever was, following the misadventures of Earn (Donald Glover) as he manages the burgeoning rap career of his cousin Alfred aka “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry) and juggles a tumultuous on-again off-again relationship with Van (Zazie Beetz), with whom he shares a child. The human puzzle box known as Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) also continues to be along for the ride, inexplicable and fascinating as ever. However, it is not until the second episode of the new season, “Sinterklaas is Coming to Town,” that we actually reconnect with the whole crew—abroad in the Netherlands, as part of Paper Boi’s European tour. Season three boldly begins with a bottle episode, “Three Slaps,” a fever dream that only links back to the main continuity and any familiar faces in its closing minutes.
Many shows try to break rules, but few do so as gracefully as “Atlanta.” It is episodic to an extent rarely seen outside of a sitcom, although it never adheres to the strict plot rules that identify sitcoms. The series has already established its disinterest in maintaining a tight continuity—most notably, in '90s flashback episode “FUBU,” which featured an entirely different cast and centers teenaged Earn and Alfred—and an interest in breaking with its own format with installments like “B.A.N.,” an episode of a fictional local talk show featuring Alfred as a guest, complete with fake commercials.
However, opening such a highly anticipated season with such a massive swerve still feels like raising things to a new level. The premiere’s description itself snarks, “I mean, I like this episode about the troubled kid but we waited 50 years for this?” Penned by Stephen Glover (Donald’s brother and frequent collaborator), “Three Slaps” feels at once sociopolitical commentary and self-skewering satire, taking the dream logic that is one of the few constants of “Atlanta” to its logical extreme. After a cold open featuring two men on a fishing boat satirizing the post-“Get Out” rise of utilizing horror to explore racism, the bulk of the episode follows the perilous misadventures of Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar), a precocious elementary schooler who gets sent to the principal for dancing on a desk, a minor infraction that snowballs into him ending up in the clutches of two wicked white lesbian foster mothers, whose house of horrors feels like six salacious half-remembered news stories blended together and brought to a boil.
As is typical for “Atlanta,” surreal twists and turns are consistently grounded by a brilliant use of detail: foster-mom’s version of “healthy” “fried chicken” is a drumstick dipped in a bag of flour and then microwaved until sufficiently rubbery; the way a white guy with obvious “listens to NPR” vibes approaches Loquareeous, forced to wear a “Free Hugs” sandwich board to advertise his captors’ kombucha stand at the farmer’s market, and earnestly asks, “Is Hugs your father?” Perhaps feeling that horror tropes for social commentary have gotten a bit too popular, “Three Slaps” leans specifically in the direction of a nightmarish fairytale, a morality tale of a child who learns a hard lesson.
“Atlanta” continues to be the sort of show that inspires laughter out of shock as much as anything else. One particular scene in the second episode is quite bold even by “Atlanta” standards—and, in keeping with the theme of subverting expectations, it is not part of the plotline dealing with the infamous Danish “Black Pete” tradition.
If there is any one quality that ties together the ever-ambitious series it is the tone. Donald Glover continues to be one of the most distinctive multi-hyphenates working and entertainment. As an actor, as a showrunner, even in the music he made under the stage name Childish Gambino, his particular comedic voice—somewhere between anxious and facetious, razor-sharp sociopolitical commentary combined with dream logic, a pile of seeming contradictions that meld together through the sardonic tone that somehow works like a universal solvent—rings through with a truly remarkable consistency. While I generally consider talk of auteurism poorly suited to a medium that is by nature incredibly collaborative, there does seem to be a particular Donald Glover signature that only grows more and more distinctive with time.
“Atlanta” in so many ways feels like it has been ahead of its time since it started. Such trendsetters do not always age well, particularly once they start to face competition, but despite the challenges of such a long hiatus, season three hits its stride straight out of the gate. It’s been nearly six years since “Atlanta” first premiered, and the stars of the core cast and creators have risen exponentially in the interim—there is an element of nostalgia in seeing them return to these roles at this stage—but the first installments of season three manage to strike an impressive balance between feeling congruent with earlier seasons and still fresh. The two episodes made available for review give little indication in terms of where the rest of season three might lead, but when the execution is this strong, it nonetheless makes a very compelling case to go along for the ride.
Two episodes screened for review. “Atlanta” season three premieres on FX on March 24, 2022 at 10 p.m. ET.