“FXs” Atlanta is like a box of chocolates,” he wrote, writing the whitest imaginable member for a review of FX’s Atlanta. “You never know what you’ll get.”
Coming back to the grossly misbehaving comedian’s self-proclaimed show that we’re not discussing anymore, the most intriguing part of the FX comedy brand was half-hour shows with no discernible format and no unique tone. Your Average Episode of Pamela Adlon’s better things can sometimes be three serious vignettes or one coherent and silly story, can focus on Adlons Sam or one of her daughters, can make you laugh or make you cry. Reservation Dogs is currently in the midst of an impeccable second season of episodes that have ranged from rambunctious road trip episodes to single-set meditations on grief.
It comes down to
You never know what you’ll get – in a good way.
None of these half-hour FX have exploited the possibilities of this grab bag flexibility as effectively as: Atlanta at its peak (although, again, Reservation Dogs comes mighty close), and no season of Atlanta steered in its potential for eclecticism as aggressively as the third. Over 10 episodes last spring, you freaked out Atlanta – he wrote, taking into account the most technologically outdated description of television viewing imaginable – and you did not know in which country the main characters would be. You didn’t know at all if the main characters would be in the episode.
Always a challenging show, in the best possible way, Atlanta season three was even more challenging, and even if i thought the season’s aggressive gambits mostly paid off – “santa claus is coming to town”, “the old man and the tree”, “cancer attack” and “tarrare” are all stone-cold classics, albeit among the season’s more “traditional” episodes – it’s easy to see why some viewers found it off-putting and why Emmy voters weren’t quite sure how to handle a previously favorite show. It was a long wait for Atlanta to return and find out what? Atlanta actually if it wasn’t a show about Earn, Alfred, Darius and Van, it was a difficult task.
The wait has been much shorter for the fourth and last one Atlanta season, which arrives on September 15, and the best service a critic can provide is to make sure fans know the series is back and then step away. I will of course do more than that.
I can offer quick reassurance that the gang is back in Georgia, a fact emphasized by the premiere’s title, “The Most Atlanta.” The three episodes sent to the critics all feature an assortment of the lead characters, but given that the show improved the visibility of all of its stars, it’s not surprising that LaKeith Stansfield’s Darius is used sparingly and Van Zazie Beetz only appears in the premiere. That doesn’t mean they won’t be back or that there won’t be individual episodes later in the season, nor does it mean that the grab bag approach has completely disappeared.
“The Most Atlanta” was written by Stephen Glover and directed by Hiro Murai and it is absolutely top notch Atlanta, the rare recent episode where all four main characters have full storylines. It’s a comedic slice of existential absurdism in which Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) mourns a favorite underground rapper, Darius tries to return an air fryer, and Earn (Donald Glover) and Van visit a phone shop on Atlantic Station. It has elements of droll horror, shades of Jean-Paul Sartre – I called it “No Exes” in my notes, which will make sense later – and it’s a better twilight zone episode than anything in the recent reboot of the twilight zone. This creature Atlantamuch of the plot is pushed forward by elements of racial misunderstanding and, as has been the case recently, an intrusive “Karen” serves as both villain and catalyst.
The second episode – “The Homeliest Little Horse” written by Ibra Ake and Angela Barnes – is also Karen-driven, but it’s also the most Earning-driven episode in a while. Glover received a somewhat quirky Emmy nomination for lead actor this year for a season in which he was barely a supporting player, but this is a prime showcase for his dramatic depth. Exploring Earn’s experiences in therapy, the episode feels like an interrogation of the “Karen” phenomenon—both about the scapegoating process and an evasion technique, if anything. It’s some of Glover’s best acting to date and I appreciated that the episode seemingly answers some questions that go back to the show’s origins and then makes you wonder what you think you’ve learned.
As for the Jamal Olori scripted Adamma Ebo-directed third episode – yes it’s a third installment with a Karen-adjacent storyline, but it’s more of a semi-surreal exploration of current music and celebrity, an extension of the way on which the show has covered A-listers like Justin Bieber, Michael Vick and Tupac over the years. My review of the third season mentioned how many times Atlanta seems to be talking to itself these days, and this episode feels like it could be a funny, effectively weird culmination of the show’s interrogation of the ephemeral natural of “stardom.”
I feel like that gives you the shape of the early part of the season without spoiling the discovery experience that remains the hallmark of the show. I loved the first episode and found a lot of things to think about and enjoy in the next two, and I liked how they played like an extension of where we ended up in the third season. After treating Europe as the ultimate example of alien terrain, one in which our heroes are confused by their surroundings and their surroundings confused by them, the fourth season brings it all back home – and, guess what, it’s still becoming no world in which they are comfortable or are consistently welcomed. That ubiquitous unease, equal parts hilarious and nightmarish, can be Atlanta‘s ultimate commentary on storytelling and contemporary America. I plan to enjoy this final eight-episode series, whatever they may be.