Atlanta returns for season 3 with an unforgettable double-header – The A.V. Club

Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry in season 3, episode 2 of Atlanta

Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry in season 3, episode 2 of Atlanta
Photo: Coco Olakunle/FX

At SXSW last week, Atlanta creator and star Donald Glover said he wanted season 3 to be a “Black fairytale.” That tracks with the show’s genre-skipping ethos, which has forayed into surrealism and horror, and the evolution of its characters, who may be about to taste the first mythical fruits of rap superstardom. The full extent of that remains to be seen, but the first two episodes of season three cement Atlanta’s reputation as a classic-in-progress and one of the most daring and imaginative shows on television, period.

It’s been nearly four years since the end of season two, so, here’s a refresher: Earn (Glover) manages his cousin, the rising rapper Al “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry), basically because they’re cousins. Laconic philosopher sidekick Darius (Oscar nominee Lakeith Stanfield) is along for the ride, as is Earn’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz). The first two seasons followed them from struggle to breakout to the cusp of major success, and season three was publicized as taking place on a European tour.

But that’s not where we are as the season premiere begins.

The show has gone Gothic before (particularly in last season’s exceptional “Teddy Perkins”) and has turned away from its main characters to do nearly anthology-style episodes. But not much can prepare you for “Three Slaps,” a retelling of the Devonte Hart story, about a while female couple who killed themselves and their six Black foster children in 2018.

The episode exactly replicates certain aspects of the real-life tale (Devonte’s fedora, his tearful clinch with a cop) while filling in the blanks with exceptional economy and tension. The script, by Stephen Glover, also includes the show’s trademark pitch-dark irony: When the Devonte-inspired character, Loquareeous (now nicknamed “Larry”), is standing at a farmer’s market wearing a sign that says “Free Hugs,” a white man asks him, “Is your dad Hugs?”

Things don’t end exactly like the true-life Hart story, and it’s unclear if the entire unfolding was happening in someone’s mind (Earn’s?) or in some parallel universe. But that doesn’t detract from its impact as an indictment of the foster system, the cruelty that can lie beneath well-meaning, and the obliviousness of onlookers. I haven’t been able to get this episode out of my mind for days. It haunts and reverberates, producing the same kind of prolonged hangover HBO Sunday night dramas once did.

Episode two finds the group in Amsterdam. Having picked up two fans who proceeded to trash his hotel room, Paper Boi sits in a very posh jail (which, in Amsterdam, apparently look like a slightly elevated Residence Inn, complete with room service menus provided by solicitous cops—an excellent sight gag).

LaKeith Stanfield in season 3, episode 2 of Atlanta

LaKeith Stanfield in season 3, episode 2 of Atlanta
Photo: Coco Olakunle/FX

Meanwhile, Van shows up, adrift after a professional disappointment, and she and Darius trip around the city. A crumpled-up address found in a thrift-store coat leads them to sort of a deathbed cocktail party, as a man’s loved ones and his “death doula” have gathered to celebrate his final moments. There, Van receives existential counsel from the doula: “You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

Once Earn bails out Paper Boi, the focus turns to the preparation for that night’s show, and Paper Boi wonders what’s up with all the Dutch people wandering around in blackface. Their driver explains that it’s a local holiday tradition to dress up as “Black Pete,” Sinterklaas’ assistant. “Sounds like Santa’s slave, but I respect the rebrand,” Paper Boi says, classically. (The script, by Janine Nabers, deserves a shout-out.) The Sinterklaas celebration complicates the gig that night and leads to a confrontation in the venue lobby that feels downright Kubrickian, one that only Atlanta would dare try.

Even beyond that, “Sinterklaas Is Coming To Town” includes one of the funniest and most darkly shocking moments in recent memory, and I won’t spoil it just in case you’re scanning this before watching. Coming at the close of the death-doula scene, it’s reminiscent of the best moments of Six Feet Under, only taken one step further. And that’s Atlanta: The show—like its characters—is really going places. It’s unclear where the twists of this fairytale will lead, but judging by these two episodes, they’re not to be missed.

Stray Observations

  • A low-key scene stealer in episode two: Darius’ coat.
  • Zazie Beetz makes a strong impression in episode two, turning in affecting work at the dying man’s bedside before The Big Twist.
  • Also excellent: Christopher Farrar as Loquareeous, the protagonist of “Three Slaps.”
  • The script for “Three Slaps” is award-worthy, but it’s hard to imagine it finding traction in comedy categories. A shame.
  • Donald Glover has announced that seasons three and four of Atlanta, which were shot concurrently, will be the last.

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