‘Atlanta’ Is Back! (Again)

After a divisive third season, Donald Glover’s FX show runs its victory lap

Does the fourth and final season of TV’s Atlanta return the show to glory?

That depends on whether you think it ever fell off in the first place.

The FX series – which helped make entertainment moguls out of its co-creators Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), Stephen Glover, and Hiro Murai–shot its final two seasons back-to-back amid pandemic protocols. It took four long years for these two seasons of TV to arrive, but that didn’t deaden anticipation: Season 2 yielded “Barbershop,” “Teddy Perkins,” and “FUBU,” three episodes of television that soared above pretty much anything else on television in 2018.

Then came Season 3 earlier this year.

What audience members expected was a season of misadventures and observations on transcontinental racism as the show’s four leads (Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Zazie Beetz and LaKeith Stanfield) went to Europe for a tour cashing in on the rising success of rapper Paper Boi (Henry).

Some of that was there. But only for about half the episodes. The other half, starting with the Season 3 premiere “Three Slaps,” went on wild tangents with entirely new casts of characters. These one-of episodes told stories about appalling child abuse, Black caregivers as substitute parents, college race-based admissions, and reparations as if they were go-for broke, alternate-reality Black Mirror episodes. And even the episodes featuring the show’s big stars weren’t set in Atlanta. You know, the city that gives the show its name and vibe?

Not everyone was impressed. Viewership dropped significantly (to be fair, they dropped gradually during Season Two’s excellent run as well). The show that could do no wrong was suddenly it the crosshairs of critics and Black Twitter for its highly experimental third season.

Season 4 isn’t a response to that criticism; they shot it alongside the previous season. But almost as if the ever-prescient Glover and crew knew what the reaction would be, Atlanta Season 4 resets immediately back to the things that viewers loved about the first two seasons. The premiere, “The Most Atlanta,” has three converging storylines that are as funny and weird as anything that came before. Paper Boi goes on an extended scavenger hunt put together by a rapper named Blueblood before his death. It’s inspired by the death of MF Doom, a rapper’s rapper whose death wasn’t announced until months after it happened. Earn and Val find themselves in a haunted mall full of their exes. And Darius is chased by a white woman on a slow scooter who thinks he stole an air fryer. Surreal, hilarious, a little spooky; it’s indeed “The Most Atlanta.”

The second episode, “The Homeliest Little Horse” also has two storylines, but it’s not until the ending’s gut punch that it becomes clear how they connect. At first, it feels like a throwback to Season 3 with a new white character we’ve never seen before. But as the other half of the episode unrolls, detailing Earn’s struggles in therapy to figure out why success and money have only made him more anxious and unhappy, we learn how he connects to the other storyline. It’s a dark shocker of an ending that lays out Earn’s motivations in ways the show has only hinted at before.

“Born 2 Die,” the third episode, is a rollicking satire about what happens to rappers like Paper Boi when they age out. A seminar for musicians about the term “YWA” (Young White Avatar) leads Paper Boi to the Grammys but not in a way we could have ever expected. It’s hilarious and whip-smart, but like “The Most Atlanta,” it also adds shadings to Paper Boi’s worries about his legacy and what happens when the gravy train stops.

It’s possible Season 4 will pivot back to its ambitious one-off style of storytelling; it’s certainly not a show that has ever been predictable from week to week. But so far, Atlanta’s last season feels like it’s moving past that whole Season 3 controversy to give its lead characters more to do and to continue giving more insight into the American Black experience than any comedy on television has done before.

If you bailed during Season 3, it’s time to return to Atlanta.

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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