The Finale of 'Atlanta' Season 3 Offered More Questions Than Answers
After a Van-centric episode, Donald Glover's comedy pushed further into the unknown with a post-credits scene.
Even in its final episode, Atlanta's long-delayed third season resisted easy interpretation. After pivoting between provocative stand-alone episodes that didn't feature any of the original cast members and more character-focussed episodes following Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) on his European tour, the show split the difference with "Tarrae," a finale built around Zazie Beetz's Van that still managed to retain the same discombobulating energy of the season's one-off's. Unlike the finale to Season 2, "Crabs in a Barrel," this did not feel like an attempt to tie the season's disparate storylines together and set up future plotlines. Instead, the show waited until its closing moments to gesture towards what Season 4, which is due later this year, could hold.
Before that happened, "Tarrae," which was written by longtime Atlanta producer Stefani Robinson, felt like another opportunity to poke at the themes of race, class, and identity that the season has consistently addressed with droll humor and an eye for the absurd. Opening with Adriyan Rae's Candice, a friend of Van's last seen in Season 2's "Champagne Papi," discussing her plans (getting paid to pee on a guy she met online) for her time in France, the episode quickly turned into a quasi-mystery about Van, who we meet with an Amelie bob and a baguette sticking out of her bag. In perhaps unsurprising Atlanta fashion, the baguette eventually became a weapon used to attack a man refusing to hand over an important package Van wanted. The contents of the package? Human hands, which were cooked and prepared for a table of wealthy diners, including the actor Alexander Skarsgård, playing himself in a self-parodying fashion that's not too dissimilar from Liam Neeson's appearance earlier this season in the Paper Boi odyssey "New Jazz."
Pitched somewhere between farce and thriller, "Tarrae" finally gave Van a moment of self-reflection and clarity. All season, she's drifted in and out of the plot in a way that hinted at the character's fears, anxieties, and uncertainty about her place in the world. She flirted with Donald Glover's Earn and spent time with LaKeith Stanfield's Darius, but she always felt adrift, untethered from her life back in Atlanta, where her and Earn's daughter Lottie still lives, and disconnected from her friends pushing up against the messy contradictions of the music industry. "Earn knows who he is," she told Candice towards the episode's ending after finally dropping her faux-French accent and acknowledging her personal struggles. "Who the fuck am I? I don't even know." Since the Season 1 stand-out "Value," which was also co-written by Robinson and ended with Van getting fired from her job as a teacher, Van has always been searching for meaning, refusing to define herself only as a mother to Lottie or a partner to Earn. Though she disappears for long stretches, Van remains essential to the show's careful exploration of alienation and its yearning tone.
If the show had ended with Van's bewilderment, it would have felt like a fitting conclusion for what has been an often strange, occasionally maddening season. But in a post-credits scene, the type of move more typically reserved for Marvel shows, creator Donald Glover couldn't resist throwing one more curveball. After the credits, we saw a piece of luggage with Earn's name on it get removed from the back of a van. Earn arrives downstairs at the hotel and receives the bag, which he claims he's never seen before and doesn't belong to him. But his name is on it and the guy delivering it doesn't want the bag either, so he takes it back up to his room. (The writers used a similar device to end this season's "Trini 2 De Bone," which ended with a family portrait arriving in an envelope at the door of a white family who took their nanny for granted.)
When Earn arrives back in his room, things get really interesting. He opens the bag and removes a Deftones t-shirt, a plastic bag filled with pill bottles, and a framed family portrait. Though he's happy to get the shirt, he's mostly puzzled by the contents of the bag, which don't appear to have any great significance to him. (Worth noting: The finale of the second season also hinged on a piece of luggage with Earn slipping a gun into the bag of rapper Clark County and setting the stage for Paper Boi's ascendancy as an artist.) But when Earn gets up to leave, the camera zooms in on the face of the guy in the family portrait, who should be familiar to careful viewers of the series.
So, who exactly is that guy? It's a photo of actor Tobias Segal, who played the white guy telling the story of the flood at the beginning of the Season Three opener "Three Slaps." In that unnerving opening scene, he more or less turned into a demon after delivering his monologue about whiteness. ("With enough blood and money anyone can be white. It's always been that way," he said, a line that reverberates across many of the one-off parables this season.) The same actor also appeared in "The Big Payback" as a man, also named Earn, who shot himself in the head after telling that episode's white protagonist (Justin Bartha's Marshall) that slavery remains "a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts in a way we can't see."
Throughout the season, fans and critics have speculated that the stand-alone episodes might be Earn's dreams, an interpretation likely inspired by the way he woke up at the end of "Three Slaps." The post-credit scene complicates that reading, suggesting that lines between reality and fantasy within the universe of Atlanta aren't exactly as cut-and-dry as some might expect. Again, that tracks with the casually surreal approach the show has taken since the first season, back when an invisible car was just part of a typical night out. You have to assume that Season 4, which will debut later this year and will likely find the characters returning to their hometown, will answer some of these questions. At the same time, Glover and his team of writers might just introduce new ones. Like its main characters, Atlanta is still figuring itself out, but there's not much time left on the clock: Glover has said the fourth season will be the last. Though it's easy to imagine these actors reviving the series years from now, like David Lynch did with Twin Peaks (an oft-cited influence on Atlanta), Glover probably loves symmetry and the pleasures of a good punchline too much to let all the loose threads dangle.