'Atlanta' Is Still the Most Surprising Show on Television

After a nearly four year hiatus, FX's acclaimed comedy returns with an episode that barely features its famous creator Donald Glover.

donald glover in atlanta
FX

In the time since Atlanta premiered on FX in the fall of 2016, each of the four members of the show’s gifted ensemble has blown up in a way that occasionally mirrors but more often surpasses the ascendant career of Paper Boi, the hard-working street rapper at the series’s center. Brian Tyree Henry was in a Marvel movie, LaKeith Stanfield was nominated for an Oscar last year, and Zazie Beetz had roles in Deadpool 2 and Joker. Creator and star Donald Glover, who plays Paper Boi’s cousin and manager Earn, has hosted SNL, headlined major music festivals, voiced a CGI lion in a Disney movie, and signed a lucrative streaming deal with Amazon. He’s announced that Seasons 3 and 4, which were shot in succession and will both air this year, will be the show’s last. From one angle, it looks like everyone is ready to move on, potentially collecting a few more Emmys for the road.

But watching the Season 3 premiere, a provocative and dense episode titled “Three Slaps,” one is left with the feeling that Glover and his collaborators, including the episode’s writer Stephen Glover (Donald’s brother) and its director, executive producer Hiro Murai, have more stories to tell. This is not a show that’s resting on its laurels or coasting on past success. In fact, the series isn’t even relying on its charismatic cast to lure viewers back into the fold. The second episode “Sinterklaas is Coming to Town,” which also premieres on FX and Hulu tonight, delivers on the wry absurdity hinted at in the promos, which have shown the main characters on tour in Europe. “Three Slaps” is up to something more complicated.

The episode opens with an eerie prologue featuring two friends, one white and one Black, fishing and discussing the sinister history of the community that used to exist in the water beneath them. These aren’t characters we’ve met before and the quiet of the situation, particularly the way Murai shoots the water and muffles the dialogue, puts you on edge. When the Black friend gets dragged into the murky depths below, an image right out of a Wes Craven movie, we cut to a classroom where a young Black boy named Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar) gazes off into the distance. By the end of the episode, more bodies will be pulled into the lake under a completely different set of extreme circumstances.

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FX/YouTube

Loquareeous is an excitable kid, one who gets in trouble for getting up and dancing upon hearing that his class will get to attend a screening of Black Panther 2. Like many aspects of the episode, this is a knowingly playful and sardonic riff on an actual viral event. In a brutal yet funny series of twists, Loquareeous is sent to the principal’s office, reprimanded by his mother and grandfather, and eventually forced to go live with two white women (Laura Dreyfuss and Jamie Neumann). The pair, smug in their cocoon of self-perceived charity, care for three other Black foster children, who they force to work in their yard, sell goods at the farmer’s market, and feed chicken legs barely cooked in the microwave. Loquareeous is given a towel with a new name on it: “Larry.” His attempts to rebel are met with sighs, stares, and harsh words from his new white parents, who see themselves as noble saviors and put-upon do-gooders. Soon enough, the stakes become clear: He must make an escape.

Glover and Murai push this scenario to bleakly surreal places, drawing on an actual news story with a grisly ending. The conclusion here is equally shocking, building to a suspenseful and tense drive to almost certain death soundtracked by the unsettling warbles of Jessica Pratt's "Back Baby," but the emotional tenor is ultimately more hopeful than you might expect. Atlanta will always have an edge over many other somber “Is this actually a comedy?” half-hour shows: the scripts arrive laced with expertly timed jokes, which are then delivered in a style that grounds the scenario in the realm of realism. Even when the show drifts into cosmic horror or a parable-like fairy tale style of storytelling, the performances retain a human dimension. Unlike in so many series that strain to feel contemporary, the references to technology, music, or politics never feel forced. The actors don't let corniness creep in. That’s true when the series tracks the dynamics between Glover, Henry, Stanfield, and Beetz. It’s also true when less recognizable faces like Farrar, Dreyfuss, and Neumann are allowed to take center stage.

Like many of the best shows, Atlanta teaches you how to watch it. From its first season, which made room for mold-breaking episodes like the talk-show parodying “B.A.N.,Atlanta has made the one-off swerve part of its structural DNA. Season 2 gave us the horror-tinged music industry fable “Teddy Perkins,” the sly shaggy dog adventure “Barbershop,” the harrowing journey into the unknown “Woods,” and the poignant ‘90s flashback “FUBU.” It’s not exactly surprising for the show to continue to push against conventions. What is surprising, and impressive, is that it continues to do so at such a high level of care and craft, sidelining its own stars to break new narrative ground even as it draws to a close. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.