With so many TV series formerly on pandemic hiatus now returning, it’s been hard to remember where things left off two years ago. In the case of Atlanta, it’s been four years since its Season 2 finale, an unfathomable span of time that also—in this particular case—doesn’t matter. As one of television’s most experimental (and experiential), inventive series, Atlanta rolls back in on its own terms and in its own unique way. Four years? It’s no time at all.
In the first two episodes of Season 3 available to review (out of an eventual 10), Atlanta returns to themes from both of its prior seasons, led once again by director Hiro Murai’s dreamy interpretations. In one, we continue with the story of Earn (series creator Donald Glover), as he manages his cousin Paper Boi / Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) on a European tour. Along for the ride is the always chilled-out Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), who goes on his own journey with Vanessa (Zazie Beetz)—the mother of Earn’s child—who also came along to try and figure out what she’s doing with her life.
But that’s confined to the second episode; in the first, we meet a boy whose life quickly unravels after he’s sent to the principal’s office for dancing in the classroom. From there he descends into a hellscape that’s ushered along by “well-meaning” white folk who—despite their liberal trappings—have seemingly created a kind of suburban slave trade.
Like Season 2, Atlanta is again interested in documenting both the everyday vignettes of its leads and playing with myth and legend as waking nightmares. Even in the second episode, which finds the crew in Amsterdam, there is an encroaching sense of unease. Though the local fans and even police treat Earn and Alfred with extreme politeness and excitement, they are encased in a culture that condones and even celebrates blackface. While the first two episodes are very different in terms of their stories, a quiet horror lurks in both, specifically in the way the show investigates the hypocrisy of whites who want to project how accommodating they are to the Black community without actually changing anything about the way they think at all.
Though purportedly taking place mostly in Europe this time season, the show doesn’t miss a chance to lean into the specifics of Atlanta as its guiding light. Without giving too much away, the cold open of the premiere tells—in campfire, ghost-story fashion—the very true story of Lake Lanier, though it is never named. For Atlantans, though, it’s a recognizable tale. I mean, we all know Lake Lanier is haunted. Or at the very least, something ain’t right….
It’s this balance that Atlanta continues to handle so well, threading in these many varied parts and themes into what is, once again, one of TV’s most intriguing pieces of performance art. But it’s also saying something in an artful way; this is not TV vegetables, there aren’t lessons to be learned exactly. There are thoughtful impressions, strange occurrences, exceptional happenstance. In many ways, Atlanta is creating its own folklore. Like the city after which it was named, it has a curious allure that’s hard to define, but captivating nevertheless.
Atlanta returns to FX (and Hulu the next day) on Thursday, March 24th.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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