The Righteous, Riotous Return of 'Atlanta'

On March 29, 2018, FX premiered an episode of Atlanta called “Barbershop,” in which rising rap star Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) goes through a series of ridiculous ordeals on behalf of his talkative con man of a barber. Seven nights later, Atlanta gave us “Teddy Perkins,” a chilling haunted-house story in which Paper Boi’s weed-dealing sidekick Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) meets the title character, a ghoul who functions as a fictional stand-in for Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and other Black musical stars whose great art was inspired by their even greater pain.

“Teddy Perkins” — with Atlanta creator-star Donald Glover unrecognizable under facial prosthetics and whiteface makeup as Teddy — was almost instantly anointed as one of the best episodes ever produced for television. And it is that: a mesmerizing, 35-minute descent into madness, racial self-loathing, repurposed childhood trauma, and bizarre humor. It’s the one-two punch of “Barbershop” and “Teddy Perkins,” though, that cemented Atlanta’s reputation as a show for the ages. There had been plenty of dramas capable of great hilarity, and comedies adept at eliciting tears. And the years leading up to Atlanta’s 2016 debut had given us auteur-ish series, like Louis and Master of None, that changed so much from episode to episode, despite featuring the same characters, that they felt like anthologies. But it was the extremes in genre, and the unmistakably high quality, that set this particular double-act — and Atlanta itself — apart from its peers. For a show to present, in consecutive weeks, as silly and hilarious an episode as “Barbershop” and then follow it up with one as thoughtful and tragic as “Teddy Perkins” would be like watching LeBron James hoist an NBA championship trophy and then a Nobel Prize for chemistry a few days later.

Between Glover’s busy film and music schedule and the global pandemic, it will have been nearly four years without Atlanta by the time the third season premieres on March 24. In an era with 500-plus scripted TV shows a year, a series last glimpsed in 2018 may as well have aired in black-and-white on the DuMont Network. But Glover (who plays Al’s cousin Earn), Henry, Stanfield, and Zazie Beetz (who plays Earn’s ex and co-parent Van) have all been prominent in movies in between, while Atlanta itself has lingered in the memory as something more recent and vital than other shows of its vintage.

At a press conference before the first season premiered, Glover was asked about the series’ frequently shifting tone. “The thesis with the show was to show people how it felt to be Black,” he said, “and you can’t really write that down. You have to feel it. So the tonal aspect was really important to me.”

The challenges of being Black in America have become more publicly discussed during Atlanta’s long absence, with unabashed white nationalism returning to the spotlight, and a series of filmed police killings of Black men and women. But that notion has always been palpable throughout Atlanta, which showed Earn, Al, and Darius witnessing cops shooting a Black man in its first-season finale. Sometimes, the theme demonstrates itself through implicit racism, like when Earn’s attempts to spend a hundred-dollar bill at an upscale movie theater are met with suspicion by a white cashier. Sometimes, it’s about the blurry borders between white and Black culture, like how the biracial Van feels caught between the two halves of her heritage, or when Earn has to listen to a white man quote Malcolm X to him at a Juneteenth party. Sometimes, it’s about the exponential challenges of being both Black and poor, with Earn having to live in a storage locker between seasons. Other times, it’s about very culturally specific ideas like the lengths a Black man like Al will go to in order to get the right haircut. And often, it’s many things at once, like Al telling a fan, “I scare people at ATMs! So I have to rap!”

But while Paper Boi’s options are limited, Atlanta is a show overflowing with possibilities. Hiro Murai and the series’ other directors (including Glover) present the whole thing under a slightly dreamlike haze, allowing stories to feel like they could go anywhere, even if the action is largely confined to a small geographic area. The show can do verité filmmaking, like a flashback showing cousins Earn and Alfred as late-Nineties teens. And it can just as easily incorporate bizarre flourishes, like Paper Boi appearing at a charity event with Justin Bieber, who is played by a Black actor, or a running joke about an invisible car having a very literal payoff. It can even be real and surreal at once, like Earn and Van’s relationship crumbling in raw fashion while they’re attending an inscrutable German holiday festival and Van is being stalked by a monster.

Atlanta gets to have things both ways a lot of the time. Examined up close, each episode appears to have little to do with the next. From a distance, though, Glover and Co. are telling bigger stories. “Barbershop,” for instance, is one vignette among many in Season Two about Paper Boi coming to grips with the downside of celebrity — and with the limitations of having his inexperienced cousin act as his manager. The show can be scathingly funny in one moment (both Henry’s exasperated scowl and Stanfield’s relaxed line delivery are inexhaustible comic weapons), whimsical or sad in others. But there’s a depth of feeling to it that’s incredibly rare, even in this age of abundant TV artistry. At its best, Atlanta is less a show to be watched than an experience to fall into, be shaken by, and then set free from until the next time.

Because the surprise of what each episode will feel like is among the show’s many joys, the less said about the new episodes, the better — other than that they are still great, and that Atlanta continues to surprise. FX is going with two episodes for the long-awaited season premiere night, and they somehow have even less in common tonally than “Barbershop” and “Teddy Perkins” did, while being alternately as ridiculous and chilling as the most memorable moments of each of those.

The new season largely takes place in Europe, where Paper Boi is on tour. When last we saw Al and Earn, they were boarding a flight to head overseas, with Al explaining, “You my family, Earn. Yeah, you… you the only one that knows what I’m about. You give a fuck. I need that.”

Our reunion with this family has been long delayed, but thank goodness it’s here. We give a fuck. And we need it.

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