Watching FX's Atlanta has never really been a conventional experience. There's no specific formula that the series sticks to, nor is it always clear that what we're seeing (or what we're seeing the characters see for that matter) is even happening. At times it's an otherworldly comedy with a sort of social commentary lean, and at others it's got the overall tonality of a horror flick or psychological thriller. Now, after seeing the season three premiere I can say without a doubt that Atlanta star and creator Donald Glover (pictured above) and series director Hiro Murai don't plan on switching it up now.
This is the kind of TV we've come to expect from these guys, and they're still bringing it to us in spades. Case in point, for this, the beginning of their penultimate season, they decided to not catch us up on what Earn, Van, Darius and Paper Boi have been up to this entire time, because guess what? They weren't even in the first episode (except for a fleeting appearance by Earn at the end).
This coming November will mark six years since my first review for MediaVillage was published, and of course that column was about this show. We still may not know what that sandwich guy on the bus in season one was all about, but a lot has happened since then.
First of all, for those who somehow don't know, Atlanta follows Earn (Glover) as he manages the rap career of his cousin Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), with their friend Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) and Earn's ex (and baby mama) Van (Zazie Beats). While the majority of the show takes place in the title location, the promos for this season have depicted a more European backdrop for the group's exploits. How they all got to where they are since we last saw them in the finale of the previous season (an unbelievable four years ago) is still a straight up mystery.
So, what was the first episode about? Simply put, it was a reimagining of the Hart Family massacre. If you haven't heard of it, it was a murder-suicide in 2018 in which a white married couple, Jennifer and Sarah Hart, drove themselves and the six children of color they'd adopted off of a cliff to their collective demise.
Now, a cold open from Atlanta is nothing new (we all remember the Robbin' Season opening of season two), but this is the first time that an entire episode was dedicated to one. It followed a boy named Laquarius as he got in trouble at school. His mother and what I believe was his grandfather were called, and after she yells at him and the grandfather gives him three quick slaps to the face, his overprotective teacher gets involved, resulting in a visit at home from a social worker. Laquarius' mother, believing he was the one who called, packed lil' man a bag, pushed him out the door and said, “Take him!” This is how Laquarius ends up with the two women whom I believe are meant to represent the Harts.
Once I figured out what I was watching, I began to wonder if it was in good taste. I mean, these were real kids who were really murdered at the hands of two women who convinced the world that there wasn't any abuse taking place at home. The situation isn't being made light of, but I did still get the gut feeling that this was ground to be very carefully treaded upon, if any treading was to be done at all.
Many little things are done to tie this fictional account to the real one -- the number of kids, the social workers closing in on these women, etc -- but the standout moment to me was the farmers market scene, in which Laquarius (who these white ladies tried to rename “Larry,” by the way) gets sick of the way he is treated at the fake Harts' home and runs into the arms of a nearby officer. The ladies explain to the cop that L is just tired and wants to home, even though he clearly said they were working him all the time and not feeding him. A picture is taken of him hugging the cop for dear life and is spun by the fictional media as a positive interaction between a boy of color and a white cop, and the picture is stunningly similar to a published photo of Devonte Hart, for whom I believe Laquarius is the episode's proxy.
Unlike in real life, Laquarius figures out the women's plan and escapes the minivan just before the couple drives off a bridge towards the episode's end. (In real life, Devonte's body was never found, so it's not completely implausible that he survived as well, however unlikely.)
Then Earn wakes up in bed because this was all some dream he had.
I'm not sure what the message or implications of this episode are meant to be, but it was executed in that classic Atlanta style. Murai gave us more of those uneasy feelings he's become so accustomed to delivering in this show, and if nothing else it allowed Devonte and his adopted siblings to have their story told, even if it was through the lens of (historical) fiction. In some ways, this is the happy ending they never got, and maybe that's why Earn dreamt it -- because we should all be dreaming of happier endings for Black children.
Now, in the next episode we do see Earn and the gang running around what we now know is Copenhagen and Amsterdam, because they're on the European leg of Paper Boi's tour. Despite the long, real-life COVID-driven hiatus, the show seems to have gotten them right back into the flow of dealing with the unbelievably surreal nature of their lives. Earn is still bending over backwards managing Alfred (P.B), Alfred is enjoying the hell out of his international fans, Darius is still meeting the weirdest people while being constantly high, and Van, who doesn't usually run with this whole little crew, is trying to find herself due to some existential crisis she seems to be having.
Regardless, the setting change is a refreshing one, and it's interesting as all hell to see what bringing that Atlanta vibe to a place that's decidedly not Atlanta feels like. (It's dope, by the way.)
Like I said earlier, I've been covering this show for the entirety of my writing career -- and I have been a Glover/Gambino fan for even longer, and in that half a decade the man has yet to disappoint me. The only disappointment I anticipate from these guys is the sting that I'll feel when the fourth and final season comes and eventually ends.
Atlanta is telecast Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX. New episodes stream the following day on Hulu.
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