/ 4 June 2022

One Show Two Takes: ‘Atlanta’

Atlanta (1)
Disjointed: Alfred ‘Paper Boi’ Miles, played by Brian Tyree Henry (left), and Earn, played by Donald Glover, in a scene from ‘Atlanta’

In the final episode of Atlanta’s third season methamphetamine crystals are sprinkled over bed sheets, dismembered hands are deep-fried and a stale baguette is used as an instrument of terror. Three of the series’ main characters are absent and its titular city, Atlanta, is mentioned only once. This comes as no surprise to any seasoned viewer of the show, which has, in its last season, pushed the boundaries of its own surrealism even further in a drug- and sex-fuelled Euro Trip.

Most of the show’s third season follows Earn (Donald Glover), Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) as they ride the crest of Paper Boi’s newfound hip-hop success. For the season’s early episodes, Earn’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), occupied the corners of the screen. But it’s Vanessa who takes centre stage in the season finale, providing a small sense of balance to a season that has at times felt unstable. 

Yet, as with everything in Atlanta, nothing is exactly as it seems. In episode 10, viewers are introduced to a Vespa-driving, French bob-wearing and baguette-toting Parisian version of Van. In the finale, Van plays out, in a single crazy night, what the other three have been experiencing for months. 

Van’s eventual Icarus-like descent from the star-studded upper echelon of French life is not even that surprising in the context of a popular culture where celebrities rise and fall. What is surprising and viscerally unsettling is the dreamlike manner in which the Atlanta creators have decided to render this content. The episode seems to literally fade in and out of consciousness, forcing us to piece together the chronology and separate reality from mythology. 

It’s clear that the Atlanta showrunners realise that the lifestyles their characters have been living — and the creative indulgence they’ve been taking — aren’t sustainable. Van eventually collapses under the weight of her adopted character. In the episode’s final minutes, Van has to face the reality of her lifestyle. And like a party-goer sobering up from an amnesiac night out and remembering all the responsibilities of a real life, Van is forced to face the fact that she has a three-year-old daughter waiting for her at home.

We only see Van’s perspective of the group’s final days in Europe but we’re forced to take this as a part representing the whole. Atlanta has never painted the full picture — its creators realised that the time constraints of a 30-minute episode are not absolute — and that a TV show only really ends when you stop thinking about it. We viewers have to do the rest of the work and believe the mad European night ended for the others as it did for Van. — Joseph Goldblatt

William Shakespeare wrote for the monarchy. Gordon Parks wrote for the people. Donald Glover writes for Donald Glover. Everything he creates is a conversation between past, present and future versions of himself. 

We hear his thoughts. We understand his fears. When we give him the freedom to make 10 unfiltered episodes of television, we get season three of Atlanta. It’s visceral, vicious and largely convoluted in its execution. 

But between the cigarette smoke, under the flickering lights and in the sleepless cities of Europe, are the musings of a man spearheading a new generation of creatives. 

Glover has always said, “Atlanta is a music album.” The first season’s interlude took the viewer into a show within the show. We watched as Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) received a lesson about political correctness on local TV. Season two’s Teddy Perkins brings in features and callbacks with allusions to Michael Jackson and an episode so eerie that it stays with the viewer long after the bonus track. Season three is Glover’s beautiful, dark and somewhat twisted fantasy. We spend six episodes following Paper Boi and his crew on their European tour and four episodes with characters we have never met before. 

But Glover doesn’t seem to care what we think. 

The season opens with a fictional retelling of Devonte Heart’s tragic story. We follow him through the system, his plights and his day-to-day life. The screen cuts to black, Earn (Donald Glover) wakes up; the episode ends. We spend the next two episodes with the show’s main characters but our questions from season two are still not answered. Episode four is a filler episode. Episodes five and six are not but the lack of plot progression makes it feel like they are. This general trend continues until the finale. Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) puts on a perfect French accent and puts off a nervous breakdown. She carries around a life-threatening loaf of bread and pretends to be Amelie. To Glover, this is the next logical step in Vanessa’s character arc. To a viewer who was not in the writers’ room, this is an unprompted change. 

Glover’s use of filler episodes denies viewers of our usual omniscience. We are given tidbits of their lives. Vanessa features three times in the season’s first nine episodes. She attends a funeral, stops by a party and steals a bag. We are given hints about her precarious mental state but Glover fails to invite us into her psyche. The finale’s climax and resolution, then, are not earned. The show’s most musical season yet gives the viewer a crescendo without the buildup. — Eli Osei