“FX’s Atlanta is like a box of chocolates,” he wrote, considering the whitest imaginable lede for a review of FX’s Atlanta. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Going back to the self-named show from the grossly misbehaving comedian we don’t discuss anymore, the most intriguing part of the FX comedy brand has been half-hour shows with no discernible format and no singular tone. Your average episode of Pamela Adlon’s Better Things could sometimes be three serious vignettes or one cohesive and silly story, could focus on Adlon’s Sam or any of her daughters, could make you laugh or make you cry. Reservation Dogs is currently in the middle of a flawless second season of episodes that have ranged from rollicking road-trip installments to single-set meditations on grief.
The Bottom Line
You never know what you’re gonna get — in a good way.
None of these FX half-hours have exploited the possibilities of this grab-bag flexibility as effectively as Atlanta at its peak (though, again, Reservation Dogs is getting mighty close), and no season of Atlanta steered into its potential for eclecticism as aggressively as the third. Over 10 episodes last spring, you flipped on Atlanta — he wrote, considering the most technologically outdated description of television viewing imaginable — and you didn’t know what country the main characters were going to be in. You didn’t know if the main characters were going to be in the episode at all.
Always a challenging show, in the best way possible, Atlanta season three was even more challenging, and even if I thought the season’s aggressive gambits mostly paid off — “Sinterklaas is Coming to Town,” “The Old Man and the Tree,” “Cancer Attack” and “Tarrare” are all stone-cold classics, albeit among the season’s more “traditional” episodes — it’s easy to know why some viewers found it off-putting and why Emmy voters didn’t quite know how to handle a show that was previously a favorite. It had been a long time waiting for Atlanta to return, and figuring out what Atlanta actually was if it wasn’t a show about Earn, Alfred, Darius and Van was a difficult task.
The wait has been far less long for the fourth and final Atlanta season, which arrives on September 15, and the best service a critic can provide is to make sure that fans know the series is back and then step away. I will, of course, do more than that.
I can offer the quick reassurance that the gang is back in Georgia, a fact emphasized by the title of the premiere, “The Most Atlanta.” The three episodes sent to critics all feature some assortment of the main characters, though given that the show enhanced the visibility of all of its stars, it isn’t surprising that LaKeith Stansfield’s Darius is used sparingly and Zazie Beetz’s Van appears only in the premiere. That doesn’t mean they won’t be back or that there won’t be standalone episodes later in the season, nor does it mean that the grab-bag approach is gone entirely.
“The Most Atlanta” was written by Stephen Glover and directed by Hiro Murai and it’s absolutely top-tier Atlanta, the rare recent episode in which all four leads have full storylines. It’s a comically grounded slice of existential absurdism in which Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) mourns a favorite underground rapper, Darius attempts to return an air-fryer and Earn (Donald Glover) and Van visit a phone store at Atlantic Station. It has elements of droll horror, shades of Jean-Paul Sartre — I dubbed it “No Exes” in my notes, which will make sense later — and it’s a better Twilight Zone episode than anything in the recent reboot of The Twilight Zone. This being Atlanta, much of the plot is pushed forward by elements of racial misunderstanding and, as has recently been the case, an intrusive “Karen” serves as both villain and catalyst.
The second episode — “The Homeliest Little Horse,” written by Ibra Ake and Angela Barnes — is Karen-driven as well, but it’s also the most Earn-driven episode in some time. Glover received a somewhat peculiar lead actor Emmy nomination this year for a season in which he was barely a supporting player, but this is a top-notch showcase for his dramatic depths. Through exploring Earn’s experiences in therapy, the episode feels like an interrogation of the “Karen” phenomenon — as much about the process of scapegoating as an evasion technique as anything. It’s some of Glover’s best acting work to date and I appreciated that the installment seemingly answers some questions that go back to the show’s origins and then makes you question what you think you’ve learned.
As for the Jamal Olori-scripted, Adamma Ebo-directed third episode — yes, it’s a third episode with a Karen-adjacent storyline, but it’s more a semi-surreal exploration of current music and celebrity, an extension of the way the show has handled A-listers like Justin Bieber, Michael Vick and Tupac over the years. My review of the third season mentioned how frequently Atlanta seems to be in conversation with itself these days, and this episode feels like it could mark a funny, effectively weird culmination of the show’s interrogation of the ephemeral natural of “stardom.”
I feel like that gives you the shape of the early part of the season without actually spoiling the experience of discovery that remains the show’s hallmark. I loved the first episode and found many things to mull over and enjoy in the next two, and I liked how they play as an extension of where we left off in the third season. After treating Europe as the ultimate example of alien terrain, one in which our heroes are confused by their surroundings and their surroundings are confused by them, the fourth season brings it all back home — and, guess what, it’s still not a world in which they’re comfortable or consistently welcomed. That pervasive unease, equal parts hilarious and nightmarish, may be Atlanta‘s ultimate commentary on storytelling and on contemporary America. I intend to relish this closing run of eight episodes, whatever they happen to be.
‘Atlanta’ Review: Season 4 of Donald Glover’s FX Masterpiece Has Georgia on Its Mind