Across three seasons, Donald Glover’s masterful comedy-drama series Atlanta has tackled race, class, ‘cancel culture’ and the cult of celebrity while telling the story of aspiring rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), his cousin and manager Earn (Glover), the mother of Earn’s child Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and spiritual stoner Darius (LaKeith Stanfield).
Veering into surrealism and horror along the way, Atlanta always takes the unexpected path. With its fourth and final season airing in the US from today (a UK date has yet to be confirmed), we decided to revisit our 10 favourite episodes so far. Spoilers below, obviously.
10. ‘Go For Broke’ (season one, episode three)
Earn tries to take Vanessa out for a make-up romantic dinner but definitely doesn’t have enough money to afford it, while Migos play exaggerated drug dealers, who put the fear into Paper Boi and Darius. It’s episodes like ‘Go For Broke’ that ground the characters and make them such a compelling watch. A much-needed burst of reality in a show that’s almost always larger than life.
Tagline: “This man Earn broke as hell. How you gone go out on a date with no money?”
9. ‘The Big Payback’ (season three, episode four)
A Black Mirror-style standalone episode set in an alternate universe that questions how reparations for ancestors of slave owners would actually work, ‘The Big Payback’ is proof that Atlanta can tackle weighty topics with skill.
Tagline: “I was legit scared watching this”
8. ‘North Of The Border’ (season two, episode nine)
A relatively straight-shooting episode from Atlanta that focuses on Paper Boi trying to push his career forward, and Earn’s inexperience as a manager. Add in a pyjama party, an overly friendly fan and the chaotic Tracy (Khris Davis) and ‘North Of The Border’ is one of the more normal episodes of Atlanta – even with that whispered pillow talk about magnificent crocodiles and beautiful cranes.
Tagline: “We might have to make that move tonight. I heard there’s a pyjama party and Paper Boi is gonna be there”
7. ‘White Fashion’ (season three, episode six)
A bleak takedown of the post-BLM corporate world, ‘White Fashion’ sees Paper Boi employed as part of a fashion label’s diversity advisory committee before slowly getting disillusioned with the idea of “apologising for white people.” Elsewhere, Darius’ b-plot tackles gentrification, via a Nigerian restaurant.
Tagline: “I’ve definitely seen this before on a better show”
6. ‘The Old Man And The Tree’ (season three, episode three)
This is the closest Atlanta’s third season stuck to its initial premise of Paper Boi, Darius, Earn and Vanessa living it up in Europe, ‘The Old Man And The Tree’ takes place at a London house so fancy, it has its own Nandos.
And from there, it’s a series of surreal events that involve cheating during poker, racist micro-aggressions and a whole lot of frustration as Atlanta continues its run of chaotic yet disappointing nights out.
Tagline: “This one was cool”
5. ‘Three Slaps’ (season three, episode one)
Another standalone episode based loosely on the true story of the Hart family murders, this dreamy horror introduces a lot of the key themes of Atlanta’s brilliant third season (the “curse” of whiteness) while breaking new ground. Coming almost four years after the previous episode of Atlanta, ‘Three Slaps’ was a reminder that there’s simply not another show like it.
Tagline: “Wow it’s been a minute”
4. ‘B.A.N.’ (season one, episode seven)
The most experimental episode in Atlanta’s first season, ‘B.A.N.’ sees Paper Boi appearing on a chat show to defend a controversial tweet intercut with strange, surreal adverts.
Not only did ‘B.A.N.’ pave the way for the surreal standalone episodes that would pepper later Atlanta seasons but it established the show as more than another comedy-drama with Saturday morning cartoons being used to criticise police brutality.
Tagline: “Montague: Special guest Paper Boi and Dr. Deborah Holt”
3. ‘Champagne Papi’ (season two, episode seven)
It’s the Drake episode. Big nights out in Atlanta are always a bit bleak but ‘Champagne Papi’ is more depressing than most. With Vanessa and her crew of friends (who desperately need their own spin-off) heading to a New Year’s Eve party at Drake’s mansion, the gang encounter bad weed and a never-ending stream of people loosely connected to Drake before coming to the realisation he’s not even in the country. Luckily, there’s a cardboard cut-out of Drake to make their Instagram pages less dull.
Elsewhere Darius (who apparently knows Drake’s chef) concludes that everything is a simulation as Atlanta once again forces the audience to question what they’ve seen. “This shit is surreal, I’m too high for this,” said Drake after watching the episode and later sampled Beetz saying “I don’t even care, I need a photo with Drake because my Instagram is weak as fuck” on 2018’s ‘In My Feelings’.
Tagline: “Yeah girl, we gonna party tonight”
2. ‘Teddy Perkins’ (season two, episode six)
Darius goes to pick up a piano from the eccentric Teddy Perkins, as Atlanta really lets its love of horror shine. A twisted, creeping story of childhood fame, neglect, abuse and escapism rapidly unfolds with Darius stuck in the eerie mansion that pays homage to Stephen King’s Misery and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Creepier yet is the fact that the Michael Jackson-esque Perkins is actually played by Glover, though Stanfield only found that out later, with Glover armed with a fake backstory and staying in character between takes. The whole thing ends in bloody tragedy (or a much-needed escape, depending on how you look at it) and worse yet, Darius never gets the piano.
Tagline: “Darius is trippin in this one”
1. ‘New Jazz’ (season three, episode eight)
With a whole season set in Europe, it was only so long before Paper Boi and Darius ended up in Amsterdam’s Red Light District and, thanks to a couple of space cakes, it’s quite the trip. Paper Boi ends up horrified by street theatre, confused by an art gallery and having a conversation with Liam Neeson playing himself in The Cancel Club.
Neeson apologises in-depth for an actual interview he gave in 2019 in which he admitted to wanting to kill a Black man but instead of finishing with a Hollywood finale offering closure and growth, he admits he still “can’t stand” Black people because they “tried to ruin my career”. Atalanta has always blended the lines between surrealism and commentary but ‘New Jazz’ is the most extreme version of that.
Tagline: “Al and Darius walk around Amsterdam. Psssh, I could make a way better TV show than this”