For two seasons, Donald Glover’s Atlanta took elements of horror, sitcom and surrealism to, in his own words, create a “Trojan Horse” that would “make people feel Black”. It flirted with the sort of tired cliché you’d expect from a show about an aspiring rap artist (drugs, gun violence) only to toy with the expectations of its audience. The plot mostly followed rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), his manager and cousin Earn (Glover), the mother of Paper Boi’s child Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and spiritual stoner Darius (LaKeith Stanfield). They dealt with day-to-day struggles like getting a haircut or finding a jacket after a messy night out, but often veered into the bizarre. It was hilarious, heartbreaking and at times isolating, though always filled with a sense of communal joy.
Four years after its last episode, and Atlanta has returned to UK screens on Disney+ for a third season. With a new location (the gang is on a European tour), it would have been easy (and entertaining) for the writers to simply put Paper Boi and co. in wacky situations and watch them play out. Atlanta is about more than that though.
Since the show’s last outing, the Black Lives Matter movement has encouraged conversations about privilege, systemic racism and microaggressions into wider society. Atlanta season three builds on that discourse and asks a question few TV shows have been able to articulate – has anything really changed?
Featuring four standalone Black Mirror-style episodes that include themes such as reparations, white guilt and equality, season three offers no easy answers. Through it all though, the characters are treated with empathy and understanding – from the working class, white-passing teenager who wants to burn down a school after all his Black classmates have their scholarships paid for, to the suburban office worker whose relatives owned slaves, but were themselves slaves generations before that. No other show manages to be so direct while leaving so much up for interpretation – and for that it should be applauded.
As terrifying as some of these alternative realities may seem, it’s the six other episodes dedicated to the meandering narrative that prove the most compelling. ‘The Old Man And The Tree’ sees Darius on the receiving end of a racial stereotype from a woman. He accepts her apology and the pair hit it off, but the unpredictable Socks (Hugh Coles) is furious on his behalf, twisting the story to make it seem more hateful before assembling an all-white mob to take their revenge, much to Darius’ horror. The only people who really benefit are those waving a metaphorical pitchfork because they feel like they’re making a difference, as Atlanta subtly questions the actions of social media warriors in real life too.
Elsewhere ‘White Fashion’ sees Paper Boi join an advisory board, following a fashion label’s racist faux pas. “Is this your first time apologising for white people?” asks activist, writer and foodie Khalil (Fisayo Akinade). “It’s the best. I haven’t had to pay for a meal in 73 police shootings.” Over the course of the episode, we see Paper Boi realise that a white-owned company isn’t going to fund its own downfall by encouraging Black communities to reinvest in themselves, but there is a way to play the system.
It’s ‘New Jazz’ that really drives home the overarching point of the season though. Taking a typically absurd set-up (Darius and Paper Boi getting high and walking the streets of Amsterdam) to unexpected places, the episode ends with Paper Boi in the Cancel Club, sitting next to the actual Liam Neeson, who then apologises in-depth for an interview he gave in 2019 in which he admitted to wanting to kill a Black man. “I look back now and it honestly frightens me. I thought people, knowing who I once was, would make clear who I am, who I’ve become. But, with all that being said, I am sorry. I apologise if I hurt people,” he says with genuine sincerity. Paper Boi, admiring this directness, tells him he “still fucks with [Neeson’s 2008 thriller] Taken” and that he’s “glad he no longer hates Black people”. Most shows would end it here, a Hollywood finale offering closure, growth and a message. Atlanta isn’t most shows though, and Neeson responds: “No, I can’t stand the lot of you. Now I feel that way, because you tried to ruin my career. Didn’t succeed, mind you.”
Before walking out of the bar and leaving Paper Boi and the audience lost for words, Neeson adds: “The best and worst part of being white is that you don’t have to learn anything you don’t want to.” Three seasons in, Atlanta remains uncomfortable, intricate, essential viewing.