TV Review: ‘Atlanta’ Returns, Keeping Things Weird And Loose For Season 3

Four years is a long wait since the season two finale, “Crabs in a Barrel,” but Atlanta has finally returned and hasn’t lost a step. Debuting two episodes on one night, as is the style for FX, “Three Slaps” and “Sinterklass is Coming to Town” are different from each other, yet entirely fitting as a way to put viewers back into the strange groove that is Donald Glover’s award-winning series. With stunning direction from returning director Hiro Murai and the sharp wit in the writing that finds ways to match the curious with the horrific (in the midst of what is ostensibly a comedy), this oddball series never lets up in excitement or eccentricities. Even as Atlanta expands its range to Europe, it’s good to be back in the Hollywood of the South.

Honestly, I expect plenty to be written about the season premiere episode, “Three Slaps.” Building off of how season two, “Robbin’ Season,” began, where none of the main characters appeared in the cold open, this first look at Atlanta in four years spends nearly all of its 37 minutes focused on a young boy named Loquareeous. This comes after a prologue of sorts that’s even more disconnected, featuring two guys out fishing (one black, one white), and a conversation that turns into a story about a haunted lake and the black town that used to be in its place.

There are so many layers to pull back in “Three Slaps” that simply running through the plot points feels like doing the show a disservice. The primary storyline focuses on Loquareeous’ time spent with two white women who adopt him, following the arrival of a social worker at his real mother’s house. The boy’s two new moms have a sinister edge rooted in the Black gaze and take part in actions that serve as an analysis of race, class, and insanity.

This episode is not without a dark sense of humor, but it’s more of a reminder of how much Atlanta can reinvent itself whenever it feels like it (need I remind you of “Teddy Perkins”). How will the events of this episode relate to the rest of the season? That remains to be seen as of now. Still, by the time “Three Slaps” chooses to show us Earn (Glover) waking up in some unknown location, one can’t help but wonder how the choice to put on display an extended look at abuse against children of color is set to inform us about the current status of our central characters.

With that in mind, “Sinterklass is Coming to Town” does have a more familiar tone of an Atlanta episode when it comes to engaging with Earn, Alfred aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), and Van (Zazie Beetz). Yes, it’ll be good to go over where everyone stands, but as far as looking at this as the follow-up episode to “Three Slaps,” in terms of how this series continues to explore race, it’s hard to overlook Earn and Al’s confrontations (well…mild interactions) with the various children (and, later, adults) wearing blackface in honor of some Belgian holiday.

The notion of feeling alienated within an environment seemingly designed to make one feel comfortable by those who, in another life, would be identified as oppressors, is worthy of further exploration. As much fun as this episode has in satirizing the Belgian jail Al is briefly spending time in (he’s treated like a VIP guest), there’s still the fetishization of the Black presence, whether that’s in the hundreds of people in blackface waiting to see Paper Boi, or whatever it is that Darius and Van end up exploring in their strange Tupac-related excursion.

However, to simplify this, season three does pick up in Europe, where the rest of the season reportedly plans to remain. Earn, Al, and Darius are in the middle of a European tour (it’s maybe been a year), where Paper Boi is headlining acts. Earn is continuing to prove his worth as a manager. Darius is sporting clogs and getting as high as he feels during this Amsterdam-set episode. And then there’s the surprise arrival of Van, who appears to be feeling adrift and in need of a change of scenery.

Sure, the show may be making things a bit convenient by having one of their main cast members suddenly also show up in Europe (Van and Earn’s daughter is staying with her parents), but with the show planning to do more to embrace the female perspective, without simply dedicating one episode only to Van or relying on her and Earn’s relationship as a starting point, the point of Atlanta’s ability to reinvent itself stands. Whatever Van is going through, we’ll see how it aligns with the rest of the gang, as they all take on Europe together.

With both episodes directed by Murai, the precision found in his way of maximizing a level of tension remains. What that tension builds towards can shift, though “Sinterklass” is far more comedic than “Three Slaps.” It pays off. Whether it’s the reveal of Al in jail or the wonderfully captured clumsiness of Earn (watch him stumble his way out of a room the second he receives all his missed calls and text messages), there is such a conscious level of comedic chaos on display that I can only appreciate how Atlanta finds a way to make it feel distinct between these four different characters.

The bits of pain also shine through, lending emotional baggage to our leads (even Darius, most notable in the way Stanfield stares at the bizarre ritual at the end of his story this week). As mentioned, Van is adrift, and she notes a series of panic attacks she’s been having. Al can’t even begin to retrace the steps that led him to jail, let alone feel the need to unpack what he’s feeling about the blackface on display.

How is Earn doing, though? Glover is star and showrunner for the series, and presumably has an arc planned that will continue showing his efforts to be a great manager and something more for Van, the mother of his child. This week he wakes up in a stupor, with an anonymous woman next to him. The episode ends with him barely having a chance to lay down before getting orders from Al to bring him food. With that in mind, Earn also has the confidence needed to get 20K in Euros for Al (but not for bail money, as he assumed). Perhaps this Europe trip really will pave the way for bigger and great things.

Whatever the case may be, Atlanta has returned, and I have no idea what to expect. That’s part of the joy of this series. It has its own vibe that constantly evolves, allowing its four primary cast members to reveal more and more layers as the show goes on. They may have left the ATL for the sake of this season, but whatever ridiculousness they plan to get into, it won’t happen without a feeling that’s fitting for this crew yet unique to what we generally see in this televised format.

Bonus Tracks:

  • I’m so glad Atlanta has finally returned, and I look forward to going on this journey through the series with all the recaps I can muster.
  • That fishing boat sequence at the beginning turned over to horror real quick.
  • Black Panther 2 is referenced, further placing this show in its own universe.
  • “Fried chicken” – If there was ever one symbol to encapsulate the pure madness in that house.
  • Honestly, it’s hard not to look at “Three Slaps” and not see it as a riff on this awful tragedy from 2018.
  • “Is ‘Hugs’ your father” – This legitimately made me laugh a lot.
  • “High since twilight” – Darius is entirely in his element.
  • The “gesundheit” runner never stopped being funny.
  • I can’t even begin to explain how I feel about the bizarre Tupac room.
  • “I will destroy you.” – I’m curious just how well Glover understands the sort of frustration that comes with these situations. Earn’s acknowledgment of the proper beatdown being given to a random man said a lot.
  • Let’s see where the tour takes this crew next!

Atlanta premieres on March 24 on FX and will be streaming on Hulu.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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