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'Atlanta' Season 3 Explores New Territory, Literally and Culturally

Spring 2022 brings the highly anticipated product of what now seems like the Glover family business, Atlanta season three, and it’s easily the most polarizing one yet. We last left our lovable protagonists approaching uncharted waters, that being not only leaving Atlanta (albeit temporarily) but also approaching actual success after two seasons of ups, downs, and questionable management of rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) by his cousin Earn (Donald Glover).

That ending, coupled with the show's extended hiatus, left fans wondering where else the show could go. After two phenomenal seasons, do the showrunners or the cast even have it in them to deliver upon very high expectations? Well, if you ask Donald Glover, he’d tell you that season three “is the best veal made by the best chef you’ve ever had,” (seriously, go read his conceited yet unsurprising interview with himself). However, if you ask me, although this season doesn’t fully feel like the osso buco Glover claims it is, it’s still a damn good veal.

The new season opens up with an episode without any of the recurring cast, opting instead to tell an eccentric yet important story about the American foster system and how it treats young black kids, specifically after they’ve been adopted by white parents. But on an even deeper level, the episode reflects on the Black experience, as the child we follow in the episode, Loquareeous, is given up for adoption by his abrasive mother and grandfather.

The season premiere is full of cultural references ranging from comedic (such as Loquareeous dancing on his desk in class and replicating a viral video of another Black student doing the same) to sinister (Loquareeous running to a police officer at a farmers’ market and collapsing into the cop’s arms as he pleads to be rescued from his adoptive parents). Of course, due to the way Loquareeous runs up to the officer and hugs him, the parents frame it as a form of solidarity between the police force and Black youth. That moment emulates the real-life photo of Devonte Hart hugging a white officer during a protest back in 2014; in fact, the whole episode is loosely based around the Hart family, which consisted of two white parents who adopted six Black children and murdered them (and themselves) by driving off a cliff in California.

By the end of the episode, Loquareeous manages to rewrite history and escape his foster family, as well as save his foster siblings, right before the car goes off of the bridge and into the lake. He seeks out his birth family once and for all with an even greater appreciation of what he already had. That anthological approach coupled with the clashing of Black culture and white interference is a theme throughout the season. Four out of the ten episodes do not feature any of the main cast members, but they do speak to what it means to be Black in a white-dominated society.

“The Big Payback” paints a society where reparations are given to Black people based on their lineage from American slavery. “Trini 2 De Bone” addresses the parental neglect that is sometimes endured by the children of immigrants, specifically Caribbean immigrants, when their parents have to work as babysitters or caretakers for white families due to a lack of proper documentation. “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga” takes the typical mixed kid trope and turns it on its head by having the notion of being Black be something that is exclusive rather than tossed to the side.

Those are all important ideas to the narrative, the show, and the culture. So why isn’t this season hitting the same?

As I was rewatching the season, I was surprised to see there were only four of these anthology-type episodes because it feels like we hardly see any of the characters we’ve grown to love over the past two seasons. The amount of time that we actually see Earn, Alfred, Van, and Darius all together in a scene over the course of the season barely measures out to the time of one singular episode. It’s this decision by Donald and Steven Glover to say what they have to say regardless of the cast’s presence on screen that divides much of the show’s loyal audience.

It doesn’t help the new additions’ case when the show's main cast is still bringing their A game, with standout performances from Brian Tyree Henry (there’s just something about Alfred hallucinating about his mother that I can’t get enough of) and Zazie Beetz. The cinematography and general aesthetic also haven't lost a step during the show's hiatus with frequent collaborator Hiro Murai directing most of the season’s episodes and doing so masterfully.

On the other side of the coin, with only six episodes for narrative purposes, the season lacked much of a presence from Darius, played by Lakeith Stanfield, and honestly, there wasn’t much from Earn himself, who initially served as the protagonist. But what the season lacks in ensemble, it makes up for in its cinematic prowess and thematic messages.

There are three ways that I personally watched this season of Atlanta and its success resonates differently in each way. As a fan of television and cinema, it was a joy to watch: everything on screen is composed and shot so meticulously that it genuinely feels like I'm watching poetry in motion.

As a fan of Atlanta, I can’t lie: I was slightly disappointed. The show’s foraying into topics like cancel culture with Liam Neeson in “New Jazz” and guest spots going to the likes of the late Kevin Samuels take away from the narrative of the show and come off as slightly distracting when sometimes all I want to do is watch Atlanta. I mean, we waited four years for it, right? Nonetheless, the season was thoroughly entertaining, even if it felt like homework at times.

Finally, I watched Atlanta as a young Black person living in America, and with those eyes, season three is easily the most important season yet. When it initially premiered back in 2016, Atlanta ushered in a new era of Black television that managed to balance real issues that are faced by Black people as well as the freedom to be Black and not be plagued with said issues.

Now, three seasons later, the world is vastly different than it was in 2016 or even in 2018 when the second season premiered, and with that I expected the show to change with it. Although this season did address some critical topics (and I’m glad it did), the episodes reek of Donald Glover’s self-aggrandizing persona. The synopsis of each episode reflects that tone, as it gives less of a description of the plot the episodes and more of a “point at the audience and laugh” type of vibe, as if the creators of the show know what the audience wants and purposely refuse to give it to them.

The most harrowing example of this has to be in the penultimate episode, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” where the synopsis openly references a criticism of Donald Glover stating, “Black and White episode? Yawn. Emmy Bait. Why do they hate Black women so much?” That is obviously passed off as a joke, but the season didn’t do anything to quell those criticisms. That same episode had an unnecessary cameo from the aforementioned Kevin Samuels, a man who had a notoriously adversarial relationship with Black women. Aside from showcasing a literal misogynist, the show’s only Black woman lead suffers from a lack of screen time and then a complete character butchering during the season’s finale, “Tarrare." The creators’ somewhat condescending attitude is not only distracting, it’s genuinely frustrating.

All that being said, I am still excited for season four, which releases this fall and has already garnered hype as Hiro Murai’s magnum opus from early reviews. Atlanta is a well-crafted show with competent people behind the scenes and I’m infinitely grateful for its contributions to the culture. It's a show that has elements of sci-fi and surrealism yet also humor and smart references made by and for Black people. But with great power comes great responsibility, and all I can ask for is a little more awareness from the creators as to how important this show really is.

- Jordan


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