In the season 3 finale of Atlanta, titled “Tarrare,” several finely dressed patrons sit amongst a table gathered to partake in an exquisite meal. Meanwhile, in the kitchen nearby, a chef meticulously prepares and heats a human hand on the oven hoping to provide his customers a dining experience that’s unforgettable.
Much like that chef, Donald Glover and the creatives behind Atlanta are still trying to craft a show that surprises its audience even after four years off the air. The first two seasons synthesized fantastic performances, bursts of surrealism, and cultural specificity unique to the Black experience that created a drama that felt truly refreshing. If you were expecting more of the same this season you’ll still get aspects you like, but much like the core elements of show it zags when you expect it zig. Rather than spending our time with our usual crew Earn (Donald Glover), Van (Zazie Beetz), Alfred/Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) in the city of Atlanta, this season partially spends time with these characters in Europe. I say partially because this is where the season’s most left field element comes into play with four of the ten episodes being anthology style episodes exploring Whiteness in some fashion.
These Black Mirror-esque episodes have premises that have interesting hooks on paper: a White man’s life is turned upside down when he finds out he has to pay reparations, a mixed-race high school student wants to get a lofty college scholarship, but in order to do so has to prove he’s Black, and etc. However these episodes turned out, rather than twisting my expectations, they only intensified my desire for the familiar, especially when that familiar is so good.
Though the central characters mostly find themselves as fish out of water as they explore Europe while on Alfred’s tour, the cast still prove to be extremely familiar and locked into their characters. Atlanta continues to have one of the most versatile ensembles currently on television and this season (for the most part) gives them gems of scenes that I felt were emotionally affecting. Just look at the speed at which Tyree Henry is able to cycle emotions through facial expressions as he encounters an unusual fan in the episode “Cancer Attack,” or how Stanfield can break your heart in under a minute when he realizes he’s led to the gentrification of a small Nigerian restaurant in “White Fashion.”
In a season that seems to be purposefully uninterested in the interconnectivity between episodes, and even the main character’s storylines, the wide anthology episodes made me miss the characters I’ve grown to love over the past two seasons. Nowhere is this more apparent with Beetz and Glover who, as Van and Earn, feel like they have a lot less to do this season than normal. Both characters feel at the opposite ends of the spectrum while on this trip – Earn is hyper focused on managing his now successful cousin, meanwhile Van is hard to get a lock on in multiple senses of the word. Her character disappears for days, and episodes on end, to the concern of Earn, and when we do see her it’s hard to get a lock on her and why exactly she traveled to Europe.
This comes to the fore in the finale where we follow three women, Candace (Adriyan Rae), Xosha (Xosha Roquemore), and Shanice (Shanice Castro) who see Van at a cafe, the latter of whom is now mysteriously speaking French, carrying a baguette as a weapon, and now possibly knows actor Alexander Skarsgård? Through the persistence of Candace, who knows Van from Atlanta, the two eventually have an honest conversation and we find out that Van had been struggling with her mental health which led her to starting a new life in Europe. During this dramatic moment Beetz’s performance is moving and again it made me wish I could cut out the anthology episodes to spend more time with her and the others.
This is perhaps an unfair desire from a show that has set no promises or expectations of what it can and should be from day one. With this season the creatives of Atlanta pushed that to the extreme giving us something unpredictable with its blend of anthology episodes and serving us a hand on a dinner plate, creatively speaking. As such, you must forgive me that my reaction upon its arrival is to politely ask for a plate of something more familiar.