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Donald Glover’s surreal ‘Atlanta’ was one of the realest things on TV

8 min

Note: This article discusses plot points from the final season of “Atlanta.”

The opening of “Atlanta’s” final season found its main cast navigating various scenarios that played out like mini horror films: Earn (Donald Glover) and his co-parent/erstwhile girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) repeatedly run into former lovers at a popular open-air shopping mall, where they find themselves stuck — purgatory-style — after running errands. Earn’s cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), a.k.a. Paper Boi, learns Blueblood, one of his favorite rappers, died and embarks on a scavenger hunt that leads him to the artist’s meticulously self-planned funeral. Meanwhile, their friend Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) is confronted by a Karen, who spends the entirety of the episode menacingly stalking him because she believes he stole an air fryer he attempts to return to Target.

The episode’s title, “The Most Atlanta,” could easily be tweaked to “The Most ‘Atlanta’ ” for how it captures the balance of absurdity and striking reality that made Donald Glover’s dreamlike dramedy a singular show. In the FX show’s early episodes, Earn, back home in Atlanta after leaving Princeton University without a degree, hustles to persuade his cousin Alfred to let him manage his burgeoning rap career. By the end of the first season, Alfred is on the brink of fame beyond Atlanta’s thriving hip-hop scene. Earn, motivated in part by his responsibility to Van and their young daughter, Lottie, is on the verge of financial independence but still struggling: the final shot — heightened by the Outkast classic “Elevators” — reveals that he’s sleeping in a storage unit.

Though “Atlanta” stretched into surrealism, the series was always grounded in the realities of its main characters and their life experiences — as Black men, as millennials, as a rapper (Paper Boi), as a college dropout (Earn), as a well-connected weirdo (Darius) — and, in Van’s case, as a Black woman and mother. The first season set the show’s hazy tone, punctuated by the wildest of moments: an invisible car hits a crowd of people emerging from a nightclub; a bow-tied man offers Earn unsolicited advice and a Nutella sandwich on a bus; Paper Boi appears on a panel show that goes off the rails, peppered with commercials that parodied certain staples of Black culture without explaining the inside jokes behind “pre-dumped” Swisher Sweets, a man left with nothing but his Dodge Charger and utter confusion around the tax on iced tea advertised to cost 99 cents. (A Trix cereal parody that ended with a police officer threatening to shoot sugar-seeking kids was less subtle.)

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Atlanta is an epicenter of Black culture and Glover’s series put the Georgia city at the center of its universe. Being Black can sometimes feel like living in the future (that “new” slang the kids are using on TikTok has been part of the lexicon in Black communities for decades) and “Atlanta” similarly felt ahead of its time. The series featured Migos, amid the Atlanta trio’s rising fame, in a hilarious first-season cameo. Another Season 1 installment basically predicted the title of an album Justin Bieber might release, say, after a national racial reckoning: “Justice.” In a classically “Atlanta” twist, the Bieber as portrayed on the show was Black and the series subtly nodded to the implications that dimensional variation might have had for the pop star’s troubled teen years.

Few Black TV shows — that is, shows by Black creators with Black leads — have been as surreal, in large part because of systemic barriers Black writers and producers have faced in the industry. That heightened reality has been rarer still outside of sketch comedy (“In Living Color,” “Chappelle’s Show,” “Key and Peele”), adult animation (“The Boondocks”) and intermittent sitcom interludes (see: “Everybody Hates Chris,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Blackish”). Glover was well aware of this when he pitched his series, prompting him to veil the show’s central themes. “I was Trojan-horsing FX,” he told the New Yorker in 2018. “If I told them what I really wanted to do, it wouldn’t have gotten made.”

Season 2’s oddball standout, “Teddy Perkins,” was a meditation on fame and childhood trauma that revolved around a reclusive Michael Jackson-like musician. The episode, which feels like a short film, was helmed by Glover’s longtime collaborator Hiro Murai, who, despite never working in television before, helmed the bulk of “Atlanta’s” episodes, helping to frame the show’s cinematic tone. Other installments were directed by Janizca Bravo (“Zola”), Amy Seimetz (“The Girlfriend Experience”) and Glover, who made his directorial debut with the show’s sixth episode. Glover became the first Black director to win an Emmy for a comedy for his work on “B.A.N.,” the Season 1 episode that featured the parody panel show and commercials.

Across the show’s four seasons, Glover and his collaborators — in a largely Black writer’s room, run by the creator’s brother, Stephen Glover — worked in subtle commentary about being Black in the entertainment industry (or any industry, really). One Season 4 episode features a heavily made-up Glover as a Tyler Perry-like figure who exerts godlike control across his sprawling studio; another final season installment is a mockumentary that dissects “The Goofy Movie” as a film about Black fatherhood (a well-traveled theory holds that Goofy is Black) with straight-faced cameos from journalist Jenna Wortham, comedian Sinbad and R&B singer Brian McKnight. “The Goof Who Sat By the Door” revolves around a fictional Black animator who unwittingly becomes the CEO of Disney and is driven mad while trying to make the 1995 “Goof Troop”-inspired comedy “the Blackest movie of all time” at a predominantly White media conglomerate.

“Atlanta” mastered the art of the bottle episode, with some stand-alone installments featuring the core cast and others focusing on characters who had never been part of the main story. The third season was criticized for taking Earn and the crew outside of Atlanta as Paper Boi embarked on a European arena tour, and focusing several segments on White families. But these episodes — which tackled cultural appropriation and White privilege — weren’t incongruous to “Atlanta’s” mission. The series was as much about Earn, Paper Boi, Darius and Van as it was about the way they saw the world and the ways in which it saw (or didn’t see) them.

Like Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” “Atlanta” was a coming-of-age story — a narrative woefully underrepresented when it comes to Black shows despite being such a universal experience. By the show’s fourth season, Earn is successful and well paid enough to see a therapist — a Black, male therapist with whom he has an easy rapport. It’s in a therapy session that we learn why Earn left Princeton so abruptly: he hadn’t dropped out but was expelled after an incident involving a White student and fellow RA he thought was his friend. It was this betrayal that motivated Earn to become successful, independent of the Ivy League school where, he tells his therapist, he “was one of, like, 12 Black kids.” Success hits differently for Alfred, who finds himself contemplating fame and what it means in the long term.

The final season sets up a major life change for Earn, who is considering a move to Los Angeles, and Van, who agrees to join him after he declares his love for her and his desire to raise their daughter together. On another series, we might see that fairy tale ending play out. But on Thursday, “Atlanta” ended its run with an episode fittingly titled “It Was All a Dream” — a classic rap reference and a nod to the show’s illusory tone.

The series finale begins with Darius watching TV before heading to his weekly spirit-lifting treatment in a sensory deprivation tank. Everything that occurs after that — a Cree Summer cameo; a police encounter that turns farcical; a visit to a lost loved one; a “thick” Judge Judy; a harrowing afternoon meal at a Black-owned sushi restaurant and Darius, saving the day with Popeyes chicken after rolling up in a Pepto-Bismol-colored Maserati — is less clear-cut. Did that just happen? Did any of it?

If you’ve watched “Atlanta,” it won’t surprise you that we never quite find out, which is not to say the episode is meaningless. “Atlanta” regularly presented nuggets of wisdom through the most ridiculous situations.

Take “The Goof Who Sat By the Door,” for example. The mockumentary episode unpacks a central theme that could easily be applied to Glover’s innovative and groundbreaking series. The fictional animator’s son references a meme he says reminds him of his late father and his work, which only had one goal: to show “Black folks living their lives, being funny, being free, being real.”