In its first two outings, the auteur-driven, genre-defying absurdist dramedy “Atlanta” — about an aimless, upwardly immobile Princeton dropout named Earn (played by series creator Donald Glover) who remakes himself as the manager of his cousin Alfred’s (Brian Tyree Henry) fledgling rap career — was one of the most acclaimed shows on television. The crown jewel of its network, the already prestige-laden FX, it boasted Emmys, star power, buzz, influence and a rare, smirking wit that seldom got its due in the countless, and fully deserved, paeans to its trenchant social commentary and boundary-pushing experimentation. Perhaps the surest sign of its success is how many shows it’s inspired; it’s hard to imagine critic’s darlings like “Dave,” “Ramy” or “Reservation Dogs” existing without it.
But Season 3, which premiered this spring after a four-year hiatus, has had a more mixed reception. Much of it follows the cousins on Al’s (a.k.a. Paper Boi) latest European tour, where they’re joined by their ethereal buddy Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) and Earn’s on-off girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz). The departure from the series’ namesake city is accompanied by episode-long digressions from the core four’s storylines — detours that comprise nearly half of the 10 episodes in the penultimate season that concluded Thursday. (Season 4 is slated to premiere this fall.)
It’s hard to fault Glover and his collaborators for taking so many creative leaps when deviations from the show’s already wobbly norms have yielded some of its most memorable chapters, like Season 1’s anarchic media satire “B.A.N.” and Season 2’s wonderfully creepy Michael Jackson riff “Teddy Perkins.” But too many of the leaps this year failed to land satisfyingly, resulting in a season dense with meaning and ambition but frustratingly uneven. Here are five reasons Season 3 fell so short.
Minimal character development
When we last saw Earn and company, the guys were en route to Alfred’s first tour across the Atlantic. An unknown amount of time has passed since, during which Paper Boi has gone big. (In Season 2, he was dead broke; now, he’s got $20,000 in pocket change he can throw down on a random poker game.) Entire shows have been made about the discomforts of success, and the even greater discomforts of mere proximity to it. But “Atlanta” — after skipping over much of the growing pains endemic to this phase in its characters’ lives — keeps hitting the same emotional beats as in previous seasons: Earn can never feel like he’s doing enough, an alienated Alfred has been emotionally ravaged by fame, and Darius remains open to the infinite wackiness of the universe. Van has undergone the most change, psychologically spiraling and seemingly abandoning Lottie, her young daughter with Earn, but the transformation is so drastic and underdeveloped it feels less like a deepening of her story than a personality transplant for a character the writers don’t know how to incorporate into the show anymore.
It wasn’t an inherently bad idea to skip so far ahead in the central quartet’s lives, but glossed-over development and separating the main characters from one another mean that the camaraderie that grounded the series is in conspicuously short supply. Add the reduced screen time of the foursome, and it feels like we were denied time with the people that kept us watching in the first place.
Underwhelming stand-alone episodes
It didn’t help that the four installments that focused on one-off characters were mostly middling. The strongest of the bunch was the season premiere, “Three Slaps,” inspired by the 2016 murder-suicide of the Hart family: White lesbians who killed their six Black adoptive children by driving their car off a cliff. The bleak start didn’t offer any angles or insights that hadn’t already been covered in the press, but the episode did manage to mine some dark humor and horror-inflected suspense in its reimagining of the weeks leading up to that final ride.
Unfortunately, the subsequent episodes — a satire about reparations, a fable about a Black caretaker of White children and a twist-filled study of a White-passing biracial teen’s identity crisis — were half-baked thought experiments, marked less by intellectual rigor or creative storytelling than a sour moralizing. There’s a compelling preoccupation with Whiteness and racial hauntings throughout the season that’s largely new — White characters often feeling encumbered by specters of Blackness they’re helpless in handling effectively or ignoring entirely, like the modern-day descendant of enslavers who tries to ignore his lineage until one of its embodiments starts literally knocking at his door. But the treatments of these ideas seldom get beyond their foundational elements.
There was one bit of stuntcasting that absolutely worked in Season 3: Alexander Skarsgard as a maniacally horny version of himself in the finale, seeking the attentions of women like Van who don’t mind humiliating him for their mutual enjoyment. But otherwise, when there was a notable casting choice in the new season, it felt like the politically unorthodox Glover trolling his audience and their presumed social values.
Chet Hanks, for example, was invited to reprise his viral Caribbean accent as a kind of tribute to his character’s Trinidadian nanny — a softening bit of self-parody that may distract from the allegations of domestic abuse from his Black ex-girlfriend against the actor. Then there’s Liam Neeson, playing himself, who snipes that the attempts to “cancel” him have made him hate Black people even more than when he was a (real-life) teenager hoping to murder a Black man to avenge his friend’s rape. And giving a small but prominent part of a petty philanthropist to Kevin Samuels, the controversial and recently deceased dating influencer long accused of peddling misogynoir, added nothing to the show but did annoy viewers who most likely dislike him enough to recognize him.
Underutilized European setting
Season 3 is easily the show’s most beautiful, thanks to its filming locations in Paris and Amsterdam. The writers capture particularly well the shock of old-fashioned racism (e.g., Blackface) experienced by its characters, who are otherwise often treated exceedingly humanely — even in jail, where Alfred is briefly detained following a threesome gone wrong.
Urban adventures are an integral part of “Atlanta’s” winding, fantastical charm. But in the first two seasons, those journeys added up to a winsomely cockeyed portrait of a metropolis that’s seldom received its due in pop culture despite its outsize cultural contributions. Rarely do the Season 3 European backdrops feel specific to those places — and why would they, when it’s just another oddball gajillionaire here, another act of racial microaggression there?
Eccentricity over humanity
Similarly, “Atlanta” has displayed its gimlet-eyed adoration for its titular city in part by cataloguing its many weirdos. The show’s enchantment has often stemmed from its ability to make Atlanta types more recognizable and more surreal at the same time — and in doing so, highlighting the humanity within their absurdities. But too often, Season 3 fails to conjure that same magic.
There are times when the show still manages to pull off that blessed trick, especially when taking satirical jabs at Black grifters who’ve figured out how to siphon White money into their own bank accounts. (A murderer’s row of social-justice influencers stand at the ready to trade Black absolution to scandal-plagued corporations for personal, if piddling, gain. “It’s the best,” says one such professional racism pardoner of his job. “I haven’t paid for a meal in 73 police shootings.”)
But the “Atlanta” economy ultimately runs on the diminishing returns of eccentrics, especially when they start getting weird for the sake of weird. At best, “Atlanta” sends us a postcard from Europe. It’s okay to miss the love letters.