Skip to content
Two Black men stand facing the viewer in a dark, blue-lit space. Donald Glover stands in the foreground, looking off frame, while LaKeith Stanfield stands in the background, with a hand framing his left eye.

Observed Online Reviews

‘Atlanta’ Is Back and Bold as Ever

With its deft skewering of white allyship, season 3 might be the show's most interesting one yet.

by Tre Johnson

Donald Glover and LaKeith Stanfield in "Cancer Attack," Atlanta, season 3, © 2022, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

In Atlanta, everything is proximate to the Black body economy. The show loves to open each season with a scene that underscores this theme. Season one begins with Paperboi’s parking lot clash in a way that unspooled the show’s commentary on everything from Black women’s worth; to Black fame; to ‘hood politics’, social media, and the criminal justice system. Sometimes these points were so direct they were undeniable; in true Atlanta style, episodes like “Value” and “Juneteenth” packed the show with so many messages it often felt like you were jumping into streams of consciousness with little more than a sense of the currents. 

Season two, referred to as “Robbin’ Season,”opened with two young Black brothers holding up a local fried chicken joint with insider knowledge, laying the groundwork for the season’s exploration of the many ways that we can often aggressively exploit each other for short-term gains. This popped up in several ways: gift card scams; the parasitic promise of celebrity adjacency; cultural appropriation and, of course, Teddy Perkins.

So far, each season has seemed bent on illuminating the ways that American society has found to profit off of Black culture and bodies, and that orientation hasn’t abated with its latest.  Season three’s first episode suggests that after a four-year hiatus—both intentional (creative) and unintentional (pandemic)—the show will be delving into the incurability and malleability of whiteness, and just how much our proximity to it has become inescapable. “Three Slaps” opens with two men–one Black, one white–night-fishing on a small boat in a local river that’s revealed to have a troubling, racist history. Before the screen violently fades to black the shifting camera focuses long enough for one character to ominously hiss to the other: “we’re cursed.” And from there, we’re off to the races.

A young black boy in a maroon hoodie and a hat kneels next to a vegetable garden. His gaze is directed offscreen.
Christopher Farrar in "Three Slaps," Atlanta, season 3, © 2022, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

Often, Atlanta positions itself in a near-but-adjacent time that feels just left of real life. “Three Slaps” references Black Panther 2 , despite the fact that in reality, the not-yet-released film has been beset with tragedy, including delays and a stubborn star with her own controversial political stances. The episode also deals with the complicated child protection and foster system, tracking how one young Black boy, LoQuareeous, played by Christopher Farrar, finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place: the heavy-handed, tough love of home with his mother and grandfather, and his replacement family when he’s put in the care of two white women who exploit and profit off of Black foster children. It’s one of Atlanta’s toughest episodes to swallow from beginning to end, touching on how so many systems, both structural and cultural, fail Black children, leaving them to almost literally drown in it all.

The show’s fourth episode, “The Big Payback,” follows Marshall Johnson (Justin Bartha); a white, middle manager in the midst of a marital separation, all against the backdrop of a pivotal legal suit that opens the door for reparations. The episode ends up feeling like a partial homage to the Chappelle’s Show’s 2003 skit, “Slavery Reparations,” while also evoking the sort of existential dread harbored by the anti-CRT crowd. It’s an approach that strikes the tone of Black Mirror. There’s even an edge of horror throughout, including a chase sequence that echoes Terminator 2. The show’s deftness lies in its ability to push its manifesto, even while boldly omitting any recognizable cast members in half of the first slate of episodes. It’s why episode four might be the most interesting of the lot so far; it represents an actual narrative consequence to its bodily profit-mining theme, when the series usually avoids exploring any sort of accountability for white people. Near the end of the episode, after spending days trying to refute a familial debt levied against him by a Black female stranger, whose ancestor was enslaved by his, Marshall finds solace commiserating with another white customer at a late-night hotel bar. “We’ll be okay,” he reassuringly says to Marshall, before leaving and taking a gun to his head in the hotel pool.

A bewildered white man stands in a coffee shop, wearing a navy jacket and clutching an iPhone.
Justin Bartha in "The Big Payback," Atlanta, season 3, © 2022, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

What continues to make Atlanta fascinating is the show’s audacity about time, place, and character. It blends genres in ways that seem to reflect a sense of boredom with conventional television, and at times, even with itself. With narrative and character departures like “Three Slaps” and “The Big Payback,” the show expands Atlanta’s universe, reminding us that the things that the core protagonists are dealing with aren’t circumstantial, but rather stitches in a wider tapestry.

At times, it might still feel jarring, even disappointing, for viewers eager to be reacquainted with Al, AKA Paperboi (Brian Tyree Henry), Earn (Donald Glover), Van (Zazie Beetz) and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). Fortunately, episodes two and three offer time to check-in with them as the troupe traipses through Europe as Al begins to enjoy the climb to rap stardom. Those episodes let us inside the characters and where they are now, treating us to Earn’s newfound confidence as his cousin’s manager; his old insecurity and hunger replaced with a smoldering coolness. Al, meanwhile, enjoys a brief stint in an Amsterdam jail in the most lushly stereotypical narrative about rappers and European incarceration culture. Darius, the sometimes life guru, gets paired with Van, who flies in at the height of what seems to be the same sort of existential angst that beleaguered her sometimes-partner Earn. The pair goes on an unintended adventure that results in “Sinterklaas”—an episode focused on the parallel, metaphorical release of two rappers: a spiritual one, witnessed by Van and Darius, while across town Earn hustles to arrange for Al’s more literal one.

Two Black men (LaKeith Stanfield and Bryan Tyree Henry) stare skeptically offscreen. LaKeith leans against a wall in the foreground with his arms crossed against his chest, while Bryan sits in a chair, arms also crossed.
LaKeith Stanfield and Bryan Tyree Henry in "Cancer Attack," Atlanta, season 3, © 2022, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

Flourishes like the specter of Amsterdam locals in blackface elicit a mixture of disgust and confusion, prompting a breaking point for Al after he finds himself on stage facing a sea of Golliwog-esque fans. This season stands out for its skewering of the phenomenon of performative white allyship, with various episodes honing in on their obsessive desire to affirm their goodness on race matters. Episode three, “The Old Man and The Tree,” follows the foursome into a lavish party at a billionaire’s home, hidden behind a shabby facade. There they become as much a dish as the plated food as Atlanta uses this setting to examine the global nature of anti-Blackness. A Darius subplot is born out of an awkward exchange with an Asian woman, which culminates in a circle of incensed, performative white allyship parading as protection, ironically leaving Darius defenseless as he watches the circle devour a person they’ve diagnosed as racist on his behalf. Meanwhile, the season’s midpoint, “Cancer Attack” features another one-night setting that forces Al, Earn, and Darius to untangle white lies and half truths as they try to recover Al’s missing cell phone. After a series of frustrating exchanges, the episode ends with a scene that demonstrates the nefarious potential of white allyship.

As often as Europe is popularly framed as more enlightened and tolerant of Black expats, there are moments in these episodes—like the disagreement between Earn and a local concert manager, which turns violent; or Earn’s connection with a young Black influencer/scammer via an oblivious white investor—that make it clear that such views are too generous (something that the cast has attested to in real life as well). Whether at home or abroad, Atlanta believes danger awaits Black people around every corner.   

With its violent beginnings, it seems clear that this season of Atlanta could eventually careen towards a similar end. In speaking about the show with The Hollywood Reporter, Glover has said that Atlanta’s peer is not its network cousin Dave, but rather the bygone HBO series The Sopranos. This makes sense; the lifestyles of both rappers and mafiosos have long been romanticized in popular culture, while also conveniently ignoring the tragedy and exploitation that those worlds sometimes inhabit. In both shows, the sub-economy revolves around bodies; an invisible ecosystem of above- and below-the-board business fuels relationships, dependencies, social and financial capital. The grayness of their worlds and the sometimes unnerving, principled amorality is easily dismissed as emotionally foreign, yet both shows underscore something undeniably true: this is America.




Monthly missives on film, art, and more.