It’s the nature of most television to lose its edge, for a series to tumble backward as new shows push the envelope further than that original series could ever envision. When star and creator Donald Glover’s hilarious and surreal black-comedy series, “Atlanta,” premiered in 2016 on FX, a quartet of African Americans moving through the music business while venturing across the eponymous city landscape was biting, and in some respects, revolutionary.
Now, entering its final season, it’s worth taking note of how each season has quite obviously progressed like the career of a band. In the first — Earn (Glover), Al (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and Van (Zazie Beetz) — were scrappy outsiders defined as much by their rebellion against a white, corporate machine as their own artistic ethos. The second season saw them find success. And in the third, they became major stars touring Europe (while ever so slightly moving toward the middle). Each individual member has witnessed their career flourish; or watched their life, away from the show, become distinct; and seen their style evolve from fitting the group’s homogeneity to instead expressing their unique personal brand.
The narrative arc of the series, of course, matches the real-world growth of the show’s cultural footprint and the sudden mainstream status it holds over newer, more subversive shows. Maybe that’s why season four has taken on more of a back-to-basics feeling? Because when a supergroup has lost its way, don’t the members ultimately announce how they’re returning to their roots to recapture the magic? Through the first three episodes provided for review, the cohesiveness that once catapulted this series to prominence, however, barely exists. All that’s left are the shards of what once was.
Written by Glover and directed by Hiro Murai, the premiere episode for season four flounders. In it, Darius is chased by an old white woman brandishing a knife in a motorized wheelchair because she suspects him of looting an air fryer. Is the woman wheelchair user a joke or a truly sinister being? What does she add to Darius’ character? The symbolism of the character is thin, at best. Darius is dangled as little more than a carrot to teach white folks about racism, I guess? Meanwhile, Van and Earn are trapped in a gentrified shopping center populated by their long-lost exes. Van and Earn’s arduous journey, similarly, reveals nothing about them. When will Van be used as more than window dressing? Why are her storylines so shallow, so unwilling to imbue her with more detail and personhood?
Al is the only component of the episode that hits. After learning that one of his early influences has passed away, a rapper named Blue Blood, Al goes on a scavenger hunt using the clues hidden in Blood’s last songs in the hope of finding him alive and well. Over the last four-year season, Tyree Henry’s ability to thread lived-in emotions through the series’ ever-tenuous narrative direction has grown immeasurably. The forlornness blooming from him papers over whatever shortcomings exist in the script (of which there are many).
While episode two offers a flash of the show’s former hard-hitting storytelling glory — Earn attends therapy after suffering from anxiety attacks stemming from the bigotry he faced at Princeton, and a children’s book author believes she’s finally caught her big break — episode three falters from the same inability to cohere these characters into a satisfying whole. While the second episode relied on stirring scenes of Earn revealing how spite drives him, the third installment is nearly devoid of such pathos.
The third episode, directed by Adamma Ebo (“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”), wilts by trying to connect two disparate storylines without giving either any dramatic heft. In the hopes of signing neo-soul singer D’Angelo as a client, Earn travels to a gas station bathroom, whose stark cement interior is retrofitted to mirror the waiting room from “Men in Black.” Much like Earn awaiting an audience with D’Angelo, the viewer languishes for a scant payoff. Meanwhile, Al is paid by a rich Jewish guy to mentor his white-rapping son in the music business. At the studio, a few older rappers, trying to stave off their waning popularity, share their business plan with Al to find easy paydays by putting their names behind Young White Avatars (white kids with the ability to cross over, in a way these Black artists cannot).
Per usual with “Atlanta,” the episode is somewhat based on a real-life parallel. One YMA nicknamed “Yodel Kid” is probably inspired by Mason Ramsey, the Walmart Yodel Kid who, after going viral in 2018, built out a streaming music career. It’s also a fitting storyline for Al. By now, Paper Boi isn’t a rapper subsisting on the fringes. He’s filling arenas. But once you get to the top, it’s not only about how you stay there. You have to ask: “What’s left?” Tyree Henry ruminates on that question as Al with palpable melancholy. If only the rest of the series was as consistent as Tyree Henry.
Does “Atlanta” have any enchantment left? After beginning as a series strictly concerned with insider, Black cultural humor, then becoming a national barometer for white people wanting to know the souls of Black folks, how can it return to what worked? And in what ways will it do right by these characters that we’ve come to love (in particular, Van)? Whatever the solution, it’ll never have the same feeling of seeing the neighborhood’s best-kept-secret performing a gig in a friend’s basement. It won’t be the album that seemed so written for you, it could’ve been written by you. And it won’t give you that us against the world feeling. Because the “us” now also includes “them.” Of course, it’s only 3 episodes so far, but The “Atlanta” you once knew may be gone, and if so, soon, so will this lesser one too. [C]