‘Atlanta’ Season 3 Lands in Europe With Its Brilliantly Original Style Intact

The wait was certainly worth it for the return of “Atlanta.” Four years after we watched Earn (Donald Glover) and his rapper cousin, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), board an airplane headed for a future full of possibility, the show is back without missing a beat. Under the guidance of showrunner Glover and director Hiro Murai, this remains one of the best, most original Peak TV programs. By choosing to open season three across the world in Amsterdam, Glover makes sure the narrative feels fresh and still linked to what came before. The narrative is still moving and growing, while never losing sight of its major themes about ambition, history and race in America. Surrealism, humor, and biting social commentary all combine for a rather hypnotic experience.

There is a great freedom to the style of “Atlanta,” which almost captures what some critics mean when they describe Peak TV as the new novel. The first episode of the season, “Three Slaps,” functions as a long prologue cloaked in a dream. A young elementary schooler, Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar), has a dream turned nighhtmare about a white and Black man fishing over a lake created in what used to be a Black community. He then wakes up in class to hear the teacher announce a field trip to see “Black Panther 2,” as part of the “Change Atlanta” initiative sponsored by the Atlanta Falcons and Pizza Hut. Loquareeous stands up to dance in celebration but the stunt gets him into trouble. When a guidance counselor catches his mom and grandfather berating him over his behavior in a school hallway, she calls family services. Loquareeous is soon put under the care of two white women, Amber (Laura Dreyfuss) and Gayle (Jamie Neumann), who have already adopted three other Black children to supplement their income. The writing takes a dark spin, turning the two women into caricatures of a self-righteous white mindset, and pulling from the unnerving true murder–suicide story of Sarah and Jennifer Hart who, in 2018, drove their six adopted children and themselves off a cliffside. In this episode, written by Stephen Glover, the women serve small portions of bland food, since it’s “healthier,” and don’t allow words like “hate” in the house. They are subtly racist, abusive and use the kids as free laborers to pick vegetables in their garden and paint the house. Loquareeous can also overhear the two women discuss growing financial problems. It all spirals to a horrifying ending that involves Loquareeous leaping to freedom before their van hurtles off a cliff and crashes into a river. This is when Earn suddenly awakens in a Copenhagen hotel room with a nameless woman asleep next to him. It was all a nightmare conjured by his subconscious. 

The second episode, “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town,” firmly brings us back to the world of the main characters. Earn is no longer just an aspiring manager, he has arrived and is practically babysitting Alfred, known to the world as Paper Boi, during a European tour. They are now in Amsterdam. It is certainly an inviting place, but first Earn has to deal with missing laptops, shady promoters and getting Paper Boi out of jail (which in Amsterdam looks like a hotel compared to the U.S.). Also along for the ride is a high Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) and Van (Zazie Beetz). They both go on a quirky adventure involving a meditative euthanasia group helping a man die. Darius is certain the patient is Tupac. The suspicion is somewhat warranted when during the final death procedure, the group starts playing “Hail Mary.” We also learn through hints in the dialogue that Van has a new boyfriend, while her and Earn’s daughter, Lottie, is staying with Van’s parents back in America. It’s not immediately clear why Van is even in Europe. This is slow burner TV, where not all is revealed too quickly.

With this new setting, “Atlanta” still retains its thematic scope. The opening story of Loquareeous plays like a collective nightmare of the Black American subconscious. In “Three Slaps,” it’s easy for Amber and Gayle to parade the kids around at a public event, even with a sign hanging around Loquareeous’s neck that reads, “Free(dom) Hugs.” When white cops ask questions, it turns into a pro-cop article in the local paper. Questions of racism and society follow Earn and Paper Boi to Amsterdam. Paper Boi’s arrest is revealed to have been the result of a night spent with two women, one Black and one white, who started fighting when the white woman nonchalantly used the N word. Quite startling for the two Black Americans is the appearance all around them of Dutch people in blackface. They soon learn it is part of a Dutch Christmas folk tradition. Zwarte Piet is Santa’s little helper in this corner of the globe, whose face is caked dark after falling through a chimney. “Sounds more like Santa’s slave,” Earn tells their driver. There’s much lighter humor when Earn catches the sniffles and everyone, anywhere, say “gesundheit” when he sneezes.

Now equipped with more clout because of growing success, Paper Boi and Earn decide not to go through with the show, claiming Paper Boi feels ill. The irate promoter senses the real reason and beats down a concert goer in Zwarte Piet blackface. When “Atlanta” first premiered in 2016, it was groundbreaking and part of the emerging trend of “slow burner” television. It is a TV terrain where the elegance of arthouse combines with the episodic style of a series. Other shows in this vein, like “Mr. Robot,” have come and gone. “Atlanta” proves you can take a break, see most of your cast break out into wider stardom, and still return strong as ever. This darkly funny, surreal season premiere confirms the power of this show goes beyond the typical rags-to-riches fairy tale. Glover wants to capture mindsets and moods more than recycled plots. “Atlanta” is about being a Black American, about finding one’s footing in the world with the ghosts of history weighing down, and how strange it all feels.

Atlanta” season three premieres March 24 and airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.