‘Atlanta’ Season 3 Defied Convention With Its Provocative Anthology Spirit and Bold Strokes of Creativity

The third season of “Atlanta” never played by the rules. After a four-year hiatus much was expected from the groundbreaking drama series created by its star, Donald Glover, which has contributed to important discussions going on in American entertainment, while never compromising on being dynamic as a TV series. For this third season, Glover not only defied expectations, he took the show to truly unexpected places in terms of its structure. Aside from moving the general plot across the Atlantic to Europe, it also took on the format of an anthology series, putting aside its protagonists for five out of ten episodes. What it never lost was its voice. Whether taking its main characters abroad or dabbling in horror, what never went away was the show’s ability to touch on the psyche of America’s Black history. Some may call the anthology format employed this season as going too far, yet it’s refreshing to see showrunners willing to truly utilize what TV can offer as a medium. The finale that now closes the season signals that Glover doesn’t see an end to his vision anytime soon.

Glover directs the finale, titled “Tarrare,” which begins on a comedic note as Candice (Adriyan Rae), who you may remember from the second season episode involving a party thrown by Drake, sits in Paris with two friends, Xosha (Xosha Roquemore) and Shanice (Shanice Castro). Candice’s isn’t exactly out here on vacation. A rich man has flown her out to Paris to pay her $6,000 so she will urinate on him. She spots Van (Zazie Beetz), who now sports a French accent and bob cut. Despite the awkward nature of this discovery, Candice and the other two women tag along with Van on her “errands.” She takes them into a luxury hotel where actor Alexander Skarsgård is dancing to Ashanti. To Candice’s surprise, Van starts planting drugs in Skarsgård’s room, explaining that it’s part of their psycho-sexual games. She even alerts the front desk. The group continues into an odyssey that includes beating down a guy named Emilio at a museum with a rather stiff baguette, for failing to deliver a specific item to Van in a cooler. That item turns out to be severed hands cooked and served by Van’s new chef boyfriend at an exclusive dinner party attended by obviously wealthy guests. 

In a nod to the show’s increasing use of layered meanings, the title of “Tarrare” is taken from the story of an 18th-century French soldier who was famous for a ravenous appetite that could grow to grotesque levels (such as the eating of live animals). Appetites certainly drive this finale, which like a large part of the season, is a strong and puzzling short story. Out of a hunger to find a new identity, Van completely changes from the former elementary school teacher and mother of Lottie, her daughter with Earn (Glover), into a strange adventurer guiding us into a surreal experience. The dinner scene with cooked and seasoned hands could be out of an Alejandro Jodorowsky film, especially when Skarsgård reappears, smacking his lips, ready to dine. “Atlanta” has always utilized surrealist creativity, as in that memorable second season episode, “Teddy Perkins,” with obvious references to Michael Jackson. 

Much of this season of “Atlanta” has taken on a dreamlike tone, with standalone episodes that also function like surreal fantasies rooted in the Black American experience. We did get episodes on Earn’s ongoing adventures in Europe with Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), where they discover that navigating race in Europe can be as tricky as in the United States. At one point Al joined the “diversity board” of a fashion brand trying to overcome the controversies of a recent campaign. There were also stolen phones and issues with building blueprints. Earn had to deal with Van’s appearing in Europe and the tensions in their relationship. Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) was given more ample space to shine as a character this season in episodes featuring biting commentary and satire. In “White Fashion,” he indirectly contributes to the gentrification of a West African restaurant in London by introducing the spot to a corporate staffer who ends up buying the building from its landlord, then sets up a food truck outside serving a dish named after Darius. The cameos also continue to be surprising in how guests are willing to contribute to edgy themes. The most significant this season belongs to Liam Neeson, who appears in the episode “New Jazz” and confronts, through the dialogue, his 2019 controversy revolving around a memory of him wanting to beat up any random Black guy after a friend was raped.

But the most memorable episodes were the standalone ones, which could be enjoyed almost apart from the wider plot. The episode “The Big Payback” imagined a reality where restitution taxes exist to fund slave reparations. A white man named Marshall (Justin Bartha) suddenly faces a lawsuit from a Black woman (Melissa Youngblood), whose great-great grandfather was owned by Marshall’s great-great grandfather. As much as Marshall would like to flee from the ghosts of history, he eventually ends the episode having lost most everything and working in the service industry, with a small amount of his paycheck going to the restitution demanded of him. In “Trini 2 De Bone,” the death of a white family’s Black nanny is a powerful commentary on those who work caring for the children of the socially privileged, thus sacrificing time with their own families. This episode has a dramatic reach that can be connected to the experience of migrant service workers all over the country.

A particularly brilliant episode in this vein is “Rich Wigga Poor Wigga,” about Aaron (Tyriq Withers), a biracial high schooler who passes for white, dates a white girlfriend and has no Black friends. When a benefactor offers to pay for the full-ride scholarships of any Black students who can prove they are indeed Black, Aaron suddenly has to prove his merit. When Aaron is rejected for not being Black enough, he then engages in a fiery standoff to burn down the campus with Felix (Tireni Oyenusi), who was rejected for being able to trace his lineage specifically to Nigeria. It’s a satirically bold way at exploring various issues including biracial people feeling the need to fit in with white culture and also the dilemmas faced by African immigrants, who are not readily associated with the same struggles of the Black American community for various societal and historical reasons. At the same time, someone like Aaron is also marooned in a society dominated by labels. Being biracial, he’s perceived in certain ways by both Black and white circles. When the cops arrive and shoot Felix, he is suddenly deemed worthy of the scholarship.

While these episodes deviate from the central “plot” of “Atlanta,” they also demonstrate a creative boldness by Glover and his key collaborators, director Hiro Murai and sibling Stephen Glover, who writes and produces, to take advantage of TV as a medium. Unlike movies, television shows offer a massive terrain to experiment. This season used episodes like short films. It all somewhat comes back around in “Tarrare” when Candice sits with Van by the Seine River, after she berates her for choosing such a bizarre life and leaving her daughter behind. Van admits that she contemplated suicide while driving in Atlanta, having lost all sense of purpose after losing her job as a teacher. She left Lottie with her parents and made her way to France, apparently inspired by the idea of becoming like the central character in the 2001 arthouse French hit, “Amelie.” But now, she admits it’s time to go home. In a hotel, Shanice appears to fill in for Candice and pees on the rich man, unleashing a golden shower that threatens to drown him per his sudden plea to stop. Maybe that’s the show’s subtle way of telling us where Glover will take the narrative. Or maybe not since there is a post-credits scene where Earn receives some lost luggage that belongs not to him, but to Earnest (Tobias Segal), a white character we saw in both the season premiere and in “The Big Payback,” as possibly a dream white alter-ego of Earn’s. But if he’s a dream, how is Earn receiving his luggage in the real world? “Atlanta” ends with more questions than answers, but they are as stimulating questions for our ongoing social discussions in this age of new awareness and historical reckonings. 

Atlanta” season three finaled May 19 on FX.