‘Atlanta’ Returns Home for a Final Season of Searing Reflections

A series like “Atlanta” can gain such confidence that it just seems to ease into its final season. How the season will go is hard to predict from merely the first episodes. What is certain is that creator and star Donald Glover has no intention of simplifying and watering down the spirit of “Atlanta” for its final round. Although these initial episodes don’t begin with the startling change of locale that kicked off season three, when the setting switched to Europe, it’s still a disorienting, dreamlike commentary on Black America, ambition and the restlessness of a generation. The underdogs are now fully on top, yet there remains these large inner voids and fears. All of it swirls together with society’s own contradictions and ills.

Much of what keeps the consistency, as with other notable Peak TV titles, is that the core team has not changed. The premiere, “The Most Atlanta,” is directed by regular Hiro Murai with Glover and his brother Stephen writing.  It opens with us back in Georgia as Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) is trying to return an air fryer at a department store currently being looted. Even the cashier decides to bolt with the cash Darius was expecting to be returned to him. Deciding he should leave too, Darius is confronted by a scene where a white woman (Deadra Moore) in a motorized scooter tries to block the looters. After she gets sprayed with fire extinguishers, she decides to focus her rage on a confused Darius, chasing him around town with a small knife. Darius momentarily reaches Al (Brian Tyree Henry), who is stuck in a traffic jam and learns that one of his favorite rappers, Blueblood, has died. Later, while pumping gas, he makes his way to a barbecue spot to order a “zoo pie” mentioned in one of the now late rapper’s songs. Could it be the initiation of a scavenger hunt? Meanwhile Earn (Glover) and Van (Zazie Beetz) visit the Atlantic Station outdoor mall, but continuously bump into exes from the past, as if this were some kind of strange relationship purgatory.

The season opener is more of a lightly entertaining prologue that sets the stage for the larger themes explored in the second episode, “The Homeliest Little Horse,” which lets Earn take center stage. Now he’s growing into a different kind of complex personality. He has money and keeps being offered great jobs, but there’s a bitterness or lingering emptiness causing him to suffer chest pains and seek therapy. Most of the second episode is a therapy session, where he opens up about Princeton asking him to speak, for which he demanded an honorary degree. He also shares about why he was expelled from the university due to one of those incidents fueled by pure bad luck and subtle racism. This is juxtaposed with another storyline involving Liza (Brooke Bloom), an aspiring children’s author who also stares at her muscular Black neighbor. She gets an email from a potential literary agent praising a book of hers he found online. 

How the white aspiring author connects to Earn is one of the premiere’s twists that are both a bit shocking but also revelatory. He’s always been a likable guy, but now with wealth and access, a more unsettling side is emerging. Now he has the power to get revenge for past slights, or to correct the sting of a memory involving the kind of micro racist aggressions Black Americans and other groups experience every day. But even Darius has to admit that what Earn does to Liza crosses a certain line of pettiness. In a broader context, the writing is exploring the issue of spite. An entire community can feel it because of history and a long experience of being wronged. Earn tells his therapist spite is good because it’s pure. Darius’s earlier semi-horror movie incident involving the enraged “Karen” on the scooter is itself a reference to a surreal incident from 2020, when a similar woman tried to stab looters at a Minneapolis Target. It’s the kind of real-life event Glover and team know how to reference.

As Earn has to face himself, Al is the one going on a more contemplative, almost metaphysical journey that begins in low-key comic fashion in the first episode. By following apparent favorite spots of the late Blueblood, culminating in finding an original comic book and a 3D movie, Earn then finds what seems to be the rapper’s “funeral,” where his wife is sitting alone with the casket. For Al, it all becomes a valuable lesson in staying detached, in a healthy away, from the allure of stardom, even after you’ve reached it. Blueblood’s death was not announced for three months and the items and journey to his funeral seem to be meant for those who truly matter, for the fans who really cared for the music and art. While Earn is starting to use his newfound power in ways meant to satisfy old wounds, Al also has to learn in a different way not to lose himself.

This season of “Atlanta” begins with the feeling of returning to the basics. The last time around took on the style of an anthology series, at times pushing Earn far into the background. Some fans were confused while others embraced the avant-garde experimentation. But Glover is reminding us now that he has never forgotten what made this show so appealing, even when it could become hallucinatory. It’s a fable about chasing the American Dream that looks at the effort with startling, sobering eyes. Individuals can reach their goals, while still feeling the weight of history and social trauma. Earn has achieved what seemed so far away back in season one, but he can’t escape what truly ails his heart and soul. Money can’t buy happiness even if it provides security and basic comfort. This great show is not going to sell out just as it nears its final performance.

Atlanta” season four premieres Sept. 15 and airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.