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Atlanta Season 3 Is TV at Its Most Surreal and Ambitious

We talk with the lead writer of Donald Glover's comedy series about the wild third season, the finale and how that Liam Neeson cameo happened.

Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry in the show Atlanta
Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Van (Zazie Beetz), Earn (Donald Glover) and Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) all immerse themselves in the very weird atmosphere of Europe.
FX

Donald Glover's Atlanta on FX hasn't lost any of its wit and charm after its long four-year hiatus. The third season is Atlanta not only at its most surreal, but its most ambitious as it broadens its horizons beyond the scope of America. It's one of 2022's best returning shows.

When it premiered in 2016, Glover pitched the series as "Twin Peaks with rappers," which is fair considering it's a satirical and surrealist view of Georgia's flourishing rap scene. The universe of Atlanta is a weird one. Black Panther 2 is out, invisible cars exist, Justin Bieber is Black and America has finally given Black citizens reparations for slavery -- and this is all while the main crew navigates the very real struggles of being Black in America.

Yet what really elevates Donald Glover's weirdly poignant comedy series is how it manages to hit a nerve that most didn't know was exposed -- a type of nerve that feels all the more tender in 2022.

Just before the premiere of the season 3 finale, I spoke with Atlanta's lead writer and executive producer, Stefani Robinson, about the making of season 3 and conveying a season-long message about Black agency and "the curse of whiteness." (Note: Minor spoilers ahead.)

"We wrote this season in 2019, so this was before the pandemic, before the bigger Black Lives Matter demonstrations," Robinson explained. "[2020] was this weird, painful moment in time, These episodes were then put out into a world that was publicly having these difficult feelings and conversations. We made tweaks here and there, but this season was pretty much the plan we had [in 2019], in terms of the stories we wanted to tell. "

Atlanta characters Darius, Alfred, Earn and Van walk in the middle of a street

The main cast find themselves out of sorts but still thriving in Europe.

FX

The third season picks up sometime after the main crew's successful rap tour, with Earn (Donald Glover); Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry); Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Van (Zazie Beetz) riding high while on an odyssey of sorts through Europe. While we see plenty of the main cast stumbling and thriving in equal measure, things take a turn for the weird with several standalone episodes that feel like Atlanta's take on Black Mirror, which is also how the show keeps one foot planted in America.

One of the common threads Atlanta touches on throughout this series is that being a Black person in the modern world can be weird, almost to the point of inspiring existential dread. Specifically, to be Black in America is to know life as an outsider. That feeling is all the more magnified with the central characters exploring Europe and experiencing life outside their bubble.

This aspect makes season 3 so novel. The main crew get the spotlight throughout the season, revealing some long-tempering insecurities they have along the way. Yet the European setting acts as a great way to heighten Atlanta's "fish out of water" aspect. While they are more comfortable and free to go about their lives without experiencing the very American brand of racism, they still can feel "othered" in very European ways. This puts the main crew in situations where they experience how seemingly kind European jails are compared to their American counterparts, but also the awkward casual racism of European festivities like Zwarte Piet.

Donald Glover as Earn in the show Atlanta

Earn continues his usual grind managing his cousin Alfred, aka Paper Boi.

FX

The change of scenery to Europe does a lot to emphasize how bleak life can be in an uncaring America, but it also makes clear they're not quite "home" in Europe either. This dichotomy is further emphasized with the unique bottle episodes of season three, or parables as Robinson describes them. They serve as a bird's-eye view of racism and the toxic "curse of whiteness."

I really enjoyed these episodes as an interesting way to commit to a thread without much baggage. A particular highlight of this season was episode 9's parable, which focused on a Black high schooler who passes himself off as white to fit in. Subsequently, he gets his comeuppance for trying to cash in on his Blackness to get a free scholarship from a Black billionaire. It's a searing look at how Blackness can be commodified, but it's also totally hilarious.

These stories are isolated, yet they tie into the larger story of Atlanta, which is about Blackness, in all its forms, in the modern world. While many of these episodes are played for laughs, the beginning of the season surprisingly starts with a horror story, focusing on an alternate retelling of the Hart family tragedy, which saw two parents commit murder-suicide against their adoptive Black kids.

While Atlanta often goes for laughs to highlight the absurd, it can also reach chilling places to devastating effect. Yet it all works to tell a story about the pervasiveness of racism, the effect it has had on others and the world it ended up creating.

Stefani Robinson, a writer for the Atlanta TV show

Stefani Robinson wrote the season 3 finale Tarrare, and she's been one of the key writers working alongside Donald and Stephen Glover to establish the series' tone.

FX

"It's sort of about accountability and generational trauma, and more specifically just the curse of whiteness," says Robinson about the themes of season 3. "Being black in America isn't just a thing that black people experience, but rather that racism, and the insidiousness of it in America; it's everyone's problem. We all become tainted by its evil. So I think that was sort of the bigger goal of these bottle episodes, aside from the comedy of it and the absurdness, y'know?"

Another surprise of this season was the plethora of celebrity cameos that came out of nowhere. In the episode New Jazz, which sees Alfred explore Amsterdam while under the influence, he enters the exclusive and secretive spot called the Cancel Club, where he meets Liam Neeson, playing an exaggerated take on himself.

In a surprisingly honest twist, he explains his intent in the controversial statements in 2019 about how he dealt with feelings of racism in his youth. What seems like a friendly chat takes a dark yet very Atlanta-style turn with Neeson expressing his disdain for Black people for trying to ruin his career. The scene ends with arguably the most cutting line of the series: "The best and worst thing about being White is that you don't have to learn anything if you don't want to."

According to Robinson, writing Neeson into the third season was a leap of faith, as they had conceived the idea before they actually asked him to do it. But eventually, series creator Glover managed to sell him on the idea, leading to the series' most unusual and unforgettable cameos.

Atlanta character Van gazes at the sky

Van quickly finds herself embracing life in Paris.

FX

One of its most surprising and touching moments comes from the season's raucous finale, titled Tarrare. This episode is a much-needed showcase for Zazie Beetz's character, Van, who the audience got to see themselves in as she arrived in Europe unexpectedly and had to reconnect with the crew. She was largely left to her own devices in Europe and was only shown on the periphery throughout this season. This, as it turns out, was all by design, as the season finale finally revealed what she was up to.

Not only had Van embraced life in Europe, she adopted a French accent and a new persona where she created chaos among the city's super-wealthy. This brings in another wild cameo, from actor Alexander Skarsgard, who seemed weirdly fixated on her schemes. Think of it as Atlanta paying homage to Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie, but much grittier and way more hilarious.

This finale gave Van some much-needed time to flourish, which she often struggled with at home. Though she was on the periphery, by design, she ended up having the most significant growth among the core cast this season. In many ways, the finale felt like a commentary and remedy for the lack of representation of Black female leads in media. It led to a satisfying conclusion for Atlanta's take on a European vacation.

According to Robinson, who penned the season finale, writing her European journey throughout season 3 was all about letting Van find herself.

"Zazie did such an incredible job of playing the humor of it and playing the heartbreak of it too towards the end," said Robinson. "You really watched Van do things in different, subtle ways throughout the season … the idea that she leaves the safety of her home in Atlanta and goes out into the world to figure out if there's something for her was really interesting to explore. There's something out here for Earn; there's something out here for Paper Boi; my child is becoming her own person. Like, 'Who am I? Maybe I'll find out who I am if I leave.' Yeah, that was just the impetus for the finale and her journey."

Even though its third season premiered nearly four years after the second, the series' razor-sharp insights on being Black in America -- and now abroad -- feels all the more relevant in our uncertain world. Thinking back on seasons 1 and 2, they feel somewhat quaint and tame compared to the ridiculousness and heartbreak of life we've all experienced in 2020 and beyond. But the third season has done a lot to get back up to speed, and it felt so satisfying seeing this series have its say again.

With the final season coming later this year, which was shot back-to-back with season 3, I can't help but feel a certain sadness that the show is approaching its end. But thankfully, it'll be going out on its own terms, and I hope that it'll continue to embrace the surreal and speak its mind to the very end.

The first three seasons of Atlanta are available to stream now on Hulu, with the fourth and final season set to premiere later in 2022.