It’s kind of impossible to discuss the third season of Atlanta without mentioning how long it’s been since the second season ended, so let’s get that out of the way first, briefly. The second season finale aired on May 10, 2018. Earlier that day, Fox canceled Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which means that show was saved by NBC, aired multiple additional seasons, and then ended again a second time since Atlanta‘s credits most recently rolled. Scandal had just aired its series finale a few weeks earlier. The series finale of The Americans was still about two weeks away, somehow. Disney Plus and HBO Max didn’t even exist yet, and wouldn’t for another year or two. If you hopped in a time machine bound for May 2018 right now and told the first person you saw that you love Baby Yoda, they would justifiably look at you like you had lost it.
There are two points I’m trying to make here. The first point is that, if you have a time machine, please use it for better purposes than this, or at least let me use it, just a little. (I’ll be right back.) The second and much more important point is that, like, it’s been a while.
Which is cool, in a way. Not so much in the “I like to have lots of episodes of the good shows parading into my eyeballs as often as possible” way, sure. But definitely in the way sometimes you have to wait for the good things, because they take time, and you can’t just expect the world to cater to your whims constantly, even though it kind of feels that way lately, what with the massive amount of shows coming out in a massive number of formats every week, giving you everything nownowmorenow. Atlanta is not that, and has never been that. It’s a show that makes you come to it on its terms, not your own, a vast technological future and present be damned.
And again… that’s cool. It’s always been a show that zigs when you expect it to zag, and zag when you expect it to zig, and launches itself straight up into the cosmos just when you think you’ve become comfortable with the zigging and zagging. Remember the Teddy Perkins episode? Remember how confused you were at the beginning of that, and throughout the majority of it, and how blown away you were by the end? Yeah. That’s the thing I’m getting at.
FX will assuredly send me a series of urgent emails if I come right out and tell you the things that happen in the first two episodes of the third season that were released to critics, but I think I can get away with saying this: Atlanta is still very much comfortable in subverting your expectations. That becomes clear right away. The show has things it wants to say and isn’t all that concerned if you want to know how Paper Boi’s big European tour went or is currently going. At least not right away. A lesser show would — could — never do this. There would be too many concerns about boring or confusing or frustrating the audience. Atlanta, to its credit, pretty much does not care about that. I have a lot of respect for this.
But let’s back up, again, briefly. The second season ended with Earn (Donald Glover) and Alfred aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and a bunch of other people getting on an airplane after a handgun fiasco in the airport, bound for the European tour I just mentioned. Did they get to Europe? Are they still there? Do other characters from the show pop up for various Europe-based such and such? Hmm. I think this promo image of Zazie Beets (back playing Van, Earn’s ex and the mother of his son) should cover those questions.
Some things remain the same, too, even after this long layoff. Brian Tyree Henry is still magnetic as hell as Paper Boi, with line deliveries and facial expressions that do more in an instant than a lot of actors can do with a whole monologue. LaKeith Stanfield is still a blast as Darius, who is mostly just banging around Europe smoking weed until he gets roped into powerfully weird adventures. There are still beautifully shot long conversations — shoutout to Hiro Murai, back again to direct the heck out of some television episodes — that appear to be about nothing of substance until you realize what everyone is actually saying and what it actually means. It’s still a good show.
(On the subject of adventures and digressions: The second episode contains one of the most simultaneously shocking and horrifying and funny scenes I’ve ever encountered on a television show. Like, a legitimate “I gasped while watching the screener on my computer and had to explain to another person that I was okay, it was just something from the show I’m watching, but no, I actually can’t talk about it because it’s a spoiler, and you wouldn’t want me to ruin it anyway, and yes, I know this is all infuriating, I’m sorry, it’s a whole thing” situation. The lesson here is to never become friends with a television critic.)
The cooler thing, I think, is that it’s still such a confident show. It has a point of view, and things to express, and it’s willing to be messy about it sometimes, and it knows that some of all of that might be challenging in parts. The show moves in a way that makes it clear that everyone involved is cool if you don’t agree with every single thing it’s saying, or don’t get what it’s saying, at least not right away. All it’s asking you is to go on the ride with it. There’s something freeing about that, about just having faith that a show knows what it’s doing and that your part of the experience is to promise to think about it all when it’s done.
Atlanta has always known where its destination is, or at minimum the general place it’s headed. It might take you on the scenic route instead of the most direct path, through the woods and back around through parts of town you don’t regularly drive through and maybe over a creepy bridge or two, just to keep you on your toes. It’s fine, though. It’ll be fine. Put your phone down for a second and look out the window. You’re going to get there soon enough. It’s just that there’s some stuff the show would like you to notice on the way first.
The third season of Atlanta premieres Thursday, March 24th at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX and will stream the next day on Hulu