“Atlanta,” which airs its final episode Nov. 10 on FX, comes across as a deeply strong and well-made show. And if he doesn’t feel quite like the main he did at first, that’s fine with him too.
This observation is worth clarifying, as I don’t want to overlook the work of series lead and creative driving force Donald Glover, or collaborators including frequent director Hiro Murai. But in the time since “Atlanta” first aired in 2016 — and, crucially, the years of its extended hiatus, from its departure from the airwaves in 2018 until its return earlier this year — the ground moved around it. In its first two seasons, “Atlanta” was unlike anything else on television. It’s less true now. And the show’s return, with two new seasons both airing in 2022, felt in part due to its extravagant creativity: its pointillist portrayal of the world of Earn, Glover’s character, might at times give us little things to grab. Some of the show’s standalone episodes are genuinely thrilling television. But it can be hard to know, from today’s perspective, how the show will be remembered as a whole.
From the start, “Atlanta” merges a strong, clean visual aesthetic with a looping creative sensibility, anything is possible; it features an overarching plot momentum with installments that carefully examine minor story details, or elements that perhaps weren’t even expected at all. Consider “BAN,” a Season 1 episode told as a half-hour of programming on a fictional news network, or “Teddy Perkins,” the second season’s portrayal of a fame-warped monster for which one feels both fear and pain. These existed outside of Earn’s direct line of sight, but they helped make Atlanta, a booming and multifaceted city at the center of America’s cultural industry, both possible and strange, where the potential for tragedy or sudden violence or an expression of pain was intriguing in the air.
It also describes “Barry,” which premiered on HBO in 2018, and, to some extent, FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” which debuted in 2021. Both feel indebted to “Atlanta.” But “Atlanta” stands out for its willingness not just to be absurd, but to be deliberately random. The show’s third season changing scenery for Europe generated some really interesting cross-cultural comedy and a new dynamic for the characters. It also meant that after four years away, the show had become a different set of terms, ones it had a little less say on. I loved the Season 3 premiere, “Three Slaps,” a startling portrayal of racialized abuse within the foster care system that unfolds with nightmare logic; its place in the larger “Atlanta” story, however, is unclear to me.
Perhaps “Atlanta” was most itself when it acted as a kind of anthology series, taking inspiration from the collective bad dreams endured by black Americans in the 21st century and spinning them in new directions. unending. But that also means it’s a show that can lack center. The penultimate episode returning to the BAN network for a mockumentary on the production of “A Goofy Movie” was a characteristically big swing and, equally characteristically, used its offbeat subject matter to tell a surprisingly powerful story. . But her spot in the season marked a pause on what had ultimately been a forward momentum in Earn and Van’s (Zazie Beetz) story. And it wasn’t the first time the show had returned to a well it had visited before, to diminishing returns: this season’s portrayal of Tyler Perry-esque entertainment industry titan Mr. Chocolate. , felt at times like a retread of Teddy Perkins, a famous fiend for whom the law is a way of life.
To love “Atlanta” was sometimes to be frustrated with it – and to love it, more and more, was to miss it even though it was not yet finished. That was true in the years of his hiatus, as more stories were coming, and it was true throughout 2022, as his place in the culture seemed to have soured. “Atlanta”, in its heyday, was the center of conversation on television and looked great there. It’s a credit to the creative integrity of Glover and his entire team that they consistently made choices that pushed him further down the left lane.
Criticizing its various decisions ultimately seems out of place: while we in the audience may not know exactly, “Atlanta” more than most shows resembles precisely what its creators intended, both in its virtuosity and its moments of overcoming. Its zigs and zags, its discursive ramblings and its displacements far from the character which was to hold our attention had the irregularity of human thought. Although it frustrated me, “Atlanta” showed a new way for this art form to look and feel. And if that accomplishment ends up being an ancillary anecdote when the story of that TV moment is finally written, well, “Atlanta” excelled at stand-alone stories.
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