Like many young American dreamers on their first trip abroad, the “Atlanta” crew took inspiration from their European setting to deliver a penultimate season filled with big swings. Nearly half the episodes didn’t include the main cast. Two more that did were spotlight episodes for Van (Zazie Beetz) and Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), which didn’t include the rest of the core ensemble. Cameos stirred the pot, from Chet Hanks to Liam Neeson, Kevin Samuels to Alexander Skarsgård. The first 10 episodes released in 2022 — and the first released since 2018 — repeatedly reshaped “Atlanta,” with stories critiquing white liberals’ shortcomings (hello to “The Big Payback”), others examining fears specific to Black entertainers (“New Jazz”), and plenty of episodes chock-full of ghosts.
Spirits of the past feel right at home among Europe’s dense history and make great additions to a trippy comedy like “Atlanta” — especially ones that take the form of real characters, like Alfred’s random friend Lorraine (Ava Grey) who just happens to share a name with his late mother and sees through his pretense to the person underneath. But not all of Season 3’s ambitious choices were well received. Casual fans were frustrated by the relative scarcity of Earn (Donald Glover), Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), Alfred, and Van. Certain cameos rubbed people the wrong way, coming across as either overly provocative or too perplexing. But most of all, Season 3 was cited for being too disjointed and opaque; that the standalone episodes didn’t actually stand that well on their own, nor did the Stateside stories gel with Alfred’s European tour.
Now arriving in Georgia, less than four months after the finale, is Season 4. As alluded to in the post-credits tease, our four protagonists have returned to their titular hometown, though things aren’t exactly back to normal. The Season 4 premiere opens with Darius trying to return an air fryer, while looters frantically empty the store around him. Earn and Van experience a Bizarro, relationship-themed version of the “Seinfeld” parking garage episode. Alfred goes on a scavenger hunt that may be orchestrated by his Ghost of (Christmas) Future. Even after returning home, “Atlanta” isn’t done taking big swings, but the first three episodes — all of which feature at least three of the four primary cast members — are focused and direct. They acknowledge the past, both recent and long ago, in ways that wink and look to the future. None will go down as landmark entries in the series’ impressive canon, but they provide a sound foundation for the show’s last seven episodes to swing away.
Sticking to Season 4’s general concepts — since so much joy is found in discovering what’s going on in “Atlanta” each week — the final season wonders about legacy, particularly the conflict between personal and professional responsibilities. As usual, Alfred (and the magnetically demonstrative Brian Tyree Henry) carries the most compelling arcs. His lengthy stint overseas elevated Paper Boi to a new level of fame, but Alfred’s trepidation over what to do with it persists. With broader fame comes new offers and opportunities. Sustaining his image and lifestyle ain’t cheap, but how can he weigh his way of life against the muddled means that may be required to pay for it? How much should he be working, anyway? What else is out there for Alfred besides the one thing he’s sought for so long and now has?
Earn faces similar questions, minus the artistic integrity. The ferocious business acumen he adopted as soon as he boarded the plane for Europe (at the end of Season 2) has given our once-broke hero more money than, frankly, he knows what to do with. What happens when the sole pursuit of survival ends, and long-ignored issues, questions, and commitments have to be considered? What does he owe to the philosophy that got him here, rather than the one that he once had, before life’s hardships raised his defenses? Back in Season 1, Earn took Van on a date, even though he was dead broke, because he knew he needed to — to prove himself to her, to him, to everyone. But pushy servers stretched his meager funds to their limits. Earn’s heart (or what’s left of it) is still writing checks that he can’t necessarily cash, only now it’s not a question of money. It’s a question of priorities.
Guy D'Alema / FX
“Atlanta” Season 4 is both as an ending (this is the final season) and an answer to a question many thought may never come. “Atlanta” is good at asking questions, and the first two seasons were typically good at answering them — or, at least, making their purpose known. Season 3 stumbled a bit here, either providing pat explanations or punting on them entirely. But as the last half-hour approaches, Season 4 has set identifiable stakes built by compelling queries, and even if there’s no guaranteeing a single, unifying resolution, the show’s heartbeat is growing stronger. (Aided by loving, enlightening close-ups of Stanfield and Henry by director and executive producer Hiro Murai, while Glover delivers in moving, uncharacteristically emotive scenes for Earn.) Season 4 asks its characters to ponder something they previously couldn’t afford to consider: What do they want for their future? Technically, Earn has been thinking about this question since the beginning, but back when he was sleeping in a storage unit, his long-term plans didn’t reach further than whatever Paper Boi needed next. What about Earn? What does he need? And, perhaps harder still, what does he want?
For some fans, “Atlanta” will have more work to do after these first three episodes to regain its previous status. But there’s something to be said for maintaining a sense of curiosity til the end; that rare feeling, as an audience member, of not knowing what you’re about to see when a new episode rolls out. Season 4 has positioned itself to maintain that sense of possibility while steadying its swing along a particular path. What’s next is anyone’s guess, but you better believe “Atlanta” will put on a show.
“Atlanta” Season 4 premieres Thursday, September 15 at 10 p.m. ET on FX. New episodes will be released weekly and available Fridays on Hulu.