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‘Atlanta’ Just Dropped Its Funniest Episode in Years

"Light Skinned-ed," written by Stefani Robinson and directed by Hiro Murai, is a return to the light, crackling comedy largely absent from Season 3.

“ATLANTA” --  "Light Skinned-ed" -- Season 4, Episode 4 (Airs Sept 29) Pictured (L-R): Donald Glover as Earn Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles.  CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry in “Atlanta”

Guy D'Alema / FX

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Atlanta” Season 4, Episode 4, “Light Skinned-ed.”]

In Season 4, “Atlanta” isn’t just moving back to its titular hometown; it’s staging a comedic comeback.

Before getting to the sublime silliness in Episode 4, just look at what we’ve seen so far: The premiere opens with Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) delivering an exquisite, well-deserved dig on Marshall’s, before spending the rest of the episode being stalked by a (racist) woman steering a slow-rolling scooter. Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) goes on a scavenger hunt run by a dead man. Tracy (Khris Davis) makes his triumphant return as a bossy receptionist (in what turns out to be a pretty impressive secret performance). Earn (Donald Glover) has to walk out of a meeting after a co-worker utters the gloriously oblivious phrase, “I just finished that book. It gave me a real paradigm shift on how things might not always be as they seem.” Even Van (Zazie Beetz), who’s sadly scarce from the final season, squeezes in a few quips at a haunted Atlantic Station.

“Atlanta” always has and always will be funny. Whether the jokes are dark or silly, they’re still baked in, but — even compared to the fretful “Robbin’ Season” — Season 3 drifts from nervous laughter to just plain nerves. In a way, a sense of unease is fitting. Who’s not a little extra worried when they’re away from home? Bad dreams (“Three Slaps”), bad trips (“New Jazz”), bad food (“Tarrare”) — not to mention the pointed commentary in most of the penultimate season’s one-off episodes — they all cast a pall on the group’s madcap journey; a pall that’s more noticeable in the light of Season 4 and especially in Episode 4, “Light Skinned-ed.”

Writer and executive producer Stefani Robinson, who injected welcome vigor into the Season 3 finale (via Alexander Skarsgård’s bikini briefs and Van’s “Amélie”-esque reinvention), pens her first episode of Season 4 — one befitting the creator of Jackie Daytona (she’s a writer and E.P. on “What We Do in the Shadows,” as well) and author behind “Atlanta” episodes like “Barbershop” and “Juneteenth.” “Light Skinned-ed” makes a worthy successor, both in its self-contained story and uproarious laughs. Earn and his family are on their way to church — namely, his mother, Gloria (Myra Lucretia Taylor), his aunt, Jeanie (Michole Briana White), and his grandpa (Bob Banks). Earn’s father, Raleigh (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) skips out, choosing instead to take some me-time at the mall, which turns into its own little misadventure.

From the second Raleigh drops a simultaneous “hi and bye” to his wife and son, Episode 4 offers one delightful surprise after the next. Gloria informs Earn of her secret plan: to “steal” grandpa from her sister. Then, without hesitation, she does just that: speeding away as soon as Earn and Jeanie step out of the car for church, with the old man still in the back seat. (The look on Earn’s face when he realizes his mother is about to ditch him — priceless.) Jeanie, a woman as controlling as she is judgmental, soon latches onto Earn, suspecting he knew his mother’s plan, and even follows him to a recording session with Alfred where she berates them both. (Earn and Jeanie’s one-word conversation — “So.” “So…” “So?” — would make Meisner proud.)

The ensuing phone calls between Jeanie and her siblings, then Jeanie and the cops, infuse the episode with pathos. (Gloria’s fragile relationship with her father is called out, then reinforced.) But just when you think things may slow down, the comic rhythm keeps pace. There’s little beats, like the way Alfred and Earn sit down on the couch, mirroring their shared frustrations over getting caught in a mess. There’s exciting cameos, like Katt Williams, back for the first time since his Emmy-winning guest turn in “Alligator Man.” And there are great lines: “You can’t kidnap your own dad,” Uncle Willy tells his desperate sister. “I don’t have time to explain it to you right now, but the word ‘kid’ is in it, so mathematically, it’s impossible.” And all of it — very much including Grandpa’s mistaken belief that he’s been “in Egypt” for two weeks — is buttressed by the telling reactions of Earn, Alfred, Willy, and Aunt Pearl (Teresa L. Graves), captured with loving precision by director Hiro Murai.

“ATLANTA” -- "Light Skinned-ed" -- Season 4, Episode 4 (Airs Sept 29) Pictured (L-R): Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Riley. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

Isiah Whitlock Jr. in “Atlanta”

Guy D'Alema / FX

Side note: I love how Jeanie, Willie, Pearl, and Gloria are all framed the same way in their respective spaces — visually connecting the four siblings — but their behavior and surroundings distinguish their disparate personalities. While Willie cooks burgers (presumably for his family/guests), Pearl folds laundry (for her own family), and Gloria sits with her dad in a crowded mechanic’s waiting room, Jeanie is only captured alone, shouting increasingly desperate accusations. (Even when Murai’s camera moves closer, there’s an empty chair behind Jeanie, or Alfred and Earn are kept out of focus — like when the former raises his hand to politely request she not call the cops.)

Speaking of the beleaguered cousins, they finally realize their only way out of this mess is to leave Aunt Jeanie behind — physically and emotionally, at least for a little while. Raleigh conveyed as much to Earn earlier that day, when his son called for help from the church bathroom: “I’ve been dealing with this family for 30 years, you’ll be OK for one day,” Raleigh says, while enjoying his “me time” with a relaxed shoe-shine. “I’m sure you’ll do the right thing.” Traditionally, that would mean sticking by your family — even if your aunt is so far off the deep end, her own siblings admit to hating her — but for Earn, it’s the opposite. Rather than broker peace or wait for it all to blow over, he bows out, goes to dinner, and enjoys time with the family he actually cares about. He’s just following his dad’s lead, even if Raleigh could only follow his own advice so far. (He avoided the family drama, but couldn’t avoid the mall drama — I liked the hat, though!)

“Light Skinned-ed” draws curious parallels between Earn and Raleigh, especially in their ongoing quests for respect, but that’s a conversation for another time. Episode 4 ends like it began: on a laugh. Everyone is going to watch a Redbox tonight — much to Grandpa’s delight — while passing around their free basket of bread. Gloria got her dad back, Raleigh got his new phone, Earn spent time with his folks. For the Marks family, all’s well that ends well. For the “Atlanta” audience, Episode 4 is a damn good time all the way through. More please.

Grade: A

“Atlanta” Season 4 releases new episodes Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX, which are available the next day on Hulu.

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