‘Atlanta’ Review: Season 3 Levels Up in Donald Glover’s Rousing Return to FX

The first two episodes of "Atlanta's" long-awaited new season illustrate formal and narrative steps forward, even if it's too soon to tell where we're headed.
Brian Tyree Henry, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Donald Glover, "Atlanta"
Oliver Upton / FX

Four years ago, “Atlanta” began its second season without Earn (Donald Glover), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), or Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). “Alligator Man” starts with two previously unseen young men playing video games and planning dinner. They settle on Mrs. Winner’s: a two-for-one stop that sells chicken and biscuits with a side of weed. But when their car pulls up to the pick-up window, the mundane desire to get high and eat fast food is shattered by surprise gunfire. The driver is wearing a panda mask, and the passenger is aiming a firearm at the cashier; a cashier who, only a few seconds later, shoots back at the thieves, his trigger finger still wrapped in food prep gloves.

The impromptu burglary sets the stage for “Robbin’ Season,” the subtitle for a Season 2 filled many more bizarre and reckless acts — from Alfred getting repeatedly mugged by his own fans to an odd man named Teddy Perkins attempting to stage a home invasion as an excuse to kill his own brother. Meanwhile, Earn is trying to prove his worth to Alfred; that he’s a benefit to his cousin’s rising star and not just a friend looking for a handout. How “Atlanta” reframes what’s being stolen and why, again and again, is key to appreciating the many wonders of the season’s singular stories. And it all starts with the cold open.

Season 3 begins in similar fashion, only its tone-setter extends from a five-minute scene to a full episode. (You could even argue the pattern originated in the series premiere, which starts with Alfred’s climactic parking lot confrontation and then flashes back to show how they get there.) Episode 1, titled “Three Slaps,” is a dense, twisty, standalone narrative that styles a young middle-schooler’s troubled journey with the surreal flourishes of horror. Grounded within the Black gaze, the entry takes white people’s blind spots to task, emphasizing how America’s dominant perspective isn’t a one-size-fits-all identity, but one identity among many that demand acknowledgement and consideration.

The thematic framework should get plenty of support as Earn and Alfred explore Europe, but like “Robbin’ Season,” it’s hard to say how the ideas established in the 37-minute debut episode will come to life across Season 3, even after the second episode returns to our core cast of characters. What’s clear is that “Atlanta” hasn’t lost a step in the four years it’s been away. If anything, it’s widening its footprint.

Glover’s series has always been both impossible to spoil and far too easy to tarnish. Recapping plot points does little to distill the impact of watching them unfold, but the unpredictable nature of each episode, each scene, each opening shot carries its own perishable pleasures. So, ahead of release, it’s a lot easier to talk about the second episode than the first. “Three Slaps” has specific digs and clear statements; it’s also open enough to interpretation that viewers should be allowed to sit with their initial reactions without being told how to feel ahead of time. To say anything more than a considered opinion — yes, it is great — simply isn’t necessary.

What may be necessary is a refresher on where things stand with Earn, Alfred, et al. At the end of Season 2 (which first aired in May 2018), Paper Boi and his team are about to embark on a posh European tour with fellow rapper Clark County (RJ Walker). Darius is chipper and Alfred is chill, but Earn is feeling the pressure. All season, he’s been nervous his cousin is going to replace him for a more experienced manager, and despite his attempts to prove his worth, something always goes wrong.

Case in point: After tipping the moving crew extra to pack up the house, helping Darius snag a last-minute passport replacement, and saying goodbye to his daughter, Earn succeeds in shuttling everyone to the airport on time… but forgets about the gun in his bag. All season, he’s been trying to get rid of it, but now it’s in his carry-on, he’s already lined up, and there’s no turning around without missing the flight, causing a disturbance, or both. In a split second, he makes the choice to discreetly stash the gold-plated pistol in another bag (belonging to Clark County’s manager) and walks through security without looking back. On the plane, Alfred tells Earn he saw what he did, and… he respects him for it. Not only that, but he needs Earn to look out himself, and for Albert, and for their chosen family with that same survivor’s instinct as they keep working together. No one else has their backs. Not like that.

So yes, Earn is still managing Alfred in Season 3, and their adopted mentality appears to be serving them well. Rather than playing the opening act, Paper Boi is headlining shows. Earn is sleeping with women in fancy hotel rooms. Darius is still being Darius: maintaining a steady high, positing peculiar theories, and sporting the sickest threads. The team is doing well in the world, even if the world they see isn’t so well-off. Among the episode’s status updates, perhaps most exciting is Van’s arrival in Amsterdam, mysterious and adrift. If there’s been a nagging issue with earlier seasons, it’s that Earn’s on-again-off-again girlfriend has been treated as such: either relegated to her own episodes, tied to a relationship arc, or both. She hasn’t really been part of the group, and that seems likely to change in Season 3.

What else evolves remains to be seen. Despite the lengthy wait between seasons, “Atlanta” is tonally in line with what came before and carries itself with conviction befitting the filmmakers’ experience and acclaim. Episode 1 demands a few viewings. Episode 2 is mainly catch-up and table-setting, but the dry wit, playful scenes, and exquisite direction (Emmy and DGA Award nominee Hiro Murai helms the first two episodes) are all still here, all still honed.

By Season 2, FX’s series was a weekly must-watch, and not for the same reasons as most buzzy hits in the binge-watch era. You had to see every episode of “Atlanta” as soon as possible because you had no idea where it would go from week to week. Tuning in for the surprise was even more fun than tearing through the ensuing discussion. Maintaining that level of originality without jumping the shark is difficult, especially after so many years (and so many new shows). But here we are again. “Atlanta” is back, and with it, our rapt attention.

Grade: A-

“Atlanta” Season 3 premiered at the 2022 SXSW Festival. FX will release the first two episodes Thursday, March 24 at 10 p.m. ET. Watch the next day on Hulu.

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