Atlanta can be exhausting.
To be fair, the first two seasons were aesthetically thrilling, consistently funny, and narratively coherent explorations of American Blackness. That light hasn't entirely dimmed, but by the end of Season Three, which aired earlier this year on FX, the high points were often overwhelmed by empty cinematic flourishes and heavy-handed cultural analysis. This writer sides with critics and viewers who feel the show is now easier to respect than enjoy.
That's mostly the case with the fourth and final season, which premieres its first two episodes on September 15. The season opener, "The Most Atlanta," is a charming caper about the four central characters going on absurd adventures that overlap in a surprising final twist. It's a fine episode — better than fine — but it's weighed down by self-conscious cleverness, particularly in a subplot about Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) on a scavenger hunt. Meanwhile, third episode "Born to Die," which premieres September 22, is the show's latest tale about white people debasing and exploiting the talents of Black artists. This is a thing that happens, of course, but it's a subject the show has explored many times before.
But then there's the second episode of the season, "The Homeliest Little Horse," which also drops September 15. At first, it seems to be telling two separate stories: One about a struggling white author who suddenly gets an offer to publish a children's book, and another about Earn (Donald Glover) using therapy sessions to process his anger. Eventually, these stories collide in a breathtaking way, forcing us to reevaluate everything from our perception of Earn to our attitudes about the villainy of so-called "Karens." Nobody gets out unscathed, and anyone who watches will probably feel indicted. It's a bracing bit of filmmaking, virtuosic and impossible to ignore.
The series may never reference this episode again, or the story may end up returning in a meaningful way. You never know with this show. But "The Homeliest Little Horse" is so good that it justifies pushing through the mess and watching Atlanta to the end. If it can deliver an installment this exciting in its final sprint, then it's probably got one or two more gems to throw our way.
The final season of Atlanta premieres September 15 on FX.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.