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Atlanta Season 3 is a disturbing, bizarre and hilarious return to greatness after four years off

  • FX only made "Three Slaps" and "Sinterklaas is Coming to Town," the first two episodes of Season 3, available in advance of their premiere Thursday. "Two episodes are an insufficient sample size upon which to adequately review a season of Atlanta, but they’re more than sufficient to make one giddy at having Atlanta back," says Daniel Fienberg. "Those episodes," Fienberg adds, "...could exist as part of no show other than Atlanta. They’re disturbing, bizarre and hilarious, but hilarious in a way in which no two people watching them are likely to laugh at the exact same moments or even think that the exact same moments are intended as humorous. But the episodes are also familiar — not because they feel derivative of any other piece of pop culture, but because they feel like they fit in with episodes that the show’s braintrust delivered in earlier seasons. And even then, the familiarity isn’t an example of self-plagiarism or creative fatigue, but rather the product of a show in conversation with itself, taking its own tones and ideas and recontextualizing them to different effects."


    • Everything has changed, but Atlanta minus Atlanta is still Atlanta: "I didn't know what to think when news broke that Atlanta's third season was to be largely shot in the capital of the Netherlands," says Darren Franich. "The FX comedy's first two seasons are all-time-great television, with multiple perfect episodes that could shift focus to one single character or jump courageously from boundary-bursting racial satire into slippery magical realism. The swerves were the point. But Atlanta always felt unified by, well, Atlanta, an evocative setting that stood magnificently for every troubled, nightmarish, entertainingly busted facet of the American character. So: Amsterdam? I've seen the first two episodes of the new season, which both air on Thursday. After four long years away, it's a relief to report that creator Donald Glover and his collaborators have not lost their capacity for vital tone-clashing comedy. There are laugh-out-loud moments right alongside skin-crawling bits of social awkwardness, plus some outright shocks. Everything has changed, but Atlanta minus Atlanta is still Atlanta."
    • Atlanta gets to have things both ways a lot of the time: "Examined up close, each episode appears to have little to do with the next," says Alan Sepinwall. "From a distance, though, Glover and Co. are telling bigger stories. 'Barbershop,' for instance, is one vignette among many in Season Two about Paper Boi coming to grips with the downside of celebrity — and with the limitations of having his inexperienced cousin act as his manager. The show can be scathingly funny in one moment (both Henry’s exasperated scowl and Stanfield’s relaxed line delivery are inexhaustible comic weapons), whimsical or sad in others. But there’s a depth of feeling to it that’s incredibly rare, even in this age of abundant TV artistry. At its best, Atlanta is less a show to be watched than an experience to fall into, be shaken by, and then set free from until the next time. Because the surprise of what each episode will feel like is among the show’s many joys, the less said about the new episodes, the better — other than that they are still great, and that Atlanta continues to surprise. FX is going with two episodes for the long-awaited season premiere night, and they somehow have even less in common tonally than 'Barbershop' and 'Teddy Perkins' did, while being alternately as ridiculous and chilling as the most memorable moments of each of those."
    • Only a show as confident as Atlanta can have an episode like the Season 3 premiere after four years off: "And Atlanta rises to the occasion, with an episode that convinces you its story needed telling," says Daniel D'Addario. "The premiere episode’s powerful assuredness, as well as the deep concern with looking uncomfortably hard and finding the grim comedy and the outlandish sorrow within American life, is precisely that which that makes this show, once again, great. social milieu in which they float – is a task only a show this confident in its ambitions might attempt."
    • The endlessly clever series wastes no time in re-asserting its dominance as one of the boldest shows on television: "After all, Atlanta sets precedents, it does not follow them—not even its own," says Ciara Wardlow. "Subverting expectations has always been a key characteristic of the series, and of creator-star Donald Glover’s remarkably distinctive brand of humor, and that’s precisely how the new season avoids the lengthy shadow of its own accomplishments: coming entirely out of left field."
    • The first episode of Season 3 both ups the ante and toys with our assumptions: Season 3 premiere "Three Slaps" is "a testament to how Atlanta is still recognizably itself—funny, melancholy, a little perverse—even when it isn’t charting Alfred’s rise to fame," says Alison Herman. "But refusing to give us the Earn-and-Al update we’ve been waiting for is also an undeniable troll."
    • The new episodes live up to the ones that came before: "Both run the gamut of what Atlanta can be: Bold, experimental, and allegorical; comedic and astute examinations of the mundanities and oddities of Black life," says Kelly Lawler of the first two episodes made available for review. "They remain singular, exceptional and thought-provoking in the way only Atlanta episodes can be."
    • 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," says Ben Travers. "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."
    • This is not a show that’s resting on its laurels or coasting on past success: "From one angle, it looks like everyone is ready to move on, potentially collecting a few more Emmys for the road," says Dan Jackson. "But watching the Season 3 premiere, a provocative and dense episode titled 'Three Slaps,' one is left with the feeling that Glover and his collaborators, including the episode’s writer Stephen Glover (Donald’s brother) and its director, executive producer Hiro Murai, have more stories to tell."
    • Season 3 raises the question, "What is Atlanta without Atlanta?": "And what, to the characters, is their home city? Is it a place that they can leave, or a history that they always bring as a carry-on?" asks James Poniewozik. "The premiere episodes, familiarly disorienting and strikingly shot by the longtime Atlanta director Hiro Murai, suggest an answer. Atlanta is where these characters are, as they seek contentment, purpose and balance. The two episodes sent to critics for review are a mere peek, but they give no sign of the show’s having lost a step in the past four years. Maybe the pause simply gave the future time to catch up."
    • Ryan Gosling was almost cast in Season 3: "He said he was a big fan, but he had something else, and it just didn't work out," says Donald Glover. "I was so bummed because the part was so great for him!"
    • LaKeith Stanfield on being given freedom with his Atlanta character: “For Darius, a lot of it is just letting me riff,” says Stanfield. “They set up a circumstance, say ‘Go,’ and then I just start doing shit. I use the script as more of a guidance thing than literally saying every word. Because of the way that the character’s designed, I can do anything. I can come into the scene floating. I can come into the scene bowing. I can walk, run, or jump into the scene, or just lay down on my side. Whatever I want to do, it fits with what Darius would do, because he would do anything.” Stanfield also reveals he flew on a massive plane alone with Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry. “I flew out with Donald, and he basically has a jumbo-air airplane that is his own personal—I don’t know if he owns it or what, but the motherf*cker’s big and there were three levels, and it was only me, him, and Brian on it," he says.
    • Hiro Murai on filming in Europe: "Everything we do on the show just comes out of what naturally happens in the writers room, with Donald and all the writers," he says. "And I think they had a lot of stories to tell and things to unpack from being away from home, being on the road. It’s such a big part of being a musician. There’s something specifically very fish-outta-water about touring Europe, ‘cause obviously all the cultural things, but you are also bringing American Black music to a different land, so the story naturally bent that way. But obviously, the show, it’s also a very weird thing to have a three-year absence. And then kind of take out the core element of the show, which is the city of Atlanta, for the show. It was almost like a thought experiment: What does this feel like in this new setting with these different faces?"
    • Donald Glover says "we just wanted to make a Black fairytale" for Season 3: “We just wanted to make a black fairytale,” Glover tells Variety. “I remember sitting in the writers’ room and being like, ‘What do we write about?’ We just wanted to do short stories. Something I would want to watch." Glover also defended his since-deleted tweet from 2020 where he said Seasons 3 and 4 would be “some of the best television ever made": “I talk my sh*t on the internet,” he says. “I said Sopranos and sh*t. I’m not backing down from that sh*t. I’m holding my nuts out on that sh*t. I just want (audiences) to know this sh*t is good. It’s high quality sh*t. I hope you can have cursing (in your story)." 

    TOPICS: Atlanta, FX, Donald Glover, Hiro Murai, LaKeith Stanfield, Ryan Gosling