urgent reconsideration

Atlanta Season Three Was a Bad Trip

Only 60 percent of Atlanta season three focused on main characters Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), Earn (Donald Glover), and Van (Zazie Beetz). Photo: Oliver Upton/FX

In updating our list of the best television of 2022, Vulture’s TV critics opted to remove Atlanta season three after viewing it in full. Here, Atlanta viewers Angelica Jade Bastién, Roxana Hadadi, Craig Jenkins, and Tirhakah Love break down their reactions to the season.

Angelica Jade Bastién: After a four-year absence from our screens, Atlanta had a lot of audience curiosity and expectations weighing on it. The series, often shot through with horror and the absurd, has always been slippery in the way it frames its main characters and the weird spaces they inhabit. But in its third season, Atlanta feels scattershot: Four of its ten episodes consisted of stand-alone story lines considering ideas like the material effects of reparations and the costs of choosing to be white-passing. The season premiere fantastically rewrote the narrative of the Hart-family murders to provide a better ending for those mistreated Black children than reality could. But there’s a cruelty in the crafting of the wayward, downright mean Black mother, the episode’s protagonist, that made me wonder if the series was revealing truths about anti-Blackness or merely wallowing in it. The other six episodes only loosely follow Atlanta’s main characters, leaving both Alfred’s vaulting success in Europe and Van’s interior life scantily defined. Season three felt like empty provocation, relying on buzzy cameos meant to rile up audiences and slick stylization to hide its hollow interior.

Roxana Hadadi: When we received our first few screeners of the third season, I liked the suddenness of the storytelling: that we were simply thrust into premiere “Three Slaps” as a stand-alone episode, which in the past I think Atlanta did fairly well. In the second episode, “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town,” I was amused by the unlikely Darius and Van team-up and the absurdity of their conversation with a “death doula.” I liked how charming Alfred got along so well with the Dutch jail guards. The third episode, “The Old Man and the Tree,” almost reminded me of a series like Twin Peaks in its consideration of the past, the ghosts that hang over us, and the things we cannot change.

But it was probably the fourth episode, “The Big Payback,” which considers what American society would look like if citizens were allowed to sue one another for reparations, when I began to wonder what this season of Atlanta was trying to say more broadly — and why we were getting such little time with the main cast. If I had to step back and issue one general frustration with this season, it would be how the stand-alone episodes, instead of enhancing our understanding of these four primary characters, detract from meaningful time with them and who they are now.

Tirhakah Love: The most I can give Atlanta right now is gorgeous gowns. Beautifully shot.

I think the most successful episodes were Paper Boi–centered. He gets into the most delightfully weird but altogether plausible situations on the show. His story lines feel like they hit season three’s premise of tryna export Atlanta to Europe. There’s an energy he carries; charming, Roxana, yes, but Brian Tyree Henry’s range — his face while that white fanboy was serenading him is this really adroit mix of irritation and melancholy — feels so crucial to my interest in this show at all. Of all the main characters, Alfredis the most directly challenged, and that’s what kept me from side-eyeing this entire season.

“New Jazz”, the episode where he’s paired with Ava Grey’s Lorraine, was one of the most Atlanta-ish episodes for me. Liam Neeson defending his li’l Negro hunt got a lot of internet play, but the cameo felt like a random white intrusion, a little scripted shock to get people talking about the episode. Paper Boi traversing Amsterdam while being fried off that cookie and randomly running into someone who could read him down and make him question not just his choice of hat (she was right, by the way; that shit was dusty) but also how trustworthy his friends are was solid television. It didn’t need any white spice added. Atlanta seems most clear in the thematic underpinnings of Paper Boi’s episodes — rap shit, tokenization, crew loyalty, and mommy issues. Finding out that Lorraine is his mother’s name was a little on the nose, but it does suggest there’s depth to their connection we haven’t unearthed yet.

Craig Jenkins: When I first finished the season, I didn’t feel like it came together, but as I’ve put myself in the position of thinking about it again, I see a through-line that bridges the misadventures of our now very successful Paper Boi in Europe and the parade of white guys who get destroyed in the stand-alone episodes: shit going haywire whenever a Black person gets some money. Atlanta is trying to pull the camera back, but there’s too much of a bird’s-eye view and not enough focus on the people we’re ostensibly here to see.

I will say Ava Grey knocked me down as Lorraine in “New Jazz.” She might be our first LGBTQ character who wasn’t a villain (like Loquareeous’s moms, our first clue that this was a season about the failings of white liberalism and not just the machinery of Black fame), a punch line (“Nigga you gay!”), or a commentary on social-justice celebrities (Khalil). Here, I see a show trying to say more about a wider swath of the world and dealing with the growing pains that entails. It was a gamble taking Atlanta out of the city it was named after and sidelining the relationships that kept us wanting to stick with this cast through spectacularly uncomfortable situations. I don’t find the Twilight Zone reversals in the one-offs about upending racial wealth-and-power dynamics as intriguing as the inability of the many promoters and moneymen we meet this season to really see and appreciate (or even play it cool around) Paper Boi. I didn’t love stopping for a half-hour parable whenever the main story started to boil. I do, on an intellectual level, respect Atlanta,a show beloved by stoners, for diving headlong into the dark end of psychedelia, the bad-trip spectrum. But that meant I never felt comfortable watching it.

AJB: I find your “beautiful gowns” critique intriguing, Tirhakah. One of the things I clocked with the third season is how different the visual landscape functions versus previous seasons. I recently rewatched the Juneteenth episode from season one, directed by Janicza Bravo, and was taken aback by how much the show has changed visually. Gone are the careful close-ups meant to alert us to the subterranean communications and thoughts of its main characters. In their place is a reliance on decentered framing and negative space; surfaces gleam to signify the pristine wealth of the white characters moving around them. Season three is visually glossy but wildly inert, its sense of movement, style, and framing more aligned with white ideas of what good cinema and televisual art look like — namely, an austere, pristine slickness. The lighting this season also wasn’t always kind to our dark-skinned brothers and sisters. In this supposed renaissance of Black film and TV, these decisions feel lazy and rote.

I was particularly frustrated with the stand-alone episode “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” which is shot in black and white to really hammer home that Twilight Zone feel. Sure, the cinematography functions as a way to make actor Tyriq Withers look like he’s able to pass as white more credibly. But the episode lacks energy visually, carried along by, again, poor framing and blocking and lighting that renders darker-skinned actors without dimension. Overall, the episode brought narrow imagination to the wonders black-and-white cinematography can reach.

The stand-alone episodes kept aligning with the white mores they sought to critique. Just look at the cameos this season — Chet Hanks, Liam Neeson, Kevin fucking Samuels. By giving these men a platform (and paying them), I couldn’t help but wonder, is Atlanta really critiquing what these men represent or falling victim to it?

TL: Okay, wait, not you saying I’m into whyte asstheticks!!! I’m so dead. But yeah, I don’t think your critique is inaccurate. Atlanta’s got a history of shooting Black people with a western kind of focus. I think what amplifies that staid visual style is its usual Atlanta setting and its jumpiness. But your critique becomes more pronounced when we’re in tired-ass Europe for the majority of a season.

I can’t speak too much on the Kevin Samuels of it all — that episode was an absolute mess and I think is probably the worst example of “tryna say something with nothing to say” this season offers. But overall, the stand-alones felt like they were these windows into whiteness through the Atlanta lens. Tryna be “surreal” or whatever within a white context just to see how shit goes. Think that’s the case in the reparations and Trini joints. But the outsiderness of those episodes just didn’t work within the structure of the season. Like you’re saying, Angelica, it was never really clear why we were there without our main characters anchoring us.

RH: I asked “Who is this for?” more than once while watching these stand-alone episodes, and I’m intrigued by Craig’s point about how they potentially complement the larger Paper Boi story and how we see (white) people react to him now that he’s more famous and making more money. But taken one at a time, these four enclosed episodes reminded me of the Adam McKay approach to satire — Isn’t this thing bad? Look at how bad it is! — without any additional insight or engagement past that initial Wow, that’s fucked up! observation. Are any of the topics addressed in these installments a surprise to someone who has watched Atlanta for two seasons already or who is, like, alive in our world? Pointing out that systems of whiteness work to protect themselves and subjugate others is not as groundbreaking as Atlanta seems to think it is, similar to how pointing out in Don’t Look Up that climate change will kill us all isn’t some grandly revolutionary idea. “Trini 2 De Bone” might have been most frustrating for me in that regard, especially because it felt like the episode was trying to play devil’s advocate in suggesting that maybe the Sylvia character was selfish, actually, for taking a nanny job with a white family. If I could expunge Chet yelling “WorldStar!” from my brain, that would be great.

And as Tirhakah mentioned, Henry is such a phenomenal actor that I wish we had spent more time with him to absorb the cacophonous effects of this onset of fame, or seen more of what Van was going through before her cannibalism (?!) turn in the finale, or gotten more of an explanation as to why Darius would let Socks hang around after all the messiness he caused in “The Old Man and the Tree.” I can forgive Atlanta for being purposefully vague in terms of timing — which tour is this? How long have they been in Europe? Is it weeks or months that Van has been missing? — but the disjointedness of both the main story line and the stand-alone episodes not so much.

CJ: I want to laser-focus on “Trini 2 De Bone,” the episode where Chet Hanks shows up, because it feels like a clinic in everything I loved and hated about the season. On a surface level, you have this white family trying to figure out how to navigate the death of their son’s Trinidadian caretaker, how to break the news and whether it’s a good idea to take the child to the funeral. They were oblivious to the impact this woman had on their son, to the culture he picked up from her being there. For a while, it’s this beautiful appreciation of a life and the choices people make and the love we neglect when work is our top priority.

Then you see Chet, this totem of the strange and discomforting kind of commingling of cultures, and a fight breaks out at the funeral, and now I’m not sure if I’ve watched an episode about how Black culture and influence travel via unlikely pathways or an episode about how if we’re gonna really unite as a country, we’re gonna get guys like Chet. Atlanta has always been shorter on concise answers than lingering questions, and I don’t need it to start spelling itself out, but I can’t tell what it thinks about everything it’s showing us lately, and that’s new. (What if Chet was only there because in 2020 that would’ve sent a howl through the viewing audience?) I don’t mind being wound up by a plotline if there’s something profound on the other end, but here, it’s like the rug pull is the point. A lot of the time, it felt like the thesis was Shit’s weird. And, I mean, shit’s weird. But what else??

AJB: What else, indeed. We’ve gotta talk about Van. The show has always had a problem with imagining and fleshing out the interior lives of Black women. But this season made this fault glaring. The finale, “Tarrare,” depicts Van traipsing through Paris with an Amélie-style black bob and ends with her revealing her knotted feelings about motherhood. (Although, let’s be 100 here. Season three had some damning framing of “bad” Black mothers. Van wasn’t the only one.) The episode is meant to depict her unraveling, but it seems more concerned with the shock value of Alexander Skarsgard having a shame kink than with actually understanding what the hell has been going on with Van. Why has this show struggled so mightily with her character despite having the charming Zazie Beetz in the role? The creatives behind the show are obviously aware of this critique, if Donald Glover interviewing himself reveals anything.

RH: While rewatching this season on Hulu, I realized the episode descriptions for this season dropped the plot-recap approach of the first two and instead took a pointedly defensive, antagonistic tone. Episode six, “White Fashion,” was “I’ve definitely seen this before on a better show. They’re always stealing ideas”; episode nine, “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” was “Black and White episode? Yawn. Emmy bait. Why do they hate Black women so much?”; and episode ten, “Tarrare,” was “They gotta stop biting these better shows tho.” So yeah, the creators are absolutely reveling in poking their fingers in viewers’ eyes, and I think that slightly smug tone was what made “Tarrare” fall so flat.

Atlanta has been indulging in heightened reality since season two’s “Teddy Perkins,” but for the most part, the core characters stand outside these surreal circumstances and their observations line up with our own contrasting senses of relatability and revulsion. I suppose there is something to be said for taking Van, the “straight” character in this group of four, and placing her inside that reliability and revulsion as the cause of it. There is risk there, I guess, in her turning into this baguette-wielding, human-body-part-trafficking mercenary and moll. But at the same time, what is Van’s internal life beyond her ties to Earn and her mostly off-screen daughter? We are told Van wants to be someone different, but her sudden turn to French-accented foolishness — and Zazie Beetz’s kitchen-freakout scene at the mention of Lottie — didn’t convince me because her overall identity is so flat and unformed. “Tarrare” ends with an almost conservative viewpoint: Yes, actually, Van should go home and be with her daughter because that’s the right thing to do. But isn’t that just as status quo-affirming as those stand-alone episodes? There is a difference between saying, “Well, this character is doing this because she doesn’t know who she is,” and the series itself not knowing who this character is. And I think we got the latter.

TL: Besides that little motherhood chat she had, the most appealing aspect of Van this season was her propensity for petty theft and pushing people into pools. I’ve been so out on their writing of her character for so long it almost seems like having her skip around Europe for a bit might’ve been the best they could do with an already misshapen story. I don’t think she deserves a write-off, though. If you’re gonna give us this Aquarius-ass character, at least turn the high jinks up a notch. Let’s see her go bigger! (Though I will say that accent felt like a villainous act.) Atlanta’s version of going big was a turn toward introspection in the last episode, but it felt so misaligned with what she’d been doing prior. Yeah she has a kid, but why does it matter if she’s a “bad mother” when that kid has never been important to the show or its characters? If that’s the case, isn’t Earn also a shit dad? To have her thinking about parenting is so silly. Like, is she about to be some sad FOMO mom by the end of this?

AJB: If that happens, I will scream, Tirhakah.

CJ: It’s wild that we had enough time to meditate on the home life of someone’s sad-sack father in New York and to unpack the many quirks of the nephew by marriage of the venue manager in Budapest and to question the loyalty of the guy called Socks (what was Socks’s purpose?), but Van’s story goes from text messages to cannibalism and Amélie cosplay in too few turns. She needed time. I’m still mad about that bob. Atlanta has a softer touch with (cishet) men. Men get much of the oxygen and sympathy. Even with “New Jazz,” Ava’s scenes are refreshing, but we still end up in the gutter in the end, since Atlanta is a universe where little goes well for long. Seeing what effortless cool is possible with these characters makes me expect more. A show committed to the laughably implausible scenarios we’ve experienced across three seasons would have been above the rushed, clichéd, and quirky path Van’s character took this spring. But it isn’t the first show about rap, a business that centers dudes, to also center dudes.

AJB: My last question is: What is Atlanta the series without Atlanta the city?

RH: Without Atlanta the city, this season of Atlanta could have been anywhere. Most of it played out in clubs, concert venues, or hotels around Europe, with an emphasis on how these places and peoples are also racist, but these locations didn’t feel necessarily distinct. I wish there had been more of an exploration of diaspora communities in these cities, and not just to serve another “whites destroy everything” story beat, like what happened in “White Fashion” with the Nigerian-restaurant subplot. (The counterpoint to that being “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” with the Nigerian-born student Felix, whom Aaron brushes off as being “not really Black.” Maybe giving more than a passing mention to differences in ethnicity and nationality just isn’t an undertaking Atlanta is fully interested in?)

Honestly, I have no idea where the fourth season goes, especially because the final mid-credits scene of “Tarrare” — with our Earn receiving the other Earn’s luggage — suggests all the stand-alone episodes were actually happening in the United States while Earn, Al, Darius, and Van were away. Do I think Atlanta can build an entire alternate-reality framework? I’m wary, and weary.

TL: As far as where the show goes, I’m on the fence. A part of me wants to see it through to its end because on the whole, it’s compelling television. But it’s hard to trust the direction right now. I’m not sure if these guys have run out of stories to tell that feel immersive or propulsive in the same ways as earlier seasons did. It really makes me think about how Glover and the Gang were heralded as geniuses or whatever. That wouldn’t be the language I’d use to describe them, but if that’s what we’re accepting, then my argument would be that genius is extremely temporary and probably mitigated by certain circumstances. It’s a finite resource that, it seems to me, the show is running low on.  And yeah, they might poke fun at the naysayers, that’s their right, but I do think that defensive posturing signals a misguidance I could see carrying on. I’ll be watching, but very, very cautiously.

CJ: I agree it’s notable how much of the Europe season is spent in venue back rooms, offices, and hotels — anywhere but outside. I wished we felt more of a sense of location. (I really loved watching Paper Boi tripping out to Stereolab in Amsterdam.) Unfastened from any specific city, Atlanta still has that discomfiting sense that something going well is imminently set to implode. There’s still life left in the premise. I’m not sure what I want from the show anymore, but maybe that’s exactly where they want me, and the end goal of playing ping-pong with our attention span was this cracking of our sense of what’s possible. Whatever the intent, it felt harrowing. And it did not pair well with weed. Maybe that’s all I need from a fourth Atlanta season …

Atlanta Season Three Was a Bad Trip