How ‘Atlanta’s’ ambition changed the face of TV forever
Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” comes to an end Thursday on FX, completing a four-season voyage of discovery into just what can be accomplished with a title, an adventurous crew and 41 episodes of television. Appropriately, it ends with an episode (unseen as of this writing) written by Glover and directed by Hiro Murai, who together made the first episode as well, and set the tone for one of television’s greatest, which is not to say most watched, series.
On the possibly very good chance “Atlanta” is new to you (you can watch it all on Hulu, then watch it again), it’s built around a quartet of characters. Glover, who created the show and grew up just outside to Atlanta, plays Earn, who comes back to town, having sometime earlier dropped out of Princeton. (Details are hazy until this season.) He noncommittally reconnects with former girlfriend Vanessa a.k.a. Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his baby daughter, Lottie (no longer a baby, and played this year by Austin Elle Fisher). He looks up his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who raps under the name Paper Boi, and wangles a job as his manager. Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), who has a mystical bent and knows a lot about real things and about a lot of things that aren’t real, is Al’s sidekick and partner in low-level drug dealing, until pop success makes that business unnecessary. They are elemental — earth (Al), water (Earn), fire (Van) and air (Darius) — and yet highly particularized. Surrounding them are family, friends, associates, nemeses, competitors, officials, clerks and strange strangers, who range from amusingly quirky to actively threatening.
The show is highly episodic, but there are longer narrative arcs of an unhurried sort now coming to a conclusion; little about “Atlanta” is hurried, in fact, which is not to say that, here and there, characters aren’t required to move fast. (So unconcerned is Glover with building up serial steam that the later seasons are “interrupted” by self-contained episodes — short stories, really — that, while they speak to the series’ themes, involve none of the regular characters.) It’s a Southern show, in setting and pace, languorous, lazy. In the first episode, when Al and Darius leave for an appointment, it is only to sit on an old couch on the lawn outside their apartment and get high.
Or is it a ‘maximalist’ ‘thought experiment’? Director Hiro Murai explains the FX comedy’s Europe-set third season.
As to the arcs, there is the progress of Alfred’s career — and by extension, Earn’s — which, notwithstanding a hiccup here and there, develops effortlessly from local celebrity to international fame. (The show doesn’t expend a lot of energy connecting the dots; sometimes it just gives you the dots and lets you connect them.) Last season found the crew in Europe during a Paper Boi tour, working, wandering, hobnobbing with the amazing well-to-do — rich people in the Atlantaverse, especially but not exclusively white people, are almost always absurd, if not a little evil — allowing for a fresh slant on the series’ favored themes of race, identity, art and commerce, and even more dreamlike escapades for our heroes.
This time, they returned to Atlanta, with Al a bigger success than ever, but with a less certain future peeking over the horizon. (None of these characters is especially young, which makes their progress somehow more poignant.) The old town presented its own challenges — Al is nearly killed at least three times, by a shooter, a tractor and a wild hog.
And there is the matter of what would become of Earn and Van (and Lottie), a question posed at the very beginning of the series and held in abeyance through much of what followed. (A more traditional show would have ramped up the tension and returned to this question often, if just to make a point of delaying the gratification.) Now they have grown up enough to deserve one another, and, barring any last-episode surprises, they seem to be headed out of Atlanta to Los Angeles, a family at last.
There are many ways to enter “Atlanta,” with its mix of parody, satire, genre appropriations — it regularly becomes something of a horror film — and almost bucolic comedy. There are critics who wrote about it every week, and it can tolerate the examination. The show is so full of ideas that any viewer might find different useful things to take from it.
What I’ve found most valuable is not so much what the show has to say, but the way that it says it. I find it amazing in its beautiful entirety, a feast, from the perfectly delivered, perfectly natural dialogue, to the way it looks onscreen. The show has a numinous clarity, magnified by Christian Sprenger’s crisp cinematography, which captures a wealth of telling detail; whether in the city or in the woods, in a strip mall or museum, a recording studio or police station, in Amsterdam or Paris, we feel the presence of place, we are there. Whatever layers of satire or surrealism the scripts apply, “Atlanta” stays recognizably real, which raises the stakes, makes the weirdness weirder, the suspense tenser, the connections more rewarding.
It wears an air of authenticity, even when what is happening is impossible; the show can turn dreamlike without resorting to any of the cliches of “a dream.” (The final episode is titled, “It Was All a Dream” — not literally, I hope. I mean, it’s been done.) There was no way to predict what would happen from episode to episode, or within an episode. Glover and company have swung for a league’s worth of ballpark fences.
From ‘Station Eleven’ to ‘Atlanta,’ ‘GLOW’ and more, Christian Sprenger has shot some of TV’s most beautiful images. But it wasn’t part of his plan.
This season’s episodes have included a family farce in which Earn’s mother steals her father from her sister; a horror comedy in which Darius is pursued by a woman in a motorized wheelchair who believes he stole an air fryer, while Earn and Van are haunted by their exes in a shopping complex; a wicked takedown of Tyler Perry; a mock-documentary that spins the novel/film “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” about the first Black C.I.A. agent, into an alternate history of “The Goofy Movie,” “the Blackest film of all time”; a camping trip for Earn, Van and Lottie that moves their story to the next stage; and a nearly one-man show for Henry, in which Al’s newly acquired “safe farm” turns dangerous. (The whole cast is on point, never doing too much, but Henry, in the service of a solitary, somewhat contained character, operates on a different order of greatness. If I believed in awards, I would give them all to him, forever.)
What it brought to the television — not distinct from its incisive Black voice — is a breathtaking sense of possibility, the will to follow a wild idea to its end, to put up any story that seemed worth telling it and call it “Atlanta,” even if it were about white New Yorkers. When the series has stumbled, to use too strong a word, it is only out of ambition. Immediate and ongoing critical approval surely helped it maintain creative freedom, and one might note too, that it had the luck to be on FX, which has a history of delicate human comedies — “Louie,” “Baskets,” “Better Things,” “Fargo,” “The Bear” and (as FX on Hulu) “Reservation Dogs,” a series that owes “Atlanta” a thing or two in its naturalistic treatment of place and people, its narrative detours, its dream states.
“What’s so great about Atlanta that you can’t leave it behind?” Earn asks Van on their camping trip. Watch it and see.
When: Thursday, 10 and 10:45 p.m.
Streaming: Hulu, any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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