Atlanta’s third season, arriving four years after its last, is set almost entirely in Europe. This is the first of the show’s many ironies, a sly joke of geography that reminds audiences, in case they’d forgotten: Atlanta is bigger than a place. It’s a mindset.
Donald Glover’s FX series, which returns this week with two new episodes, is ostensibly about Earn Marks (Glover), who convinces his cousin, the rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), to let him be his manager. The dark comedy-drama follows the pair and their friends Van (Zazie Beetz) and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) as their fortunes rise in the music industry, but also frequently diverts to focus on their personal lives, or somewhere stranger. Like the season 2 standout “Teddy Perkins,” which features Darius picking up a free piano from the eponymous character, a reclusive Michael Jackson stand-in that the cast maintained was a real person although it’s been confirmed that Perkins was played by Glover himself in prosthetics and makeup.
Throughout the show’s first two seasons, Atlanta expanded its scope to be just about anything — a B.E.T. spoof complete with fake commercials, a short story about middle schoolers, or an episode that showed its cast having to contend with a Black Justin Bieber. The third season premiere, “Three Slaps,” immediately re-asserts Atlanta’s free-form structure: It doesn’t feature the regular cast at all. Instead, it tells a story about a young boy named Loquareeous, who is shunted into the foster care system and ends up in the care of a white lesbian couple who don’t seem to care about him that much.
Then, in the next episode, it’s business as usual, picking up with Earn & co. in Copenhagen as Paper Boi begins his first big European tour, only to discover the local tradition of dressing up as Zwarte Piet — aka “Black Pete,” a blackface Christmas character that helps Saint Nick deliver toys. This, juxtaposed with the overwhelming kindness locals greet them with (in one scene, Paper Boi, held in jail after an off-screen altercation, is completely bowled over by how nice his accommodations are, asking if he can stay a while longer despite his bail being posted), leaves them completely flabbergasted by the racist displays, kicking off what will doubtless be a strange trip through Europe.
Atlanta’s malleable and often surreal nature — this is a series where invisible cars and ghostly figures can and do appear — makes it difficult to sum up what it’s about. But the Atlanta mindset is a straightforward one: It’s about how strange the world is when you pay attention to race, when you note the color of one’s skin and how the world warps around it. In more blunt terms: It’s a show for white people, tilting the world every which way and seeing if they will do the work to embrace this mindset, while also remaining willfully opaque enough because nothing should be handed to them.
As Atlanta has shown in two brief seasons and the start of this one, centering race in a world where it is frequently denied results in an unsettling dissonance. It’s stepping back from your reflection and realizing that you’ve actually been gazing into a funhouse mirror the whole time — you don’t really appear that way, the world doesn’t look like that, but we’ve made it so. It’s sinister, it’s absurd, and it’s funny, and the reality of Atlanta contorts to underline that. In every episode, a small decision can turn into a full-on odyssey, like in the second episode of this week’s premiere, where Van’s search for a coat leads her and Darius to a meeting of a serene death cult.
This listlessness can be exhausting, especially for people of color who Get It. Atlanta’s mindset is increasingly one of exhaustion, though — most of its stories implicitly wrestle with the white gaze, and the show’s pleasures are in the ways a given episode might rub the audience’s face in its mockery of that gaze, without going so far as to say outright that that’s what it’s doing. After all, it’s just a show about rappers.
Perhaps this is why “Three Slaps” begins the way it does: with a prologue of two men in a boat at night, talking about the haunted history of the lake they’re in. One is white, the other Black, and the unnamed white man tells a story that evokes the real-life Lake Lanier, a man-made lake in Georgia where death is an unnervingly regular occurrence. The man’s account blends Lanier’s real-life status as a watery grave with a common urban legend: that Lanier was once the site of a town governed and populated by Black people, and was flooded by angry whites in retaliation.
“With enough blood and money, anyone can be white,” the man concludes. “It’s always been that way.”
Welcome to the funhouse. Do you know how long you’ve been here?
Atlanta’s third season is currently airing Thursdays on FX, with new episodes streaming the next day on Hulu.