Atlanta is a show that defies easy definitions. The project, headed by Donald Glover in collaboration with his brother Stephen and visionary director Hiro Murai, flirts with a standard setup where Glover plays the under-achieving cousin of a rising rap star, and manages to talk him into letting him become his manager. Shenanigans ensue. But the show undercuts, subverts or often just flat out ignores its own premise on a very frequent basis, dropping most of the cast to focus on one character, or forgetting its alleged status as a comedy-drama to instead turn into flat-out existential horror. In its first two seasons the show navigated these fluctuations with ease and verve.
For its much-delayed third season (arriving four years after the last), Atlanta flips the last vestiges of its format out the window. The gang are now in Europe, as Paper Boi's latest tour takes in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and London, among other cities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, even this is not as straightforward as it could be as Paper Boi experiences the worst trip of all time, Earn has to interrogate a suspected phone thief, Darius inadvertently destroys his favourite restaurant in London and Van experiences an identity crisis in Paris.
These voyages into the surreal - and they are even surreal by Atlanta's elastic standards of reality - are meticulously-crafted, intelligent slices of drama, comedy and horror intertwined with the show's traditional verve. But there are also only six episodes of them, in a ten-episode season. The show dedicates the remaining four episodes to almost completely stand-alone anthology stories.
The first is a flat-out horror, as a young boy's teacher mistakenly identifies him as being the victim of child abuse at home and he gets cycled into the care system, with decidedly unpleasant results. In the second, white Americans who are the descendants of slave-owners are forced to pay reparations to the descendants of their slaves, resulting is a seismic shift in society, and one white man rails against the new system. In a third episode, a white couple are completely reliant on their Trinidadian nanny are inconvenienced by her death, but baffled when their son asks to go to her funeral. This draws them into the life of someone they never really knew and barely ever thought about. And in the final story, a mixed-race, white-presenting high schooler is incensed when he loses out on a scholarship because of his appearance, leading to a questionable strategy for retaliation.
These four stand-alone episodes are each impressive - Three Slaps may emerge as Atlanta's creepiest instalment - and delve into themes the show has tapped into before, but in a freer way when they are detached from the show's normal cast and continuity. The Big Payback goes as far as taking place in a fantastical alternate-timeline. And all four episodes are hinted to be unusually vivid dreams that Earn is having during the European tour. It doesn't really matter since Atlanta has only a passing interest in making itself even vaguely realistic (remember this is a show which once featured an invisible car for the sheer hell of it). Instead, the stand-alones enhance the themes of the rest of the series, dealing with class, ambition and the complexities and hostility of interracial relations in America (and elsewhere). That they are brilliantly-written and directed is taken as read, but some may bemoan the limited screentime we have for our regulars; the last episode is almost a one-hander for Van (who herself is absent from most episodes), meaning that Earn, Darius and Paper Boi sit out a full half of the season.
That sounds churlish to the point of ridiculousness - who, by its third season, is watching Atlanta for a conventional narrative with a regular cast? - but there is also a slight sense of queasiness this season, of unease beyond the show's norm. The show is at its boldest and most experimental here but sometimes it feels like the experiments don't always pay off. Paper Boi being suckered into helping a company avoid corporate fall-out for its racism feels predictable, and the normally-affable Darius spends most of the season in a surprisingly dark place. The show complicating its (normally) most likeable character is a good move, but making him as dislikeable as they do here (particularly when he just bounces on Paper Boi, leaving him to the night from living hell) feels like a misstep. Van also spends most of the season on an extended strange journey separate to the rest of the characters, which feels initially disappointing - Zazie Beetz is the show's ultimate weapon of a performer, often floating around the fringes of episodes until she becomes the focus, when she absolutely kills it - but does pay off in the very clever finale.
Atlanta's third season (****½) is its boldest, strangest, weirdest, most scattershot and possibly patchiest. Perhaps you can even call it disappointing, in the same way that finding £500 on the street is disappointing after finding £600 the day before (twice!). But it's also maybe the most interesting and weirdly experimental of what is already an interesting and experimental show. The season is available to watch on Hulu in the USA and Disney+ in the UK.