Atlanta is coming to its conclusion. The critically acclaimed and influential series created by Donald Glover arrived in 2016 and opened a door for what a half-hour comedy could be, which was and still is anything its creators and writers want it to be.
Atlanta is the show's playground, where the ridiculous and surreal are lurking around every corner, and a simple trip to the woods could turn into a hallucinatory and frightening journey of survival and reflection, all while delivering some of the funniest moments on TV.
The reception from fans and critics alike for the series' third season, which premiered this past spring, was mixed and controversial, with a discourse around it that its creator and his collaborators fought against in interviews and on the show itself.
Its fourth and final season is a reminder of how groundbreaking the comedy is, delivering a pantheon of Atlanta episodes with more depth and risk-taking than ever before.
Atlanta has a pretty simple premise. Earn (Donald Glover) is a Princeton burnout with wasted potential who is very broke and living his life in Atlanta, where he has a daughter with his on-again-off-again partner Van (Zazie Beetz). Earn sees an opportunity when he sees that his cousin Al (Brian Tyree Henry), burgeoning Atlanta rapper and drug dealer Paper Boi, is poised to break through and make a name in the rap game and, hopefully, carry Earn along with him.
The series follows Paper Boi’s career and all the adventures and misadventures it takes Earn, Al, and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), Al’s eccentric partner in crime, around Atlanta on a journey to make it big. The series looks at the rap game and Atlanta from an area of expertise as Donald Glover is also known as Rapper/singer Childish Gambino and a lot of the situations Al is put in reflect someone with experience and knowledge of the types of ridiculous situations trying to be a rapper in the early to mid-2010s would have such as performing in a board room for dozens of white executives at a record label.
The series has been one of the funniest and most innovative shows of the past decade and is revolutionary in its ability to take its audience anywhere. It’s established a world where anything can happen. It’s a show that can deliver an episode about a Juneteenth celebration that doubles as an effective romantic comedy and a hilarious commentary on a rich white guy obsessed with Black culture and his rich Black wife who is obsessed with money and status.
The show can also give us “Teddy Perkins,” a straight-up arch-horror story about the abuse and sacrifices talented artists make, invoking images of Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye and the parents who push their children to stardom. “Teddy Perkins” may be the high water mark of the series and represents everything that makes the show unique, from the direction of Hiro Murai, whose visual language is so vital to the series, to the performance of Lakeith Stanfield, who shows time and time again why he’s a giant star now and an Academy Award-nominated actor.
Earlier this year, on the press junket for season 3, Glover boasted that only The Sopranos could touch Atlanta. The reception for the third season was a kind of unintended backlash to that statement. The Sopranos was revolutionary in the way it could make a bottle episode like “Pine Barrens” or its infamous Tony Soprano dream episodes. You would think it's just a standard mob show but underneath that identity was a depth of experimentation and commentary that was unheard of at the time and entirely of its creator's vision. From the get-go, Atlanta has had that quality, able to be much more than a show about rappers in ATL, going even further and taking even more risks, pushing the envelope with some of the most brilliant writing about the full spectrum of the Black experience — from the mundane to the hilarious, to the tragic.
The third season was a coming back down to earth moment, flying too close to the sun, spending too much time thinking it's smart while feeling more and more disconnected from what made the previous two seasons work so well. The season was set in Europe, as Al has reached a level of fame where a European tour is a norm for him. The main cast was used sparingly, in favor of extended vignettes about white characters, often put in situations where they had to confront some very online topics like getting canceled that were very hit or miss. While the show always felt like it was at the forefront of the culture, its third season felt disconnected from it. Something in the formula was off.
As the show's characters have moved up in life, so has everyone involved in the show, with Glover, Beetz, Henry, and Stanfield all becoming legit movie stars, appearing in everything from Marvel movies to Star Wars. There was a feeling that maybe the TV landscape it helped change had passed Atlanta along with how people engaged with the culture the show was entrenched in and an audience involved in even more critical discourse than ever before.
Despite the lows of Season 3 (with some notable high points), Season 4 of Atlanta is more of a return to form and serves as a fitting sendoff for the show, its characters, and its crew. Earn is a successful agent coming to terms with the things in his life that have held him back and realizing that his ultimate form of success now would be building a real family with Van. Paper Boi is at a stage in his career where he's a part of the old guard of rap, ever contemplating his profession weighed against what he has to do, not only to survive but to have peace of mind.
The season premiere was very Atlanta-Esque, splitting up the main cast into three different plots, each with their own surreal and hilarious narratives that converge, telling the audience that the series is back and anything can happen here. The season starts cooking with gas with “Work Ethic!”, a hilarious (and scathing) commentary on Tyler Perry and his works and the assembly line nature of a lot of Black entertainment, where a mysterious creator who only speaks to his production teams through speakers around a giant labyrinth of a studio named Mr. Chocolate stands in for Perry.
In the wake of yet another young Atlanta rapper's death in the real world last week, episode 6, “Crank Dat killer,” is even more prescient and surreal, a testament to the show's ability to draw from real life. Not to mention the faux documentary “The Goof Who Sat By The Door” about the history of The Goofy Movie that was as equally heartbreaking as it was hilarious.
The final season is a fitting send-off, but it also serves as a reminder that Atlanta changed the game in many ways. There would be no Dave without Atlanta. There would be no Reservation Dogs without Atlanta. Few shows have taken as big of swings, and fewer shows have the number of hits that Atlanta has produced. It's a show that has birthed stars who have done and will go on and do bigger, better things, but maybe nothing as special as Atlanta.
Atlanta Season 4 is streaming on Hulu.