Atlanta Season 3: a complex exploration of blackness and whiteness

Donald Glover’s groundbreaking series doesn’t feel like most TV, and maintains an exceptional standard of writing, performance and conceptual finesse throughout.

22 July 2022

By Tony Rayns

LaKeith Stanfield, Brian Tyree Henry, Donald Glover and Zazie Beetz in Atlanta: Season 3 (2022)
Sight and Sound

The four-year hiatus in the production of Atlanta has faded nothing but, rather like David Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks in 2017, turned the series into something richer and stranger.

There are some strands of continuity. Brian Tyree Henry’s deeply insecure rapper Paper Boi is now an international star, performing (or pulling out of) gigs in various European cities. Donald Glover’s Earn now copes easily with the stresses and strains of being Paper Boi’s manager, but still has frequent bad dreams and still worries about his biracial ex Vanessa (Zazie Beetz) and their daughter Lottie. LaKeith Stanfield’s serene Darius is still living out of Paper Boi’s wallet and still looking for still-higher highs.

But while they try – and often fail – to stay one step ahead of the rich and poor Europeans who want to exploit them in one way or another, racial tensions are hotting up back home: a middle-class white guy has to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves owned by his ancestor, another has to deal with the fact that his young son has learned more from his black nanny than from him, and a mixed-race high-school kid has to learn to find his inner ‘blackness’, whatever the cost. And Earn’s dream in the ‘Three Slaps’ episode recalls first the racial ‘cleansing’ of Oscarville, Georgia, in 1912 and the subsequent damming of a river that turned the site into Lake Lanier, and second the ordeals of black kid Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar) at the hands of the white lesbian couple who foster him. These stand-alone episodes, usually with entirely fresh casts, punctuate the series in a way that suggests you can take the boys across Europe but can’t take Atlanta out of the boys. By teasing out underlying themes, they give the series another kind of continuity.

The stand-alones generally reference recent news stories or hushed-up histories, in much the same way that Damon Lindelof’s self-described “expensive fan-fiction” mini-series Watchmen (2019) started from the little-known decimation of the ‘Black Wall Street’ in Tulsa in 1921. The protean Donald Glover, though, is not too interested in setting a new syllabus for Black History Month, however useful that may be. Rather, he and his writing/producing team set out to explore what notions of ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ actually mean in 2022. Their interim conclusion: it’s complicated.

The lesbian foster parents (inspired by the real-life Jennifer and Sarah Hart, who killed themselves and six black foster-kids in 2018, having failed to scam enough cash from social services to support the ‘family’) trade on a non-existent sympathy for black orphans while doing their best to erase all traces of black identity in the kids. In London, the South African billionaire Fernando, who rarely leaves a luxury pad concealed behind a row of terraced shops, describes a dream of ecstatic union with a naked black ghost. In the US, African-American high-schooler Felix is told as he’s lifted into an ambulance that a patron will pay his medical and college fees because “being shot by the police is the blackest thing you can do”.

The name of Clarence Thomas (far-right Supreme Court justice) is at one point thrown as an insult, meaning a black man who thinks and behaves ‘white’, consolidating the general perception that ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ are more states of mind than racial markers. Glover brings the issue back home by having Earn discover that he has a doppelganger (played by Tobias Segal), a Jewish family man who pops up in episode 4 to offer wise words to a man in trouble and whose image is the last thing seen in the season’s final episode. To be continued, presumably, in the already-shot season 4, which will bring Atlanta to a close when it airs later this year.

Atlanta doesn’t look or feel like most TV and maintains an exceptionally high standard of writing, performance and conceptual finesse. The stand-out episode of this season is probably the eighth, ‘New Jazz’, in which Paper Boi ingests a “Nepalese space-cake” and experiences a trip through Amsterdam night-life, encountering both a mouthy young woman who seems to be an avatar of his straight-talking mother, and Liam Neeson, who explains the remarks he made in 2019 about hunting down black people and goes on to say “the best thing about being white is that you don’t have to learn anything if you don’t want to”. Written by Glover and directed by his frequent collaborator Hiro Murai, ‘New Jazz’ is an instant classic.

► All three seasons of Atlanta are available to stream on Disney+.

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