And There May Yet Be Method to Donald Glover’s Madness
While I have few complaints about the Emmy nominations for Best Comedy this past year, I was irked that the third season of Atlanta which was more radical, surreal and hysterical than many comedies hope to be was ignored for Best Comedy in favor of the more traditional Curb Your Enthusiasm. That being said, it didn’t surprise me.
The third season of Donald Glover’s magnificent comedy was no doubt more divisive than any comedy season ever and for good reason: four full episodes took place in a world where none of the regular characters even seemed to inhabit, and seemed more fitting Jordan Peele’s recent remake of The Twilight Zone than anything else. While episodes like ‘Three Slaps’ and ‘Trini from the Block’ clearly showed insight into the world that so many African-Americans inhabit today, their relevance to what was going on in Paperboi’s European tour seemed non-existent. (Until the final moment of the season finale, which made us question everything we’d seen.) And it’s not like that there was a lot of craziness going around the tour: few who saw Alfred take that trip to ‘New Jazz’ will ever forget it and watching Van inhabit the world of ‘Tarrare’ in Paris showed us just how lost she was. While the HCA was awed in general by what they saw, I’m not surprised the more traditional Emmys couldn’t figure out what to do with it.
Well, the craziness that inhabited Season 3 has been on display to just as great an extent so far in Season 4, but I have a feeling fans will be more forgiving for a very important reason: Glover, Hiro Murai and his team have now put the leads front and center of it. The fourth season opens with Darius entering a store which is clearly being looted, trying to returning a pasta cooker, which utterly stuns the cashier who starts the process before running off with the cash. Darius then leaves the store only to encounter a woman in a motorized wheelchair who most of the people run from and so she focuses on Darius.
Darius then returns to Alfred, who has been waiting for him in a traffic jam that has not moved for an hour. Then he sees that same old woman in the motorized scooter. He gets out of the car, and she starts chasing him…and chasing him.
Meanwhile Alfred learns of the death of a rapper he admired who has dropped a new album before he died. He then goes to a restaurant the rapper mentioned, asks for a special…and finds a clue to something. Earn and Van in the meantime are having an increasingly weird time at a shopping mall. Earn encounters an old girlfriend in the parking lot. Then Van sees that someone who waited on her at an Apple store ten years ago. This starts becoming more and more frightening, particularly when they return to the parking lot and find that same woman, who casually tells them she’s been in the mall for more than six years. The writers find a way to tie all these loose ends together (without explaining all of them) and we get a hint that Season 4 might have more to it than that.
The three episodes I’ve seen so far show Atlanta and Glover in particular on the top of his game. Despite being nominated for Best Actor in a Comedy this July, Glover was far less of a presence in Season 3, appearing in only half the ten episodes. Much of the three episodes have focused on Earn in a way we haven’t seen since early Season 2. In the second episode, we followed Earn as he was going through therapy, first talking about how he had gotten expelled from college because of a false allegation by someone he thought was friend, how he was invited back and refused at first, then how a trip to accept an honorary degree derailed at the airport, while telling us bits and pieces from his childhood. The last therapy session he went through showed Earn deciding to let go of his spite and take a break of therapy for awhile. All of this was intercut with the story of another woman in the middle of trying to sell a children’s book. The connection didn’t become clear until the final scene (and if you haven’t seen this episode, I won’t spoil it) and when it was, we had to look at Earn in a very unfavorable light for perhaps the first time in the entire show.
Last night’s episode split the focus fairly evenly between Earn and Alfred (Bryan Tyree Henry). Alfred found himself being ‘bought’ to help a millionaire’s son becoming a rapper. He met a colleague of his and they went off together, which led to a discussion where the two got high and discussed how to get rich. This let to another surreal sequence where they went to meet a man who discussed the importance of getting an YWA (young white avatar) in order to win Grammys. (In all the years of the series, this is the first time Atlanta has directed addressed the implied racism within the Grammys.) Alfred found himself pursuing one and eventually lands one. We see him at the Grammys — and the rest I will leave you to discover.
Meanwhile, we saw Earn working at his agency wanting desperately to get away from an account where the team was working on how to ‘rebrand’ a white woman who held a gun on an African-American child. Mentioning that he might be able to find ‘D’Angelo’, Earn goes to a gas station where he finds a restroom sign labeled ‘D’Angelo’. He goes in to find a fancy door with a man standing in front of it, reading a magazine. Earn waits…and waits…and waits. Finally after he protests for awhile, he asks the guard the right question. The guard opens a passage in the wall and Earn goes through it. What he eventually finds I will leave for you to see; all I can say is, even the radical artists have a price.
Atlanta debuted just prior to the 2016 election, and in its way it seems like a perfect mirror to the surreal world that everyone, not just African-Americans, have been inhabiting ever since. Not everyone likes the weirdness that it inhabits — it was one thing to go through it once in a while, like in the landmark episodes ‘B.A.N.’ and ‘Teddy Perkins’, but after awhile one clings to the idea of ‘normality’ as if every episode that we saw in much of the first two seasons was a map of logic. In a way, you could say that the third season of Atlanta expanded the level of weirdness to the entire world — a ‘traditional’ episode like ‘The Old Man and The Tree’ was only normal because the entire cast was there. I have a feeling that the haters of so many episodes don’t like the strange in their urban comedies, but Atlanta has spent its entire run avoiding being categorized and it is giving little sign of doing the same in its final season.
What will happen to Paperboi’s career? Will Earn and Van end up together? Will the link between the bottle episodes be explained in the final season? I care about resolution to the first two questions, but not the last. Atlanta has never been a mythology series or one that is interesting in explaining most of what we see. Donald Glover and Hiro Murai have created one of the most engaging universes in either comedy or drama, and when it comes to an end in a few weeks, I shall be as sad to see it depart as I was This is Us and Better Call Saul earlier this year. They have nothing in common except the unbridled genius at the core of them. Maybe if the cast and crew got some YWAs of their own, they could guarantee they’d dominate the Emmys next year. I hope they don’t need them.
My score: 5 stars.