FX’s Atlanta has always been about Atlanta and not about it at all. Yet, in its four short seasons, it has typically been its best when rooted in place. Its third season, after an extra-long pandemic hiatus, wandered over to Europe and split its stories between the surreal journeys of its four leads and more one-off, Georgia-based fables on race. It worked for some, less for others, but what seemed to become clear as Atlanta Season 3 wore on was that the show—which began as a strange, inventive, provocative piece of TV art—was ready to say goodbye.
And in short order, it is; Season 4 of Atlanta arrives just four months after the end of Season 3, a very different pattern than those that preceded it (the series began, if you can believe it, in 2016). And in the first three episodes available for review, it is preoccupied with the esoteric, ephemeral nature of success. Earn (Glover) and Alfred / Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), who struggled to get noticed and find their path in Season 1, are now at the pinnacle of their careers and deciding what to do next. Earn is in therapy (“he’s therapy rich!” his cousin pokes at him) trying to overcome his stress and anxiety, while Alfred is learning that he’s already peaked and needs to essentially find a young, white, streaming star to use as an avatar so he can keep up his lifestyle. Neither is thrilled with what’s before them now, and both go on odysseys in these early episodes to find (or not find) legendary artists whose lives have become cryptic “experiences” rather than tangibly existing.
Per usual, Atlanta feels like stream of consciousness from its writers, allowing general and specific stories to play out upon a surrealist palette. When it pulls itself from dreams and focuses on more grounded moments of humor, irony, or satire though, that sharpness reminds us of the show at its best. Whether it’s saying something, or nothing, or doesn’t want to be seen as saying anything (or not saying anything) is anyone’s guess. But in this languid return, the series doesn’t seem bothered in answering that or really any other question.
There are a few great moments for ATLiens, though, especially in the first episode where Earn and Van (Zazie Beetz) take a sojourn to Atlantic Station. Getting lost in the parking deck of that shopping center is a local right of passage, and Atlanta takes it to a fun and frankly believable level of strangeness. After that, the show wanders away from those specifics (which, to be fair, might not appeal to anyone outside of the city—I’m biased), and dabbles in Earn’s repressed trauma from his past, his righteous war against privileged white women, and the chip of spite on his shoulder that has driven him since the show began.
What it all means is, like most of Atlanta, open to interpretation. At the close of Episode 2, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) cautions Earn, “I can’t tell if this is extreme, extreme pettiness, or terrorism.” “It can be both!” he replies. Atlanta exists in that middle ground, like having a rich white kid say, “oh you’re the dude my dad bought” to Alfred, but backing off of engaging with it overtly. That has always been its way; it presents, it doesn’t preach. But now in its final run of episodes, on the heels of a season that quickly petered out, something more feels called for.
Unlike Season 3, there are fewer (if any) memorable moments from the start of Season 4. It mostly runs off vibes, filled with ennui, as its characters exist adrift in their own lives. There’s a weariness that permeates it, a sort of paddling endlessly against the waves of a systemically broken society. And perhaps that’s warranted. But for a once-vibrant, weird show that skirts definition about a still-vibrant, weird city that skirts definition, it just doesn’t quite feel like home.
Atlanta Season 4 premieres Thursday, September 15th on FX (streaming the next day on Hulu).
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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