WHEN|WHERE Season 3 premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX
WHAT IT'S ABOUT As the second season wrapped, Earn (Donald Glover), Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) finally boarded the plane bound for Europe and that tour with Clark County (RJ Walker) — after Earn planted a gun in Clark County's carry-on. When Clark County let his manager take the blame and stay behind, Earn deftly removed a threat because Alfred had been talking to him about representation.
This third (and penultimate) season opens with an episode that has nothing to do with the ongoing story; instead, it's about a boy named Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar), who acts up in class and must face the consequences. (It's based on a true story.) In the second, Alfred, Earn, Darius, then Van (Zazie Beetz) converge on Amsterdam and Paper Boi's first concert. In the meantime, Van and Darius are sidelined at a most unusual "funeral" while Alfred navigates his own unanticipated adventure. (This review is based on the first two episodes, all that was made available.)
MY SAY On the eve of the long-awaited third season, this seems about as good a time as any to remind fans what "Atlanta '' is not — specifically, a comedy, or a conventional one anyway. It's a horror story, memory play, dreamscape. It's a quasi-connected series of small dramas played out against a larger one, of race, identity, culture, history and alienation. Pot — that'd be cannabis — figures prominently because the characters are frequently high, which lends a certain porousness to their points of view. Perspectives, or frameworks, bleed into one another, which is where the comedy comes from and just as frequently the horror.
The first five minutes of the opener, "Three Slaps," are a minimalist horror set-piece roughly based on the flooding of Oscarville, Georgia, a largely Black town that was overrun by a white mob in 1912. The Chattahoochee River was subsequently dammed, and Oscarville now sits under Lake Lanier. The kicker to these opening minutes is an existential one, and about as deep and dark as that lake.
The second part of "Three Slaps'' is based on another horror story. On March 26, 2018, Jennifer Hart and her wife, Sarah Hart, put their six adopted (Black) children in an SUV and drove off a California bluff into the Pacific. "Atlanta" re-imagines a different outcome to the murder-suicide, mostly by framing it with a familiar narrative device. To say what that device is would be a spoiler, but a hint at that outcome hardly seems so. Let's just call it satisfying.
What's this business about "three slaps" (referring to a specific and surreal moment in the episode)? As "Atlanta" close-watchers know, numbers pop up in all sorts of places, for all sorts of reasons (some obscure.) The number "3" recurs in the first two episodes and your guesses as to why are as good as mine. (In numerology, "3' is usually associated with good things, foremost, optimism — not exactly an "Atlanta" specialty.)
The next episode ("Sinterklaas is Coming to Town") has distant echoes of the second season's "Helen," when Van and Earn attended a "Fasnacht" festival and where Van memorably slugged some dude wearing a "Schnappviecher" demon mask. In "Sinterklaas," Alfred and Earn learn of a controversial Dutch holiday tradition in which revelers wear blackface. And yes, a dude gets slugged here too.
Not quite on the level of last season's best, like "Woods," "FUBU" or "Teddy Perkins," these openers are nonetheless pure, unfiltered "Atlanta." Take that as the praise intended.
BOTTOM LINE Good start that promises even better ahead.