TV Review – Atlanta Season Four

Atlanta Season 4 (2022)
Written by Stephen Glover, Ibra Ake, Jamal Olori, Stefani Robinson, Janine Nabers, Francesca Sloane, Karen Joseph Adcock, and Taofik Kolade
Directed by Hiro Murai, Angela Barnes, Adamma Ebo, and Donald Glover

Atlanta was always a show that was hard to describe. Yes, there were main characters: Earn, Vanessa, Darius, and Al/Paper Boi. But the series was also an experimental anthology, breaking away from those serialized stories to tell one-offs. Both types of stories always felt infused with a sense of magical realism that turned the show into a fantasy, an exploration of being Black in America in the Southeast but imagining beyond the limitations of reality. Atlanta never tried to capture Black voices outside of this particular place, I’m sure it spoke to aspects of the Black experience, but it clearly was a show about the place and time as much as the people. The third season, which saw our four primary characters touring Europe, was met with less enthusiasm than usual. That makes sense, it was the season the least connected to Atlanta, but I still found it to have some episodes that were masterpieces. It was nice to get back to the city in season four, and the creators involved didn’t skip a beat.

Season four kicked off with a reminder of how weird & surreal this version of the city is with “The Most Atlanta.” Earn & Vanessa get caught up in a Borgesian shopping mall, an endless maze of twists & geographically impossible hallways and stairwells. Darius attempts to return an air fryer amid BLM-related rioting and is pursued by a woman in an electric wheelchair armed with a steak knife. She refuses to accept he was attempting a return and got the appliance legally. Al becomes lost in a scavenger hunt sparked by a lyric in the final album of a deceased rapper. Every character has a fantastical story that ends without delivering an explanation, and the characters simply accept that this is just how Atlanta is. A refreshing homecoming.

There’s an attempt at sleight of hand in the next episode, “The Homeliest Little Horse,” which centers on Earn’s experiences in therapy. The tone is relatively serious, and we get some fantastic acting from Donald Glover, maybe the best of the season. We finally learn why he got kicked out of Princeton, and his therapist connects this to an event from his childhood that has clung to the man his whole life. You get lulled into a certain feeling and then are hit with one of the funniest, most brilliant 180-degree flips I’ve ever seen on television. This twist and subsequent shift in Earn’s motivations have me pointing to this as a potential Emmy nom submission. This is aided by the shocked reception by his friends and his ultimate realization in the wake of what he does.

The season continued with a focus on Black artist exploitation in the music industry, providing some clever satire. We get a family episode where Earn is caught in a family feud between his mother and her siblings about their invalid father. I was happy to see the series finally aim its sights at Tyler Perry and the obscene film production machine he’s built in the state. The show doesn’t try to say he’s done nothing, there are a lot of people employed, but ultimately it finds a way to play with the perceptions of Perry as a megalomaniac and the reality of how he does exhibit those tendencies. I sensed this was partially an attempt to recapture the magic of the series’ best episode, “Teddy Perkins.” I don’t think it reaches where that bar has been raised, but it’s still a fun outing. There’s a fun episode about a serial killer targeting people who make videos dancing to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That,” and Al realizes he is a potential target. Darius and Earn are on a quest to buy bootleg Nikes that forces them to pay a price they hadn’t expected.

Atlanta ensured that people got what they felt was missing in the European season and did a great job. The quality is the highest it has ever been, and the show refused to adopt a sense of unnecessary reflection until it needed to. That started in the last four episodes of the season, four of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen. 

“Snipe Hunt” was the first episode to address the conclusion of these characters’ stories. Earn rents out an entire campground for Lottie’s sixth birthday weekend, and he & Vanessa take her on a camping trip. Lottie’s perspective captures the sense of magic a place like the woods can feel. That’s a sentiment I’ve experienced growing up in Tennessee. There is a pull when you look out into the forest, mystery & exploration waiting for you to come to be a part of it, like being on the edge of sleep and the dreams slowly emerging from the mist. 

Meanwhile, Earn & Vanessa are focused on a monumental shift in their lives. He’s moving to Los Angeles to grow his career as a manager, and they need clarification on their relationship status. Vanessa understands that Earn wants her to raise their daughter, and he wants to do it together. But what Vanessa needs to hear is that Earn wants her too, that he desires her, that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, and, honestly, he’s been a shit communicator in that regard for a long time. I felt this episode pairs thematically with season 3’s finale, “Tarrare,” about Vanessa coming to terms with her identity and role as a mother. In that episode, we learned about a moment of suicidal ideation that drove her to Europe to escape something. Now, she’s very much centered on being herself while being Lottie’s mom. She found that balance, but this episode is where she and Earn figure out how she is incorporated into his life. Magnificent acting by both of these performers.

“The Goof Who Sat By the Door” is a piece of brilliance, a mockumentary that was so unexpected but so ideally of the moment, the second of Donald Glover’s directorial contributions this season, both of which focused on Black representation in the media. Thomas Washington, a fictional Disney animator, was accidentally voted into the Disney CEO position in the 1980s. He begins to produce the self-described “blackest movie of all time” based on his relationship with his teenage son, Max. The profound stress of running a company the size of Disney while also being consciously aware of how his Blackness affected people’s perceptions of him drives Washington to drink and become abusive at home. This created an opportunity for white producers to tweak the movie and remove so many of the elements Washington was passionate about including. 

It sounds heavy, but this is presented humorously, a beautiful piece of alternate history that serves a particular purpose by inventing a part of history about something that appealed to Black youth of the period. It serves as a way to “claim” it. It’s sort of the same concept behind the amount of Black love for science fiction, like Star Trek. Astrofuturism emerges from the notion that constantly living in the past causes significant psychic damage to Black people. They won’t pretend bad things didn’t happen, but they don’t have many bright spots to cling to in the fog of history due to colonization and chattel slavery. Instead, by looking forward and creating alternate accounts, peace can be found, and hope in the future is a balm to counteract past horrors. Retroactively claiming a piece of art can do the same thing.

The energy gets brought down (a bit) with the penultimate episode focusing entirely on Al on his newly purchased farm in rural Georgia. “Andrew Wyeth. Alfred’s World.” is the title and references the famous painting by Wyeth, Christina’s World. By the end of the episode, Al finds himself in the same position as the subject of the work. This continues from “The Most Atlanta” and sees Al cultivating a plant he got at Blueblood’s funeral. It’s obvious Al is overwhelmed with farming and faces a pest problem. The local hardware store owner tells him he has wild hogs and warns him they can be deadly, which Al brushes off. How bad could a pig be? He quickly finds out, and once again, Atlanta reminds us how effortlessly it can shift to a horror movie tone yet not lose a beat when it comes to comedy. What I loved about this episode is that Al doesn’t give up on the farm despite his near-death experience. He will pause, collect himself, but make something out of this place. 

This reflects the character’s maturity and what it means to be a Southern Black person, where rural environments were part of your upbringing. I can’t speak to what it means for a Black person, but as someone living abroad, there is a strong emotion attached to that landscape when it’s something distant & difficult to find in your new home. Yet, despite the serious political problems infecting the region, peace can be found when you get out in nature. Al wants to make that connection a regular part of his life, likely influenced by his reflections on death during the scavenger hunt. It’s made even more intense when he faces down a feral animal. An absolutely perfect endnote for Al.

So there’s only one person left to wrap up, Darius. Throughout the series, I would rank Darius at the bottom of the four prominent core characters. I got the premise of Darius, but I always was more interested in seeing what Al or Vanessa were up to. However, I can’t think of a more perfect character to end the series with, especially with this particular story. It finally helped me find an appreciation for Darius and what he brings to the show.

In “It Was All a Dream,” the viewer and Darius appear to be caught in a dream loop. He’s going to his regular sensory deprivation tank session and keeps ending up in strange scenarios, only to discover he’s still in the tank. Meanwhile, Al and Earn meet with Vanessa at a newly opened Black-owned sushi restaurant. Al notices a Popeye’s Chicken across the street and can’t enjoy the experience when “better” food is so close. That subplot climaxes when the owner delivers a fantastic & funny speech about how Black people are not conditioned to trust each other. He points out the adherence to Japanese sushi traditions being practiced and that this is a metaphor for how Black people turn on each other no matter how “good” they are. It does this thing Atlanta does so well, having an absurdly acted character deliver an idea that we can’t disagree with.

For a while, I thought the show might just go out with a regular old episode, and in many ways, it was. Just our favorite characters in a silly story. But we get some heavy moments, like Darius (still in the tank) visiting his brother’s apartment, whom we’ve never heard of until now. His brother is sick, it’s cancer, and Darius has brought him some weed. We discover this is another tank dream, but it doesn’t make the scene hurt less, and it’s here that we learn why Darius is the way he is. While other characters live in the present, thinking about the future or struggling with the past, Darius is centered in the present. He is chill, doesn’t let things bother him, and is a prominent weed user. Being in the tank allows him to do things the waking World can’t, like visiting his dead brother for a minute or two.

Darius reveals that his trick for knowing whether he is in a dream is to turn on the television and find Judge Judy. He’s taught himself to manifest a “thick Judge Judy” as a signal that this is a dream. After his story ties into the others in a spectacular way, they go back home and relax. He is sure he’s still in a dream, but the others tell him he’s not. Later, they smoke on the back patio while Darius stays inside. Finally, he turns on the television, changing the channel to Judge Judy. The camera focuses on Darius, and we never see what he does. But we see a slight smile. Are those tears? The end. 

This was the only script Donald Glover wrote in season four. If you follow the trajectory of the show, we started with Earn. He brought us into the World of Atlanta. However, things happened in their lives because of Al. His career as Paper Boi propelled the characters into various scenarios and even brought them to Europe. But we end the show with Darius. Was this all his dream? If it was, then it speaks to the beauty of his mind, of Black creativity. What if you live in a dream and all the works of literature, films you’ve watched, and songs you’ve heard are the inventions of your mind. Yet, you feel stuck when you actively sit down to write something or make something. How ironic would it be if all the beauty of your World was actually made by you or parts of memories connected to those you loved? How beautiful would all this be if it was just a lovely dream Darius was having in the tank one afternoon, thinking about the people he cared about. Maybe he’s an old man now, perhaps they all passed away a long time ago, like his brother, but in this place, in this Atlanta, they are all back together again. Darius is the show’s heart, and while the others are moving on, he remains, creating beauty.

If it was all a dream, then let’s keep dreaming.

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