‘Atlanta’ Director Explains the Series Finale, Why It Was Time to Say Goodbye

Atl_Pilot_0722_514d - Credit: Guy D'Alema/FX
Atl_Pilot_0722_514d - Credit: Guy D'Alema/FX

Atlanta, one of the great shows of this or any other era, came to a close last night with a series finale titled “It Was All a Dream” — a fitting name for a series that so often has blurred the line between dreams and waking life.


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LaKeith Stanfield in a scene from the series finale of 'Atlanta.'
LaKeith Stanfield in a scene from the series finale of 'Atlanta.'

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The show’s ability to do that is as much a credit to director Hiro Murai as it is to creator/star Donald Glover. So Rolling Stone spoke with Murai — who first worked with Glover on a series of music videos — about how that very specific Atlanta tone is created, as well as how Black Justin Bieber, invisible cars, and Teddy Perkins came to be, and a whole lot more.

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One of the things I’ve always loved about the show is how parts of it can feel very real and other parts seem to be operating on dream logic. Is that something you guys have talked about a lot over the years?
I don’t think it was ever a thesis. I don’t think we went into with that concept. The show is so strange. We kind of see it as a Ouija board with a couple of hands on it, that just becomes whatever it becomes because of the people in the room. One of the things that happened very early on is that the world was kind of elastic. Even down in the first season, when we did the Black Justin Bieber episode — that was the first time we said, “Oh, this isn’t what we thought it was, but it’s part of the show too.” Every episode, it slightly shifts, I think the sandbox gets a little bit bigger. I don’t think it was ever the intention from the kick-out. It sort of morphed as we made it.

I didn’t know what to expect from the finale, and then I realized, “Oh, of course it’s an episode questioning what is a dream and what is reality” — which sums up the Atlanta experience. Was that intentional?
It felt like the best way to capture this feeling that we were having going into the finale. There’s a sense that, the stakes are very real in the show, and what matters to the characters matters a lot. But also, maybe none of it matters at all. There’s some kind of existential fog hanging over the show in the course of the four seasons. There’s something strangely poignant, even though the conceit is ridiculous, that once you see Judge Judy’s booty, all the experiences you’ve had in the last four seasons aren’t real at all. It felt very important to us to do something that’s simultaneously a very silly, ridiculous idea, and something that actually meant something to us at the same time.

Well, that leads us to tone, and how so many moments on the show can feel like two things at once. The racist scooter lady from this season’s premiere is ridiculous but also scary, and you can also do a scene like the lovely funeral for “Tupac” last season that suddenly shows us a man desperately fighting for his life while being smothered by a sheet. Directorially, how do you hold both of those things in your hand?
That’s always been the funnest part for us. People have talked about it a lot more post-Jordan Peele. I think the way you build it, [it’s] very close to the way you build horror. You’re building the moment and the tension, and then you’re snapping the trap at the end. What we really enjoyed doing, was that if you charge it in a very matter-of-fact, deadpan way, that feels sort of naturalistic. You’re not showing your hand at all; your anticipation goes in both directions. You can’t tell if a joke is coming or some horrendous act of violence.

I think that tension lives in the show. It’s married to the characters’ experience of the world. Especially in the early seasons, they’re outsiders looking in. There’s a tense air to every room they walk into. And so, we used that as our primary language for shifting between comedy and shock and drama.

What was the atmosphere like filming this last episode?
It’s funny. The episode feels a lot like how it felt to shoot it. It feels a little bit unruly and unhinged. There’s a lot of feelings in the air. We were all exhausted, because we were filming for a year straight, doing Season Three and Season Four back-to-back. We were wrapping up a big chapter of our lives, and there were a lot of emotions attached to the show. But it also felt like the last day of school, where everybody was not taking the assignment very seriously, and we were processing our emotion in a slap-happy way. It was really emotional, but there was also a manic energy blowing in the air. The footage in the finale is ridiculous, because it’s mostly unusable. It just has this really chaotic, weird energy. I really like how this looseness trickled down into the final product.

What was the last scene you filmed?
The last scene we shot with the [full] cast was the last scene of the episode, with the gang hanging out at the apartment. The crew was emotional. That was Brian’s last day. He gave this really emotional speech at the end, even though it felt ridiculous to have Popeye’s containers everywhere and Judge Judy on the TV. I think it’s just funny that TV never wraps up the way you want it to emotionally. Because after that, you have to shoot inserts of Van sprinkling crack in Alex Skarsgård’s apartment in the Season Three finale, or Darius is in the deprivation tank. You never get to have this big ceremonious ending; it just gets chopped up into pieces.

What did you talk about with LaKeith about how to play that final look, and what’s going through Darius’ head?
He tried a couple of different things. The biggest thing was, as silly as that prompt is, we wanted him to kind of acknowledge the terror of realizing that maybe none of this is real, and that none of this means anything, and everything you’ve built in the last six years is a dream. But I wanted to make sure that we got to a place of acceptance. Where he felt satisfied, whether it was a dream or not. Darius, as a character, has this disposition that I love. He’s sort of unflappable, and he has a deep soul. I think we wanted to see that arc in that very short, wordless sequence.

What is Donald like as a creative partner?
Really kind and ego-less and sharp. One of the most underrated talents Donald has is, he’s really good at creating creative spaces. It never comes from a place of, “This is my vision, and this is what I want out of it.” He just gets the right people in the room, and he gets them excited about what they’re doing. He herds the cats. The alchemy happens, and he just watches it naturally grow into this thing. And he’s really good at just letting the project take the shape that it wants to take. Which I think is a really difficult thing to do, when so much of it is based on your life, and the genesis of the show is tied into who you are so much. But that’s always been the biggest takeaway from Atlanta: all the way down to the editors’ assistants, everybody’s invested and has a piece of themselves in the show. And that gives it a life it wouldn’t have otherwise.

When you were first developing the show, what did you two talk about in terms of how you wanted it to look and feel?
At that point, we’d done maybe 10 music videos together, a short film together. We were starting to develop a language that was tonally very similar to Atlanta. It’s a little funny, a little sad, a little elastic in terms of what can and can’t happen. Dreams were a very big starting point; we just liked the idea that something can feel tactile and real, and then slip into something very heightened in the course of one scene. I don’t know if we ever explicitly talked about it, but when he asked me to do the show, I just knew that he wanted to extend what we’d been doing into a narrative format. I hadn’t worked in TV, and I wasn’t even sure that we could do what we’d been doing in those short-form formats in a narrative show. I don’t think he had concrete plans for it, either. He just wanted to try it. It was a matter of: How do we sustain narrative engagement? How do we still build real characters and sustain some of that illusive, dreamy tone from the short-form stuff?

One of the things I’ve noticed is that most of the major moments in the characters’ lives takes place between episodes, or seasons. Al becomes famous when we’re not looking at him.
Maybe it’s just that the writers are all contrarians. It also just felt more real, when you were just catching these characters in small little breaths and moments between large tentpole moments in their lives. You’ve seen rappers perform to a 20,000-person venue. That’s the stuff that gets aired on TV. But you’ve never seen a rapper roll a joint and smoke weed by himself in his tiny apartment. And the space between these big moments of a rapper’s career is the most interesting and real part. This is a philosophical thing for the show: we like to have the audience engaged and filling in the blanks. We want to provide the landmarks for these characters, but it’s sort of up to you to fill in how they got there. It’s up to the audience’s imagination, and it becomes this pointillist narrative, where you have to connect all the dots.

ATLANTA -- "Nobody Beats The Biebs" -- Episode 105 (Airs Tuesday, September 27, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Bryan Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, Austin Crute as Justin Bieber. CR: Quantrell D. Colbert/FX
ATLANTA -- "Nobody Beats The Biebs" -- Episode 105 (Airs Tuesday, September 27, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Bryan Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, Austin Crute as Justin Bieber. CR: Quantrell D. Colbert/FX

When Black Justin Bieber and the invisible car were first being discussed in Season One, what did you think?
I’ll be honest: When I first heard the Black Justin Bieber idea, I thought, “This might break the show. This might not sit well in this very grounded, naturalistic story about this Princeton dropout.” But then you look at the roomful of writers. They’ve all been there from the start, and part of Donald’s creative team from his music days. It’s not random. It’s all interconnected to the creative DNA of who Donald is. Again, it becomes a pointillist thing, where these individual things and episodes create this bigger picture of what the show can be. Part of the joy of the show became discovering what the show can be, as we make it. I don’t think it was ever fleshed out as a blueprint as we started making it. It evolved and grew, and had a life of its own.

The audience embraced those weird things early on. Did that embolden everybody to say you should get even weirder?
Yeah. I think we were shocked that the audience was following us every time. For better or for worse, we come at the show from a place of, “It’s for us first.” So when people responded to Black Justin Bieber or an invisible car, we’re like, “Oh, there’s a lot more people out there like us. There’s people who share a sensibility.” Which is a lovely feeling when you’re making stuff.

What would you have said after shooting the pilot if someone had told you that the series’ third-to-last episode would be a mockumentary about The Goofy Movie?
[Laughs] That’s the thing. When we shot the pilot, I hadn’t worked in TV ever. So I would have said, “Okay. I guess that’s what we do on TV.” We were just learning what a TV show is, as we were making it.

Among the special things about that episode is that it takes this ridiculous idea, then makes you feel genuinely sad for the guy — then makes fun of him again at the end with the show of the Goofy shoes and glove.
I think that’s kind of our recipe, in some ways. We just take an idea that feels like it shouldn’t be executed. Like, something you would say as a joke in a writers room, and we just take that and try to make it as emotional and real as possible, take it to its logical conclusion. Whenever we strike that balance, it really feels like the show to me.

Is there a particular rubric for when you direct an episode versus when Donald does it, or when someone else does? Was it just scheduling?
It was a little bit of everything. Schedule was a big part of it, for sure. I’m basically directing every other block. Donald’s in a lot of the show, so we try to give him the episodes where he’s not on screen every minute, because that becomes a nightmare. But there are also things that are particularly close to him. I think The Goofy Movie episode is so close to him that I can’t imagine anybody else directing that. Same for something like “FUBU.” It’s so much about him and his brother Stephen. I think we just try to be conscious about what each of us can bring to an episode and what our perspective us.

But beyond the personal connection, would you say there are things that distinguish a Donald-directed episode from one that you do?
I think Donald is much better at straight comedy. That’s a tool he’s sharpened his entire life. He can find the turn in a joke much faster than I could. I tend to rely on deadpan naturalism. Or finding the downbeat of a song. Just finding a weird, irregular rhythm to an episode. But we’ve also been doing this together for so long, that a lot of the approach to how we do things is very similar. And we share a cinematographer that we’ve been working with since the pilot, and our editors are the same. So there’s a lot of overlap.

“ATLANTA” --  "Andrew Wyeth. Alfred's World." -- Season 4, Episode 9 (Airs Nov 3) Pictured: Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles.  CR: Guy D'Alema/FX
“ATLANTA” -- "Andrew Wyeth. Alfred's World." -- Season 4, Episode 9 (Airs Nov 3) Pictured: Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

The next-to-last episode is practically a silent movie, where its just Brian on his own, reacting to things. What makes that performance great enough that you could do that?
I just think Brian’s a genius, honestly. I’ve spent so much time in the editor’s room over the course of four seasons, [so] I just know how much value him reacting to things brings to the show. This entire show is, something ridiculous happens to Alfred, or some weird, obtuse, maybe racist situation happens, and you go to Brian’s face to understand how we should take it as an audience. I think the whole show is built around his face. So when the episode is just him doing things and experiencing life, and small frustrations, or finding joy in getting a tractor running, I was immediately, like, “I would watch that.” I just know the value of his face. He exudes so much from just a single look. I was really excited when that script came in.

When the show begins, Earn is our point of view character. And at some point in the second season, it’s clear that Al is now the main protagonist. Is that something you were conscious of as the show evolved?
Earn, from the start…what felt really real is that he played everything really close to his chest. He was very cagey, and maybe he suffered from depression or anxiety. Early on, a lot of people involved in the show kept trying to push us into learning more about Earn, and to have Earn express himself a little bit more. And that didn’t feel real to us. We know guys like Earn. He moves very quietly. He suffers alone, a lot of the characters suffer alone.

So when that was established about Earn, our eyes went to Alfred. Even though he’s playing this gangster rapper persona, he’s a very emotional and a pure soul. He feels every frustration or every slight. There’s something very open about Alfred, even though he’s in this macho music genre. I think the show just naturally leaned that way. He was someone who you could really experience what was happening to to these characters through, and what became interesting about Earn is that his arc, especially in the fourth season, became about him learning to open up a bit, and just connect a little more with the people around him. Him working on himself became his arc.

That brings us to the “Snipe Hunt” episode, where Earn opens himself up like he never has before. What was it like directing that scene in the tent where he tells Van how he feels?
What was really exciting to us about that episode is that, if you’ve seen the first three seasons, that’s the last thing you would expect out of the show. I don’t think those characters have ever been that emotionally naked, especially Earn. It felt like something you couldn’t do unless you built this character for three seasons, as a guy who’s very protected and doesn’t want to be vulnerable. It would only feel earned and cathartic if you don’t see it coming. When that episode was pitched, I don’t think we had a script for that until we were halfway through the season. We were just shuffling a couple of episodes in and out, and we weren’t sure what this was going to be. Then Donald pitched this idea that he wanted to see Earn, Van, and Lottie just in nature. The prompt of the episode was just to exist and interact with each other really naturally, and in a way that maybe feels sort of plotless. You’re just watching them be themselves for most of the episode. And that makes you think a lot about what it is to be a family, specifically a Black family removed from this urban context of Atlanta.

“ATLANTA” --  "Snipe Hunt" -- Season 4, Episode 7 (Airs Oct 20) Pictured (L-R): Donald Glover as Earn Marks, Zazie Beetz as Van.  CR: Guy D'Alema/FX
“ATLANTA” -- "Snipe Hunt" -- Season 4, Episode 7 (Airs Oct 20) Pictured (L-R): Donald Glover as Earn Marks, Zazie Beetz as Van. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

So when we shot the actual tent scene, it felt so new — like I’ve never seen Earn, or even Donald, in this gear before. It became a matter of, how do we make it feel real? How do we earn every step of him unveiling himself, and getting more and more vulnerable? Which was tricky. Some things we tried, it just felt false. You need to buy that Earn is doing this, not just anybody. We built that conversation carefully. Francesca Sloane, one of our writers, is so good at navigating what would push Earn’s buttons and what would make him double down and step in. How would he approach trying to convey this feeling to Van? He’s not someone used to talk about his emotions, so what does that look like? It’s probably not going to always be so clear-headed and clean. It was a really interesting experience, and felt like no other scene we’ve ever shot on the show.

What was the genesis of the “Teddy Perkins” episode?
This is one of those ideas that Donald had very clear in his head. Or at least he knew that there was something there, about this Black musician who has had a lot of work done to appear white. Actually, now that I think about it, it might have been Ludwig Göransson, who is one of Donald’s musical collaborators. They were talking about either Michael Jackson or one of the musicians who’s had skin bleaching or other work done. And Ludwig just said something like, “Imagine how terrifying this would be if you turned around in a dark alley and he was just standing there.” So it started from this one-off aside, and we took that and blew it out into this horror movie/existential character study on what it is to be in popular music as a Black man. Very early on, Donald felt like he was the only one championing the episode. In the writers room, people were like, “What is this?”

There were a couple of different iterations of what that episode was and what the character wanted to be. Also, at the time, there hadn’t been any episodes centered entirely around Darius. Darius always served the show as a peripheral comedy sidekick. He was this character who’s hard to pin down, so it’s hard to build an episode around someone who you can’t pin down. There were a lot of questions about whether an episode could work if Darius is a straight man. But I knew Donald was excited about it. At the time, we hadn’t really done a horror episode. And we liked the tonal implications of taking this guy’s face, which is disturbing, but also there’s a lot of comic value because you can’t read his expressions because his face is so messed up. You can’t tell whether he’s just a weirdo, or plotting to kill you. The tone of it just felt so ripe.

Did Donald go Method-y in between takes, or was he acting like his normal self under the prosthetics?
We referred to him as “Teddy” the whole shoot. Keith didn’t know who Teddy was for the first three days of shooting, and nobody would tell him. He was so uneasy! He basically interrogated every crew member to figure out who he was. And every time he asked me, “Who is this dude?” I go, “It’s Teddy. We got the real guy.”

ATLANTA Robbin' Season -- "Teddy Perkins" -- Season Two, Episode 6 (Airs Thursday, April 5, 10:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured: Teddy Perkins as Himself. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX
ATLANTA Robbin' Season -- "Teddy Perkins" -- Season Two, Episode 6 (Airs Thursday, April 5, 10:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured: Teddy Perkins as Himself. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

Kirkwood Chocolate is a much sillier character, but it was fun to again see Donald disguise himself like that. Over the past several weeks, I’ve kept saying, “Grits don’t work on me!”
Around the office, we just yell, “IIIIIII’m fiiine!”

Do you feel like there’s episode one that is the most quintessentially Atlanta? Like, if someone who had never seen the show asked you what it was like, you would show them that?
Aw, man. That’s hard. There are so many episodes I absolutely adore. But if I were to show someone who had never seen the show, I would start with “Alligator Man” — Season two, Episode one. That episode kind of has a little bit of everything. At its core, it’s a family story. It has this out-of-nowhere, bonkers cold open that ends with a shootout in a chicken shop. It’s got this Katt Williams turn that’s really surprising and emotional. You get a little piece of Darius talking about Florida Man, and the emotional climax is an alligator stepping onto the front porch in slow motion. There’s a lot about that episode feels like what we do well.

You directed a few of the anthology episodes from Season Three. Did you approach them any differently in terms of how you wanted them to look and feel?
Those were Season Three episodes. And even though it didn’t have any of the cast in it, they were the only episodes that season we shot in Atlanta. It helped us realize again how much of this show’s aesthetic and tone comes from being in Atlanta. Even without the cast, there was something that just felt like our show to us. Obviously, we knew were taking a swing with those anthology episodes, and there was going to be a certain level of confusion and frustration that Alfred’s not going to show up. So we were very deliberate [in] having the tone of it and the style of it feel continuous with the rest of the show. I think the gaze of the show is the same even if it’s different characters. They’re all mini-fables, and you’re kind of following a lot of white-perspective characters. So inherently, the recipe is different. We just tried to make it feel like the other side of the coin — it’s still the same who, but you’re looking at it from a different side of the room.

“ATLANTA” --  "The Big Payback" -- Season 3, Episode 4 (Airs April 7) Pictured (L-R): Justin Bartha as Marshall Johnson.  CR: Guy D'Alema/FX
“ATLANTA” -- "The Big Payback" -- Season 3, Episode 4 (Airs April 7) Pictured (L-R): Justin Bartha as Marshall Johnson. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

In the spring, I saw some fans speculate that you did these anthologies because you ultimately couldn’t produce a full season in Europe. What was everyone’s actual motivation for making those episodes?
The show is ever-evolving. It becomes whatever the creators are most interested in. I wasn’t in the room every day, but my sense was that everybody kept gravitating to these “What If?” stories. In the beginning, they were trying to tie it into the show, but then they realized these were their own stories. It’s funny to hear people suggest that we came up with those anthology episodes as a consolation prize for not being able to spend more time in Europe. In some ways, I think [the writers] were the most excited with those episodes for Season Three. There are a lot of ideas and concepts we’ve talked about that can only work in that sort of Twilight Zone format, for better or worse. It was always something that they kept coming back to, and they just realized it should be half the season.

When you came back from that long break after Season Two, did the show feel different to you?
It was totally different. We were in London, and that’s a big part of it. But we were all different people, too. We hadn’t been in a room together in three or four years. The show had become what it had become, and there was a sense that people had feelings about the world we had created. We’re also a group of creatives that are allergic to the idea of nostalgia, or trying to retain some kind of version of the show that that previously existed. It was this very uncanny feeling, where you’re back together again, and there’s a sense of kinship and familiarity between everyone. But we also knew that we were embarking on a completely different chapter of this thing — not because we’re in Europe, but because the characters are in different stages of their lives. The writers wanted to talk about something different. We leaned into the idea that the show’s going to keep evolving. We also aren’t the same creatives that we were in 2018. We have different preoccupations and ideas about the world. It was simultaneously scary and exciting. We got the band back together, but we knew we weren’t going to play the same song anymore.

This season has been so spectacular, you can’t blame anyone from asking why you’re going away when you’re still at the top of your game like this. Why was that decision made?
The show has never come from a place of plotting out narrative arcs for characters. I don’t think there was a logical endpoint for these characters. It comes down to whether there are things that are narratively exciting for the writers. A lot of us thought that Season Two was going to be the end, because it felt like such a punctuation, and we weren’t sure if we had more to say about this world and these characters. So when we came back and did a double season, we just made sure that we used the 20 episodes to say everything we want about the characters, and the world at the time, and a lot of the themes and topics that the show touches on.

It never felt like a show where you can just create a pattern, and fill in the pattern every week. Every episode is a discovery, and it evolves on its own, into a different thing each week. There’s something about it that feels unsustainable in a TV format. It’s not a factory that can spit out episodes, because you’re sort of reinventing the wheel each time. But also, part of the excitement of the show was us not knowing what it’s going to be when we start making it. That’s always been a north star for us, where if you’re not feeling the feeling, then it’s not really worth it for us. So by the end of the fourth season, we kind of got to really satisfy all those feelings.

But Donald keeps joking that when we’re 80, we’ll do Atlanta: Lottie’s Revenge. But for now, I think we’re all very satisfied with what we got to do in these two seasons.

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