‘Atlanta’ Ends as Whatever Dream You Want It to Be

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Atlanta” Season 4, Episode 10, “It Was All a Dream” — the series finale.]

Every season* of “Atlanta” starts, in one way or another, with Earn waking up. The premiere, following a flash-forward, sees Donald Glover’s lead recalling a dream next to a groggy Van (Zazie Beetz). In Season 2, subtitled “Robbin’ Season,” Earn is rudely roused by his storage unit’s owner, who evicts him from his makeshift home (while stealing some of his stuff). Even Season 3’s first entry, which dedicates 99 percent of its runtime to a story inspired by the Hart family murders, ends on a close-up of Earn’s rattled face, as he looks around his hotel room in that initial waking state of anxious confusion.

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*Every season, that is, except Season 4.

The fourth and final season of “Atlanta” notably begins with Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) returning an air fryer to Target amid absolute chaos. The store is being looted. The cashier is cowering behind the counter. But Darius saunters in like it’s any other day, politely asking for service and barely registering the ongoing mayhem. (“It is pretty wild in here,” he says, once prompted by the cashier. “Kind of looks like a Marshall’s now.”) At the time, the scene felt like an acknowledgment of how much has changed since these characters were last in Atlanta (and “Atlanta” was last in Atlanta); after a lengthy European tour and a four-year break between seasons, the world has only moved deeper into the surreality encroaching on the corners of earlier episodes.

Turns out, Darius may have kept his cool not only because shit is crazy right now, but because he legitimately can’t separate what’s real from what’s imaginary. Per the final episode, the pot-loving deep thinker has been going on “dep dates” — trips to a sensory deprivation tank — which he describes “like being in the womb again.” Unfortunately, as Darius learns from a genial woman at the pharmacy (Cree Summer), spending too much time deprived of one’s senses can leave a man unsure of what’s real and what’s a particularly intense vision.

Maybe it’s reality, maybe it’s all a dream.

“It Was All a Dream,” the series finale, posits that everything in “Atlanta” took place in Darius’ head. “Maybe it’s just my dream, and you were just in it,” he tells Earn, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), and Van, near the episode’s ending. It’s a fitting theory for a show filled with inexplicable phenomena, as well as a possible nod to one of the most notable sitcom endings ever — which, at least for this viewer, is one reason the ambiguous goodbye works. “Atlanta,” after all, is a sitcom through and through. It’s silly and funny and loves its characters. It’s also adventurous and unconventional and not made to be universally embraced — all traits befitting Bob Newhart’s hotly debated “Newhart” ending, as well.

But to go out with one simple explanation would be too pat. The ambiguity of “Atlanta” is a part of its DNA, so erasing all those purposeful questions and challenging choices would be a disservice to the series’ verisimilitude — to the vibes it tuned into and the people it connected with. The title, rather than bluntly stating one interpretation of the series, instead speaks to a feeling. Yes, much of what we’re greeted with each morning seems too outlandish to be actually happening, but we still have to wake up and face it. We can escape sometimes, in order to “replenish your mind and soul,” but if you’re checked out for too long, you’ll miss out on the good stuff.

Like friends. And Popeye’s.

Ah, so how does the Black-owned sushi fusion restaurant fit? For one, it’s a very meta way for “Atlanta” to talk about itself. Darius’ story is only half the finale; the other half tracks Earn, Van, and Alfred as they visit a friend’s new restaurant in order to “support your own,” as one cousin tells the other. If the sushi fusion experience takes off, Earn explains, everyone benefits: the Black chef, the Black owner, the Black investors, not to mention the Black community of Atlanta who can broaden their minds while backing their ambitious, accomplished fellow citizens.

LaKeith Stanfield in “Atlanta” - Credit: Guy D'Alema / FX
LaKeith Stanfield in “Atlanta” - Credit: Guy D'Alema / FX

Guy D'Alema / FX

There’s only one problem: Across the street, there’s a Popeye’s. Alfred catches wind of it (“You smell that? It smells like the manager is mean as hell”), and Earn has to keep reminding him why it’s important they give their lunch dollars to the sushi spot instead. Even Van wants to bail on their fine dining in favor of some spicy chicken, and as the meal goes on, the temptation only intensifies. Atlanta’s first Black-owned sushi experience is… less than ideal. In place of sake, they’re served “hot White Hennessy.” There’s corn in the rice, and Alfred is grossed out by the chef rolling sushi with his bare hands. Earn tries to put on a brave face (“I fuck with the yellow rice”), but by the time they’re handed a plate of blowfish that could literally kill them, Alfred is ready to roll.

It’s then that the owner emerges. Demarcus (Calvin Dutton), decked out in a bright red bow tie and black tuxedo (in what may be a nod to the bow-tie-wearing stranger on the bus from Season 1, Episode 1), knows where Paper Boi & Co. are about to go. “They all do,” he says, gazing through his window at the neighboring fast-food chain. He then launches into a lengthy, bitter diatribe about Black Americans; about how whenever Black patrons get “hopped up on nationalism,” they’ll put their money in the right places, but as soon as the feeling passes, those Black businesses and artists are abandoned; about how Black people are taught not to trust each other, citing whispered slanders against Black residents of various American cities; about how such unfounded discrimination leads them to unite behind those looking to exploit them — the wrong businesses, the wrong artists, the wrong… TV shows?

Is Demarcus still talking about his restaurant, or has his restaurant morphed into a metaphor for “Atlanta”? The two have a few things in common. The award-winning comedy is just as ambitious, high-minded, and elegantly made as the fish prepared by hand (which, as Demarcus insists, is how it’s supposed to be done). Both can also be jarring. When Earn pleads with Alfred to stay, it’s easy to imagine he’s talking to the audience after any number of curveball episodes: “There’s going to be a couple of new ideas thrown at you. Could we please keep our minds open?” Then there’s Demarcus’ first example of what he sees as a lack of loyalty: a well-regarded yet challenging film made by a Black filmmaker (Melina Matsoukas), starring Black actors (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith), about Black discrimination (“Queen & Slim,” airing on FX). Season 4 has been eager to examine the entertainment industry’s impact on Black lives, from the Tyler Perry-inspired horror-comedy “Work Ethic” (Episode 5) to the faux-documentary on Disney’s history of Black intolerance in “The Goof Who Sat by the Door” (Episode 8).

For quite a while, “Atlanta” has been self-aware to a fault. Setting aside its meta moments, the episode descriptions are often written from the perspective of an imaginary viewer — someone who’s not always pleased with how the entry turns out. Season 3’s premiere “synopsis” reads: “Wow it’s been a minute. I mean, I like this episode about the troubled kid but we waited 50 years for this?” Episode 2 features the line, “They be trying too hard to go viral,” and Episode 3 simply says: “Season 1 was better.”

Even in esteem, “Atlanta” has faced its fair share of criticism. Season 3 was met with repeated frustrations and a comparably muted reaction. The show’s treatment of Van (and women in general) has been a sticking point (as acknowledged in the Season 3, Episode 9 synopsis: “Why do they hate black women so much?”). Even Donald Glover, when interviewing himself, made sure to question (and get defensive about) his Blackness.

Brian Tyree Henry in “Atlanta” - Credit: Guy D'Alema / FX
Brian Tyree Henry in “Atlanta” - Credit: Guy D'Alema / FX

Guy D'Alema / FX

Embracing the expected backlash can be a quick way to diffuse it, like how Earn’s button to the cold open — “You could’ve ended it stronger than that” — speaks to more than just Paper Boi’s improvised “Old McAlfred” lyrics. But there’s a bitterness in “Atlanta’s” offscreen response to disapproval that’s echoed in Demarcus’ speech. By the end, he wants to lock the doors and force Alfred to eat a dish that might kill him. He demands support, even when it’s clear these particular patrons simply aren’t buying what he’s selling. They’re in the mood for something else, and whether they should eat the sushi or not is beside the point.

That makes the ridiculous, uproarious ending such a relief. When Darius bursts in and punches Demarcus in the face, rushing his friends outside to a pink Maserati filled with delicious Popeye’s sandwiches, it’s as though Glover and the “Atlanta” team are throwing their hands up. Life’s too short. People shouldn’t have to eat their vegetables or sushi or artsy prestige TV if today’s a day they really need dessert, Popeye’s, or just a few laughs. Perhaps, at times, “Atlanta” took itself too seriously, but in the end, it recognizes the value of its own duality: giving the people something they’ve never seen before and giving the people what they want.

So was “Atlanta” a dream? A good trip? A bad one? Oddly enough, “It Was All a Dream” allows all three interpretations. The Popeye’s ad Darius sees at the beginning could be evidence that his chicken-craving brain cooked up Earn, Alfred, and Van’s extreme foodie experience. But his final expression — as he stares at his version of “Inception’s” spinning top: a thicc or not thicc Jude Judy — is that same state of anxious confusion we saw with Earn before. Is he just waking up, or is he still in the deprivation chamber? Are any of us? Whatever your preferred answer, it’s hard to argue the experience hasn’t been better with “Atlanta” to help us through. Perhaps all that really matters is the last four words of Episode 10’s synopsis:

“You know what? As much as I hated this show, I think I’m gonna miss it.”

Grade: B+

Final Notes:

– There were at least a few nods to the series premiere in the series finale. In addition to the Demarcus / Ahmad connection, the most obvious easter egg is Darius’ line, “That almost always certainly means no.” In Season 4, Episode 10, he was responding to Earn’s insincere agreement to try out a sensory deprivation tank, but in Season 1, Episode 1, it’s close to what Darius says when Earn’s father, Raleigh (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), refuses to let him measure his tree.

– When it came to Darius specifically, this was a stirring, ideal ending. Seeing him continue to mourn his brother, to keep working on bettering himself, to stick by his friends, no matter the cost — after emotional wrap-ups for Earn, Van, and Alfred in previous weeks, it’s more than fitting for “Atlanta” to end on its quiet, offbeat heart. (Well, “quiet” when he’s not yelling at a stranger to “WAKE UP!”)

– “Thicc Judge Judy.” What a way to go out.

FX’s “Atlanta” is available in its entirety on Hulu.

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