Atlanta, season 3 review: Donald Glover's bold, bracing comedy is still like nothing else on TV

·4 min read
Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry star in Atlanta - Disney
Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry star in Atlanta - Disney

It can seem like a trick of the memory but, back in 2016, Atlanta (Disney+), the most innovative and daring show on TV, began as a traditional sitcom. Not a sitcom like Open All Hours or The Golden Girls, but a sitcom nonetheless. Sure there was no laughter track or, really, any outright jokes, but it had the classic loser-everyman in luckless Earn (co-creator Donald Glover), Van (Zazie Beetz), the patient girlfriend whose affections Earn was always trying, and failing, to regain and an eye-rolling paternal figure in rap star cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). Earn even had that essential sitcom staple, the wacky friend – Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) – while his money-making schemes and modest dreams would always turn to ash just as they seemed within reach. You can trace Earn back to Basil Fawlty, to Homer Simpson, to Captain Mainwaring.

Yet before season one had ended, you knew you were dealing with something very different. And after the Emmy Award-winning, surrealist masterpiece of a second season, which dealt deftly, powerfully and occasionally breathtakingly with the issue of race in America, those early sitcom episodes felt like a ploy. Come for the sitcom putz, stay for the James Baldwin influenced, jazz-inspired treatise on black America. When Stephen Glover – Donald’s brother and co-creator – said recently that season three is about the “the curse of whiteness”, no one batted an eyelid. It’s Atlanta, this is what it does. To suggest the show takes risks would be like suggesting Evel Knievel was fond of a wheelie.

Season three, in a bold move, takes Earn and co out of Atlanta, Georgia, which had become a character in itself and one every bit as essential as Earn, and sends them around Europe on a tour with Paper Boi. This is a bracing experience for a white, middle class, British TV critic, who’d previously been able to distance Atlanta’s scabrous and mischievous takes on race – this is America, to quote Glover’s rap artist alter ego, Childish Gambino. This is the country of Jim Crow and George Floyd. Yes, shame on you, white America. Now, however, we are in London and Amsterdam.

The season begins, however, back in Georgia, but not with Earn or Paper Boi, but with an episode about a black teenage boy, Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar), who ends up in foster care after the most minor of misdemeanours at high school. The story that unfolds is nothing short of horror, as Loquareeous is placed with an oddball, white lesbian hippy couple (Jamie Neumann and Laura Dreyfuss), who already have three young black foster children and terrifying ideas about raising children.

Without giving away spoilers, the episode is gutwrenching, though, at times, you wonder why the Glovers have chosen to tell this story and where Earn comes into it. The real horror, however, is when you realise it is based on a true story, that of Jennifer and Sarah Hart. You can Google it. One scene in which Loquareeous embraces a white policeman and begs for help (which he doesn’t get), only for the moment to be photographed and become a local good news story about the removal of racial barriers, is based entirely on fact.

Jamie Neumann, Christopher Farrar and Laura Dreyfuss - Disney
Jamie Neumann, Christopher Farrar and Laura Dreyfuss - Disney

The second episode reunites us with our main characters in Amsterdam at Christmas, where the black Georgians must contend with swathes of locals dressed as Zwarte Piet, a companion of St Nicholas who wears blackface. What “the curse of whiteness” actually means is up for debate, but perhaps its meaning is located somewhere in the fact that I initially dismissed the idea of a group of young white Dutch people attending the gig of a black musician while wearing blackface.  I also thought Loquareeous’s story was a little far-fetched, a little overegged, until I googled the Harts.

Atlanta’s high-minded, Afrosurrealist, unfiltered views on black America and white Europe wouldn’t seem out of place in another art form, but in the cosy confines of a TV series (on Disney, no less) it seems an act of staggering radicalness. It goes without saying that it is a show with a strong flavour and it won’t be for everyone, but Atlanta is a true great of the form, making other comedy-dramas feel like the toy you get inside a Kinder Egg. Atlanta is the Great American Novel trapped inside a flatscreen TV.