The first two episodes of Atlanta Season 4 will premiere on Sept. 15 on FX, streaming the next day on Hulu.
When we return to Atlanta for its fourth and final season, we start by catching up with Earn (Donald Glover), Al (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), and Van (Zazie Beetz), who are back in their titular hometown, getting their lives on track after the madcap European tour of last season. And as we’ve come to expect, Season 4 of FX’s unprecedented comedy-drama starts off with a bang! Or should I say smash and grab?
The first three episodes of this season, like those before it, employ absurdist humor as a vehicle to examine the harsh realities of today’s socio-political climate. The idiosyncrasies of the Deep South provide a whimsical backdrop for the themes of family, mental health, and a snarky critique of the music industry. Because these topics are tempered by the creative team’s masterful use of allusion, the writing simultaneously comes across as both high and low brow, without hitting you over the head with its message. Viewers from differing backgrounds will take away varied interpretations, and frankly, that’s the point — similar to The Simpsons’ decades-long marriage of slapstick and satire, there are levels to the humor here. If you don’t want to read into it, you can enjoy the show for its irreverence and easy laughs (why are the walls carpeted.. and wet?!), and if you are fully submerged in today’s troubling zeitgeist (God help us all), there is so. much. to. unpack.
From a motorchair Karen as an example of self-righteous zealots hankering for violence, to a sophisticated scavenger hunt funeral, a mall stuck in time, an elaborate charade orchestrated to avenge a racist incident, and what we’ll call the D’Angelo experience, Atlanta finds its strength in seamlessly weaving together incongruent timelines, while simultaneously building an underlying feeling of uneasiness. Oftentimes, we, as the audience — and occasionally the characters themselves — are unable to tell the difference between wild figments of imagination and ludicrous references to the very real world we live in. We’re bewildered, yet somehow made more aware than ever before, by a show that speaks an entirely different language than any other series on television. Thankfully, the showrunners spell out the dictionary for us along the way.
Cinematic comparisons this season range from the whimsy of Charlie Kaufman to the meta-reality of The Truman Show, the dark realism of Black Mirror, and the eerie tension of the 2014 horror film It Follows. With such a diverse toolbox, the showrunners ensure we never get too comfortable on just one timeline. Each metaphor unravels multiple layers of intrigue — there is the instant gratification of recognizing an obscure social media reference or the staple of Black culture that is Jet magazine, but if you are willing to look a little bit beyond, dive in a little bit deeper, there is so much to download from the simple pan of the camera as a pregnant teen sips on a Capri Sun in a music studio. The story tells itself.
Moments like this are understated — if you know you know — and the writers continue to lean on the contrasts of subtle and overt messaging as they dissect phenomena within the music industry. In the wake of the deaths of several rappers at least partially due to inadvertent location sharing on social media, including Pop Smoke, Young Dolph, and most recently PnB Rock, Al’s fear for his life is not outrightly stated — but palpable nonetheless — as a young fan livestreams while the rapper is stuck in traffic. The showrunners also take the time to lament the passing of a fictional representation of social media celebrity as a somber reflection on the reality of young artists shooting to stardom and subsequently succumbing to addiction.
The smallest details down to how a text is worded, or the discomfort of running into an ex, build a world so real it’s absurd, or so absurd that it’s hard to accept how real it actually is. Each minute detail tells a story without the need for verbal acknowledgement to advance a plot — markings on the wall, a blood stain on the ground, the sound of mechanized wheels rolling up behind someone — and fully silent characters leave just as much of an impact without needing to say a word.
The acting continues to be outstanding, as the series’ many Emmy nominations (and one win) have demonstrated over the years. Darius’ quiet contemplation is perfectly played by Lakeith Stanfield, and we get to experience a deeply emotional side of Earn for the first time, as secrets from his past are finally revealed. Fantastic music choices continue to serve as valuable devices that extend the message following compelling moments. However, the devil is in the details — and occasionally, that’s where Season 4 loses its marbles. While the art direction of each scenario is meticulously executed, the writing sometimes loses sight of the finish line due to its meandering journey. A days-long search for D’Angelo is fruitless in many ways — not only is there no payoff, the entire situation leaves us scratching our heads wondering what the point of it all was? It’s arguable in moments like this, that sometimes, it’s okay to give your audience what they want. Too many loose threads can unravel an intricate tapestry.
Additionally, with surprise cameos from huge stars such as Liam Neeson and Alexander Skarsgard providing such fun in Season 3, it’s hard not to hunger for a glimpse of the next big celebrity metaphorically undressed before our eyes, but so far the season hasn’t delivered. But overall, these are small complaints, and each episode left me smirking and shaking my head wondering, “how do they think of this shit?” Unfortunately, as Earn so devastatingly states in Born 2 Die, “it’s not about what feels good, it’s about what survives,” and it’s time for us to prepare our goodbyes. It’s impossible to predict what the rest of the season will have in store, but we’ve got 10 episodes total to look forward to, and all we know is to expect the unexpected. Needless to say, we’ll be watching with eyes peeled.