Since it first premiered back in 2016, the way that the cast and crew of “Atlanta” have talked about the series has led viewers to attempt to truly decipher what the series is trying to do with every season. Originally, creator and star Donald Glover referred to the show as his attempt at doing “Twin Peaks with rappers,” which is something that could technically be considered the larger throughline of the series. (And arguably something that Season 4 completes the circle on.) The second season, subtitled “Robbin’ Season,” memorably had the “Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation” descriptor that honestly made a lot of sense as the season unfolded. Season 3 was the series’ attempt at making a “Black fairytale,” short stories that Glover would want to watch. It was a far dreamier season than the first two seasons, and one that took the characters out of Atlanta (albeit still bringing Atlanta to Europe) while also alternating between focusing on the main characters and anthology episodes set back in Atlanta.
The reception to Season 3 was the most mixed of the series, as there was an argument to be made that the anthology episodes—no matter how you felt about the quality of the episodes and what they were trying to say—could’ve simply been their own separate show. The end of the season — which did focus on Van (Zazie Beetz) but also felt ultimately like the culmination of this anthology trip — managed to close the loop, connecting the episodes in a sense, somewhat confirming that they were “real,” but there’s still debate on whether or not the season was successful in its larger undertaking.
“Atlanta” Season 4 — which finds the characters returning to Georgia for the final season — is in a lot of ways a return to form for the series, while also having the distinction of being the huge undertaking that comes with being a satisfying conclusion to an extraordinary story and series.
While Seasons 3 and 4 filmed back-to-back, the latter (of which the first three episodes were watched for this review) feels like a response to the criticism of the former — to the point where it even suggests the mixed reactions to the former were intentional. (If you read the synopses for a lot of Season 3 episodes, even they tended to call out whatever the show thought it was doing with both its anthology and European episodes, even before critics and audiences could). In fact, the season premiere feels like the ultimate response, as it reunites the core four of Earn, Al (Brian Tyree Henry), Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), and Van while also dealing in what could only be considered “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style character arcs. If anything, early Season 4 at least shows more of a desire to focus on the ensemble that many felt was lacking in Season 3.
Something that “Atlanta” has maintained through all of this is its “it’s a small world” style of storytelling, where characters run into others unexpectedly (which still managed to happen in Europe) and everything seems to be connected. Starting with a tight 27-minute premiere, that’s part of what makes the first two episodes impressive actually — just how connected every bit seems to be. In Season 4 of “Atlanta,” everything and everyone feels of a piece. Especially Earn and Al, whose aches and pains of success remain a focus of the show. For Earn, he has more money than ever now — and isn’t shy about bringing it up — but neither his personal nor professional life are perfect, and all the money in the world doesn’t seem to change him from just another suspicious Black man in America to certain people, even when he’s of higher status than them.
In 2020, hyping up the last two seasons of the series, Glover also compared “Atlanta” to “Sopranos” (saying that only “The Sopranos” could “touch” “Atlanta”). Surely, that comparison will be brought up again come the airing of the second episode, “The Homeliest Little Horse,” as it focuses on Earn in therapy. Not only does the episode feature a returning character who absolutely hasn’t changed since we last saw him, it gets into one of the series’ biggest “mysteries”: What happened to make Earn leave Princeton. The story informs so much about Earn and what he’s constantly trying to chase, in terms of money, status and belonging. The things he will do to achieve that and how he reacts when he doesn’t get them — and not just as himself, but for his family — is something this season unpacks as it heads toward the finish line.
For Al, his reckoning with his fame comes off the heels of a successful arena tour in Europe. As both he and his rap persona claim, he’s all about that paper, and in 2022, the music industry — especially when it comes to rap and hip hop — is not what it once was. In 2016, Paper Boi was considered an authentic Southern rap star. In 2022, he’s considered an old head at best and a relic at worst, the thing kids getting famous on TikTok vaguely remember from when they were even younger kids. Keeping money isn’t Al’s problem at this point, but continuing to stay relevant enough to make money is. What does it mean to be one of the last real ones around? Al was able to be somewhat complacent in Europe, but that’s not the case back in Atlanta.
Darius and Van, of course, remain along for the ride. One of the standout episodes of Season 3 saw the two marching to the beat of their own drum together, both directionless in their own ways. Darius remains Darius upon returning to Atlanta — not even noticing the possibility that it’s become a more dangerous place to live — which is especially funny in the premiere (both separately and how it intersects with the rest of the characters’ stories). “Atlanta” has long seemingly struggled with what it wants to do with Van; but at the same time, the show has always been more about Earn and Al’s relationship (with Darius around) in the first place.
It’s not that Van is just “the girl” of the show, but a lot of criticism about the show’s writing for the Van character (and Zazie Beetz as an actress) seems to come from a good place of wanting the show to be more equal in its storytelling for all four of its stars. However, the show has never actually been about that equal division for the characters, and ultimately, that’s fine. But part of that desire for Van does stem from the fact that Beetz is such a captivating actress, and Season 3 made clear it was well aware of that. Of the first three episodes of Season 4, Van is only in the premiere, but as the episode functions as getting the gang back together, it’s a great return for both Earn and Van as friends (or something more) and co-parents.
Speaking of the premiere, it’s also a reminder that the directing on the series remains impressive. Directed by Hiro Murai, there’s an especially memorable scene in the premiere during an Earn/Van scene that feels like something out of — and this is not just because of Glover’s future projects — ”Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” It’s shot like an international spy flick, and for it to happen when the series is no longer even in Europe is doubly impressive and funny. Murai, Glover, and series writer Ibra Ake were the only credited directors on Season 3, which considering the shifting in tones and locations, must’ve been a huge undertaking. Returning to Atlanta, though, with Murai in the director’s chair for the premiere, it truly felt like the show never left. The question of this season is if Atlanta has changed or have Earn and friends, and from the looks of it, that’s a question that will be difficult to answer from episode-to-episode.
As the final season, Season 4 feels a lot like early “Atlanta” in terms of the slice of life storytelling it’s doing while also making it surreal as hell. The promo trailer for this season features a lot of callbacks to the first two seasons, from Michael Vick’s invisible car to Alligator Man’s alligator, and it’s clear this season is a return to its roots. Who says you can’t come home again when you’re finishing up your series?
Season 4 is not just a return to form but also a combination of everything the series has pulled off and learned over the years. It’s “Twins Peaks” with rappers but also a direct-to-video “Tiny Toon Adventures” movie and also a Black fairytale (and white nightmare). It combines all the comedy and horror and surrealism of the first three seasons, as that is the visual language of the series to make something that is worth remembering fondly.
“Atlanta” Season 4 premieres on Thursday, Sept. 15 with its first two episodes on FX, streaming on Hulu the next day.