It’s been more than four years since the second season of FX’s Atlanta premiered with the “Alligator Man” episode, one of those memorable television moments with defining performances, so much so that it earned Katt Williams a 2018 Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a comedy series. For a show that had already mastered the art of making us expect the unexpected, the spectacle of Williams’s “Uncle Willie” character evading Fulton County police while running down the street in his house coat was the most Atlanta thing you could think to kick off a new season.
Packaged under the subtitle of “Robbin’ Season,” the second season saw the show’s four main protagonists each robbed of something—opportunities, identity, peace of mind, or simply money—and by the finale, Alfred, Earn, and Darius were headed on a European tour, while Van was left figuring out her own path forward as a person in the world. Judging from the promotional trailers, the show’s third season will pick up this story arc directly, taking us right back to where we left off in 2018.
What initially made Atlanta so brilliant is that the show’s writers did an excellent job of capturing the everyday Atlanta experience in ways that felt like cultural preservation. Every episode felt like an insider moment—I know that place or I’ve met that person—and the show became an alternate reality that helped document our city for the world to see.
The first two seasons also leveraged clever displays of magical realism to present a universe that critiqued notions of class, race, identity, and place through the premise of working-class characters, presenting a view of Atlanta that is diametrically opposed to some perspectives of the city fostered by recent reality TV. The scenarios and spaces of Atlanta—Who else but Darius could take us on a journey through the city’s lesser known spaces while flipping a phone for a sword . . . for a chance to breed Cane Corso puppies?—felt plausible in that “truth is stranger than fiction” kind of way, as the soul of the city was reflected via the sum of its weird and beloved nuances.
But what happens when you take Atlanta out of Atlanta? This upcoming foreign jaunt reinvigorates the premise that the “idea” of Atlanta extends beyond the city limits. By shifting to a European locale, the characters are modeling a version of their inclusion in the Atlanta diaspora—the collection of people who reflect, intersect with, and embody Atlanta, whether they live here or not. In short, if Atlanta is in you, it’s in you, no matter where you may find yourself.
Beyond the new setting, it will also be interesting to see how the characters respond to access and success. For so much of the first two seasons, we’ve watched them navigate struggle. When we were first introduced to Alfred (aka PaperBoi), he just wanted to get paid, and his cousin/manager Earn was so broke that we weren’t sure he wasn’t homeless, until we ultimately saw him living out of a storage unit. Now, we’ll get to see them navigate a modicum of prosperity. What happens when everyone begins to get closer to what they’ve been yearning for? (Or, at least, what they thought they had been yearning for?)
Everything that’s been released about the new season of Atlanta up to this point still feels familiar, but also very, very different. Of course, these days, so does the city that bears the show’s name. When Atlanta first premiered in 2016, it seemed like perfect timing, as the city’s brand was entering a renewal period of being embraced, amplified, and commodified. Atlanta’s hip-hop sound was on its most recent new wave, as the idea of the “trap”—birthed in prior musical generations—was becoming even more mainstream (How was that even possible?) and had given way to gentrified yoga and brunch variants. And above all, the concept of the city’s culture seemed to be cemented in local lexicon. (See: Migos’s 2017 album, Culture.)
The birth of Atlanta positioned the city’s culture in a space of prominence and prestige in a way that even the city’s lauded music industry hadn’t quite been able to do. In particular, it catapulted the career of Donald Glover. Even though he was already extremely successful nationally as an actor (Community) and musician (as Childish Gambino), he wasn’t as talked about in his hometown as he is today. Atlanta put Glover’s cultural fluency and ties to a particular Atlanta dialect on display and made him an integral part of the city’s pop culture canon. The show was an acknowledgement of a new Atlanta through an old Atlanta filter, and also a vehicle by which Glover could certify his own local authenticity.
But, if we’re being honest, for as much as Atlanta loves to pat itself on the back, the mood around the city right now feels a bit less congratulatory. And perhaps the uncertainty surrounding the end of Atlanta mirrors some of the uncertainty surrounding Atlanta as a space altogether.
From internet conversations about Old Atlanta, New Atlanta, and What Isn’t Atlanta, to the Buckhead cityhood movement, to disagreements over public transit, to the ever-present concerns over gentrification in legacy communities, the city seems more at odds with itself than ever before. But perhaps that’s to be expected, even inevitable. Nothing can stay the same, not even Atlanta.
So if nothing else, the upcoming seasons of Atlanta could provide a reason for Atlantans—both folks who live here now and those who have moved away—to come together in ways that feel less and less frequent these days, and provide an extended to time to celebrate all that has made, and continues to make, the “idea” of Atlanta such an important thing.
As Glover said recently about the show’s conclusion, “Death is natural.” But luckily, for a city whose symbol is the phoenix, so is rebirth.