Thanks to scheduling conflicts and COVID-19, Atlanta has been off the air for four years, an unusually long stretch of time even in an era in which television shows regularly take more time between seasons. So of course it kicks off its return tonight with a stand-alone episode centered on a character we’ve never seen before. Donald Glover’s singular small-screen creation has never been particularly beholden to established conventions even in its earliest episodes, when it was still establishing a rhythm. But “Three Slaps,” its season-three premiere, doesn’t feel like a provocation so much as an assertion of the show’s identity.
We last left Earn (Glover), Al (Brian Tyree Henry), and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) in 2018 as they headed off on a European tour, Earn having resecured his place as Al’s manager by planting a gun in the headliner’s bag at airport security. The next glimpse we get of one of them is not until the very end of “Three Slaps,” and it gives no sense of where they might be or how much time has passed. As if to underscore how little the series is tied to any of its three main men — or to Van (Zazie Beetz), who was last heard from via a text about maybe moving back in with her mother — the bulk of the episode is spent on a kid named Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar). He goofs off in class, triggering a series of unfortunate interventions from would-be saviors that land him in frightening foster care.
Atlanta’s stand-alone episodes have also been its standouts. “B.A.N.,” from the first season, conjured up a whole block of television, including spoofed commercials, to showcase Al’s testy appearance on a talk show after a tweet about Caitlyn Jenner caused a dustup online. “Teddy Perkins,” in the second season, sent Darius off to a mansion in the suburbs on an errand to retrieve a free piano only to find himself in the increasingly unsettling company of an eccentric former child star (played by Glover in prosthetics and whiteface). But even the more straightforward episodes of the series have tended to take the form of encapsulated narratives as the show has gone on. If Atlanta began with a premise that, boiled down to its basic elements — nerdy dude manages his rapper cousin — could have easily been the stuff of a sitcom, the show has increasingly rejected the idea of being situational at all.
Halfway through the first season, Atlanta left the guys behind for “Value,” which followed Van during a night out with a high-flying friend and through the morning after as she desperately tries to circumvent a mandatory drug test at work. “The Club” and “Juneteenth” riffed on the concept of the bottle episode by rooting themselves in particular settings — a nightclub where Al is doing a paid appearance and an upscale party where Earn and Van pretend to be traditional marrieds instead of two people who have a child in an otherwise messy, ill-defined relationship. The second season features more digressions than classic installments like that phantasmagoric trip to Helen for Fastnacht, Al’s haircut odyssey, and Van’s night out at Drake’s party. There’s really no such thing as a “regular” episode of the series, which pointedly spent its second season untethering itself from its apparent protagonist, Earn, only tilting back to his perspective as the season came to a close.
“Three Slaps” may be Atlanta’s furthest-ranging detour to date, but it has plenty of ties to what’s come before. It begins with a discursion within a discursion, a scene of two men fishing at night in what may be Loquareeous’s (or Earn’s) nightmare, talking about how the lake they’re floating on is rumored to be haunted. While the body of water is left unnamed, it’s clearly Lake Lanier, a reservoir that covers what used to be the Black community of Oscarville, and when hands reach out of the dark to grab one of the characters, it echoes details of the dream Earn described to Van at the start of the series. “I think it’s about society,” he said then. Loquareeous’s dozing on his desk recalls “FUBU,” which flashed back to Earn’s middle-school days and the time a new shirt almost made him someone who’d get clowned on for the rest of his academic life. In that episode, one of Earn’s classmates, Denisha, tangles with a teacher after being called out about having her own head down and is later seen enthusiastic and engaged, having gone through some off-screen journey.
Loquareeous’s surreal present-day adventure in state-certified care might as well be a sideways attempt to fill in whatever could have gone on between those two scenes. His exasperated mother doesn’t understand why the school wants to pathologize his behavior by sending him to remedial classes rather than just disciplining him. “My son is not dumb — he’s an idiot,” she says, though when a hand-wringing counselor witnesses his grandfather dispensing the punishment of the title, she sends social services, and he ends up in the care of the steely Gayle (Jamie Neumann) and the watery Amber (Laura Dreyfuss), a crunchy lesbian couple who home-brew kombucha, make their own soap, and use their foster charges, all of whom are Black, for manual labor and farmers’-market branding. The episode riffs generally on the havoc that white institutions can wreak on the lives of households of color in the name of protecting children and specifically on the Hart family tragedy. But it’s also, like a lot of Atlanta, just an absurdist nightmare about what’s considered normal, a fugue of microwaved drumsticks, threatening phone calls, and growing menace.
“Three Slaps” airs Thursday night alongside “Sinterklaas is Coming to Town,” which catches up with the main cast, or at least the men, giving the season a kickoff that’s not entirely and alienatingly radical. But this return suggests that at its heart, Atlanta is an anthology series, one that has a core set of characters it can approach from different angles and in various combinations or turn away from entirely. It’s a show about Earn and Al and Darius and Van and all the people they cross paths with as they try to make their way, but the stories it wants to tell aren’t all, or even mostly, linear. What Atlanta captures is being Black in America is to be cast in an ongoing horror comedy — the only genre that can make sense of the experience.