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Atlanta’s Van-ishing Act

Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

Spoilers follow for “The Most Atlanta,” the fourth-season premiere of Atlanta

In Atlanta’s fourth-season premiere, Zazie Beetz’s Van gets lost. Some undetermined amount of time after the European antics in the show’s uneven third season, Van visits the Atlantic Station shopping district with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Earn (series creator and star Donald Glover), where Deborah Cox’s thematically appropriate “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” plays on a loop on the outdoor speakers. After an eerie run-in with a seeming parade of their past romantic partners, the two return to the parking garage — but in a Seinfeld-esque twist, they can’t find their car. People they once dated keep tracking them down with vacantly casual greetings of “Long time, no see!” The garage grows darker and darker. Van and Earn get separated, and she’s left to fend for herself. It’s a recurring situation for Van given that Atlanta has been abandoning this character for more than a season now.

Atlanta has shown it can transcend genre by dabbling in horror with “Teddy Perkins” and “Three Slaps.” It can create elaborate parables, as in “Trini 2 De Bone” and “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga.” It can harden the once timid and reckless Earn into a more calculating, resourceful manager equally at ease with setting up rivals and securing paydays. It can illuminate Paper Boi/Alfred’s (Brian Tyree Henry) creative instincts by sharing his early musical experiments, spotlighting his current heroes, and finding where those overlap in his increasingly popular work. It can counter Darius’s (LaKeith Stanfield) spaciness by having him voice grounded reflections on capitalism, colonialism, and code-switching. But as the storytelling ambitions of Atlanta have grown under the oversight of Glover and the other core members of Atlanta’s creative team — including writers Stephen Glover and Stefani Robinson and director Hiro Murai — what the show hasn’t yet been able to do is extend that same level of growth to Van.

Van is still primarily imagined as Earn’s intermittent lover and a co-parent to their daughter, Lottie, and is still defined by her unease with those roles. She remains nebulous about her ambition and unclear in her desires and dislikes. She continues to represent Earn’s own fears (can he become successful enough to provide for his daughter financially? Can he maintain a stable personal life while working in such an unpredictable industry?), rather than existing as a character outside of his domestic concerns. Unlike the show’s treatment of Darius, whose mixture of aloofness and absurdity has been key to his charm from the beginning and whose aimlessness has always contrasted with Earn’s and Alfred’s aspirational striving, Van’s flattening as a character has never quite felt like a nuanced or insightful choice. And in the persistent lack of Van at the start of the series’ fourth and final season — of the first three episodes, Beetz appears only in the premiere — Atlanta’s most noticeable consistency at this point may be Van’s absence.

Season three was simultaneously Atlanta’s most daring and most vague, and those two drives frustratingly combined in Van’s characterization. With about half of the episodes being stand-alones that explore life back in the United States, the series’ core four were already at a screentime disadvantage, as Earn and Darius support Al on a European tour and Van unexpectedly tags along. Nevertheless, Earn, Al, and Darius were given attention both individually and as a collective with subplots and arcs that touch on their obsessions and oddities and that call back to the events and themes of previous episodes: Earn’s increasingly cutthroat business practices, Al’s grief over his mother’s death, Darius’s pride in his Nigerian heritage. Most reminiscent of past Atlanta work is Earn and Al’s growing irritation with the omnipresence of blackface in Copenhagen in “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town,” which brings to mind Earn’s experiences with the racist overtones of European holidays back in season two’s “Helen,” when he visits Van’s hometown for a German Fastnacht celebration.

In “Helen,” Earn is shocked when someone mistakes him for a white person in blackface, and he ultimately puts on a mask to disappear into the crowd. Van, meanwhile, is described more than once as “Lottie’s mom” and “Earn’s girl,” and though she explains herself as “sort of in between things right now” professionally, she bristles at those boundaries: “That’s not all that I’m gonna be for the rest of my life, Lottie’s mom.” In the world of Atlanta, though, it is. A season later, in “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town,” Earn is given the power to make peace with what happened in “Helen”: He takes his revenge on the Dutch by agreeing with Alfred that they should pull out of a show where the entire audience is in blackface. Van, meanwhile, remains fuzzy around the edges, decorated with nonspecific details. She tells Darius, who previously referred to her presence in Europe as “baby-mama drama,” that her trip was inspired by being rejected from a job she wanted, but we don’t learn what the job was. Darius asks how Lottie is doing but doesn’t ask about her. “I don’t do well with small talk and stuff like that,” he says, but that line feels like Atlanta putting up its hands and offering a rejoinder for continuing to ignore Van and for knowing it continues to ignore her.

Three seasons in, shouldn’t the series care more about this character — who is central to its marketing and was a significant member of the cast — than shrugging off superficial chitchat? Shouldn’t it place us alongside Van as she tries to find her own way, as it does with Earn, Al, and Darius, rather than use her solely for disruption or shock value? Beetz does well in a scene that asks for fragility and frivolousness as she admits, “I’m just different,” to a stranger, then leaves the conversation to gulp down a plate of deviled eggs. But once again, Atlanta lets her interiority drop.

After arriving in Amsterdam in “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town” and going with Earn, Darius, and Alfred to a party at a wealthy investor’s London home in “The Old Man and the Tree,” Van disappears. Her behavior in the latter episode is bizarre: pocketing knickknacks, pushing people into pools, languidly telling Earn, “I’m just taking some time for myself. You’re so in your head. I think you need to live in the moment more.” When she ghosts him at the party, barely responds to his text messages, and surfaces months later as a maybe-shoplifter in “White Fashion,” she isn’t even given her own words to explain her actions: “Darius says that this is all a simulation,” she tells Earn before sleeping with him and leaving.

Following the Alfred-centric “New Jazz” and the stand-alone episodes “Trini 2 De Bone” and “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” the season-three finale, “Tarrare,” written by Robinson and directed by Donald Glover, seems intended as appeasement. Neither Earn, Al, or Darius appears in this episode, which is set in Paris and introduces Candice (Adriyan Rae), an old friend of Van’s from their stripping days who is shocked to recognize her in a local corner store. The episode is a showcase for Beetz, who slides between French and purposely accented English, wields a stale baguette like a samurai sword, and smashes plates and sobs hysterically in the episode’s final minutes after Candice asks where Lottie is. But whatever scraps of individuality are hinted at in this episode — Van on the cover of a French fashion magazine and the subject of an extensive spread inside, her dalliance in sex work with Alexander Skarsgård, her sudden transformation into a Luc Besson–style heroine — are ultimately overshadowed by the only version of Van Atlanta will allow to exist: the one connected to Earn.

In season four’s opener, “The Most Atlanta,” the events of “Tarrare” are never mentioned. Who knows if they even happened? The only thing bridging the two episodes seems to be Van’s statement at the end of the third-season finale: “I need to go home.” Now she’s back in Atlanta, relying on Earn for errands and being comforted by his promise in the parking garage that he “would never let you become one” of the exes he avoids at Atlantic Station. And with Van back by Earn’s side, it’s time for another woman in this series to be adrift without him: Earn’s ex-girlfriend Kenya (Sh’Kia Augustin), who has been unable to find her car for six years — since Now You See Me 2 was new in theaters — and who shares, “I feel like I’ve been lost for a really long time.” Earn may never let Van become Kenya, but Atlanta already has.

Whether Van’s sidelining will continue for the rest of this final season is up in the air; the series’ occasionally defensive episode descriptions signal that the minds behind the show are aware of its accompanying discourse. Perhaps an arc or ending that allows Van to be someone other than just “Lottie’s mom” for the rest of her life is waiting around the corner. “Tarrare” proved Beetz can sink her teeth into a meaty story. Atlanta should give her one.

Atlanta’s Van-ishing Act