Years ago, I attended an artist visit in a gallery. I enjoyed his work very much. His paintings were large, the colors overwhelming, and the pieces frequently featured borrowed elements from other great artists stroke-for-stroke, as well as other surreal items: floating cracked eggshells, butterflies, checkerboard floor patterns. Dizzying stuff.
I was excited for an opportunity to pick the artist’s brain about the symbology of his work and their representative natures. And he was all too happy to talk about the technique of his work, how he had to study the masters to be able to mimic them as they appeared in the background of his impossible living rooms and solariums. When I asked about the meaning of the floating eggshells, he said, “Oh, that represents birth.” Pretty on the nose, I thought, so I asked about the butterflies. “Those represent rebirth.” Rebirth of what, I asked? He wasn’t sure. When I asked about the appearance of reproductions of Miro and Picasso, he informed me that he was just paying respect to the masters.
In short, he just painted whatever caught his palate. There were no hidden meanings, no deeper stories. Whatever narrative the paintings seemed to convey they did not actually possess. The values that I assumed must be present did not exist. All of that world building was projection on my part.
One of the eternal struggles of art exists between audiences who have been taught that every piece of art has deeper meaning, and artists who have largely been minding their own business. The truth is that if you ask nine out of 10 artists what a specific element in their work represents, it’s usually exactly what it looks like. Nothing more.
I have said over Donald Glover’s many manifestations that what you see is what you get with him. That sounds like how every artist approaches the plate, and in a way it is, but he is doing something that’s a little more rare. Glover utilizes his art almost entirely in one of two ways: as an extremely public interrogation of what he is dealing with or attempting to understand (self-therapeutic), or as a means to have a conversation on topics he doesn't actually feel comfortable having head-on with people who have studied opinions and experiences in the public square.
The first is fairly harmless (see: most of Atlanta’s maiden season). The second manifestation is more of an issue. As FX’s hit comedy-drama takes on certain Black issues, it becomes clear that Glover isn’t interested in a dialogue in the academic sense. He’s only concerned with the one-directional artistic version. Such is the case in the opener of Atlanta’s third season (“Three Slaps”), which reimagines the tragic tale of Devonte Hart. The 37-minute episode presents itself as a quest for justice and answers, but at the expense of some hardcore Black trauma I’m not convinced Glover had the political mettle to carry.
Much of 'Atlanta's third season wants to log in some time as a Black platform for issues, but it isn’t really designed to do that in a way that satisfies beyond a certain level.
The writer of season three’s final episode, Stefani Robinson, has spoken with press about this latest season, and the conversations have been very telling. Complex’s Karla Rodriguez asked in an interview about the seemingly multilayered function of storytelling happening in the finale (“Tarrare”), particularly the significance of dinner guests unknowingly feasting on human hands.
“It’s something that felt cinematic and strange,” Robinson answered. “Some of those things sometimes when you put them in they don’t really have a bigger meaning other than 'This is just bizarre.' …It was just strange and weird and I think was more of a commentary on just foreign culture and eating habits, and again, that sort of thematic thing that we’re sort of picking at too is just like, what does it mean to leave the safety of your home? You are in a new world, and what it means to travel. And we are seeing our characters in new environments. So in that way it just felt like something that doesn’t necessarily happen in Atlanta, people covering their heads and eating hands."
That’s a lot of words to say, “Yeah, we just threw some stuff against the wall and that stuck.”
Robinson has made similar revelations regarding the naming of the finale, “Tarrare.” While viewers have been blown away while uncovering the delectable weirdness nugget that was an insatiable Frenchman, Robinson admits that there wasn’t really any deeper meaning to the title, even when the fried hands came into play. Tarrare was just one of many historical factoids they had swimming around the writer’s room until they could figure out how to fit it in.
Revelations like these mostly shore up my impression of Glover sitting behind a camera giggling between takes, saying, “They’re gonna’ be trying to figure this out for weeks.” The catch is that there is no catch. This season of Atlanta is all lure. No live bait is necessary because audiences have been hooked on its high marks for years. When he isn’t trying to figure out where he stands on something vis-a-vis his quartet of half-truth seekers, Donald Glover is trolling us. He is already on record stating that he wanted Atlanta to essentially be “Twin Peaks with rappers.” Congratulations, Mr. Glover.
Once you opt to interpret the finale as a word on how motherhood can erase individuality, everything else about the episode—the dinner, the outré sex, the fish-out-of-water color wheel of sisters—is just creative license. The show is nowhere near as deep as the motivations that many viewers project onto it, and commentary by the crew tends to bear this out. Where audiences see a powerful struggle to contend with racism by shooting an episode in black and white (“Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga”), the inspiration for such production decisions is pretty straight forward: Imitation of Life. And once you’ve applied that source material, anything else you apply to it is how you are responding to the art, not what the art is conveying.
What most opinions about the latest season of Atlanta have exposed are Black audiences’ thirst for anything that speaks to them intellectually. When the art in question hits typical sitcom beats, we all get it, so the Very Special Episode of what is normally a comedy attempts to tackle, say, the issue of over-policing Black neighborhoods. It’s something we can rally behind on Twitter for a day or discuss at work over a cubicle wall, but doesn’t really move the needle on the issue for anyone. Much of Atlanta’s third season is like that: It wants to log in some time as a Black platform for issues, but it isn’t really designed to do that in a way that satisfies beyond a certain level. It’s hard to take whatever it could be conveying when you have to navigate the presence of Liam Neeson, Chet Hanks, and Kevin Samuels. The desire to troll audiences is greater than the desire to productively come at the issues that make each of these figures problematic. The moves are so audacious that Black audiences are forcing themselves to consider them on a deeper level than intended. We make it deeper than it is.
To be clear: Atlanta will go down as one of the great shows on television. Its final season has already been shot, so technically, what we’re calling the third season is likely more of a Part One situation, and the resolutions that were left wanting will likely be properly concluded in the last installment. I refuse to add much more intellectual pressure to what is likely half of a larger narrative until it reveals itself.
Regardless of what comes next or how you read what the latest season is doing, Atlanta’s sheer audacity—especially as mainstream Black art—has secured its legacy. It doesn’t have to be the best show on television to be one of the greats. It just has to be daring. And this latest season is that if nothing—or everything—else.