Arts and Entertainment

Blurring the Lines Between Real and Surreal: Review of Atlanta Season Four

Atlanta is fearless, but not reckless, keeping itself grounded in realistic characters and commentary while reveling in the surreal.

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Therapy. Broken Families. Washed-Up Celebrities. Solution: Get It. Fix It. Buy a Safe Farm.

Atlanta is not just a place—it’s an idea. Such is the guiding force of Donald Glover’s aptly titled, genre-defying TV show Atlanta (2016-2022), which recently reached a masterful conclusion in its final season. Over the course of its three preceding seasons, Atlanta became defined by its malleability, proving that the show could be anything it wanted by exploring everything from horror to the intricacies of the rap world, and making a poignant social commentary in the process. Season four centers around the main crew of rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry): his manager and cousin Earn (Donald Glover) and his friends Van (Zazie Beetz) and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield). It picks up with the characters returning to Atlanta, Georgia from a European tour. Season four is tonally reminiscent of prior seasons, but with characters who have truly grown. Leaving behind a legacy that is both profound and absurd, Atlanta raises the bar with its conclusive season.

Atlanta utilizes its physical setting—the greater Atlanta area—as an omniscient character in its own right, highlighting its contributions to Black culture. As a result, the show feels entirely surreal, establishing an artistic landscape as it introduces plot points grounded by cultural keystones. Nothing is off the table; everything is unpredictable. Mundane events suddenly slip into the bizarre with no logical explanation, and unlikely “coincidences” are stacked to impossible ends.

Donald Glover and Hiko Murai, the show’s main directors, contribute to this surrealism with their creative choices, often portraying the show’s environment in muted, dream-like color palettes through a grainy lens. This aesthetic is represented in Earn’s quest to acquire mega R&B star D’Angelo as a client for his talent agency. Earn tracks him down to a gas station backroom with a bank vault door, which is guarded by a silent man with a stack of magazines. After waiting weeks, he eventually finds D’Angelo—except it is not actually D’Angelo, but a man posing as him, eating a fried chicken skin sandwich while playing FIFA. He responds to Earn’s confusion by smearing peanut butter on his forehead and vaguely saying “We’re all D’Angelo.” It is confusing, absurd, and hilarious while still acting as a moment of insight into Earn’s newfound career drive. Paper Boi’s near-death encounter with the “Crank Dat Killer,” whose intent is to kill everyone who made a Soulja Boy YouTube dance video, has a similarly surreal and hilarious effect.

It is in moments like these when surrealism is used to explore the intersectionality of Black culture with Atlanta, delving into a school of art often categorized as Afro-Surrealism. Afro-Surrealism takes the everyday experience of people of African descent and twists it, magnifying certain aspects and creating an alternate reality. Atlanta successfully embodies Afro-Surrealism, and the show further elevates the contorted sense of reality in season four, using its creative versatility to convey some of its most pressing topics.

Ever since its creation, Atlanta has been the masthead of abstract storytelling. It focuses less on creating a cohesive narrative in favor of exploring Atlanta’s culture and the way the characters navigate it. Each episode delves into a facet of this world, whether through social commentary or by poking fun at cultural phenomena. For example, the show makes fun of sneaker culture when Earn and Darius kiss to get a pair of shoes. Atlanta does this throughout the course of the season, and as a result, many of its particularly unhurried core storylines develop in the background of the series, naturally flowing into the foreground when relevant and catching characters in small breaths between the defining moments in their lives. Character arcs follow a pointillist narrative, outlined with broad strokes and developed only when necessary, usually within the context of a specific episode’s artistic intent. This is notably shown in Earn’s increasing financial stability as he finds more and more success in his career. While never explicitly addressed, it is subtly shown through his increasingly clean-cut appearance and more content disposition. Sometimes, episodes completely ignore the arcs of their main characters, focusing instead on a specific idea. While this occurs much less in season four than in previous seasons, standout episodes do come to mind, such as “The Goof Who Sat By the Door,” an episode structured as a spoof docuseries centered around an imaginary Black Disney CEO. The focus on artistic and topical intent has been fundamental to the show over its four seasons, and the way the characters weave through it has defied traditional methods of long form storytelling.

Season four addresses many of the series’ core themes through a new, emotionally vulnerable lens, giving them a sense of agency and explicit awareness. The most prevalent example of this is found in the relationship between Earn and Van, who begin the show struggling to maintain a stable romantic partnership while raising their child together. In the latest season, they give each other recognition for their past attempts at reconciliation, working together to build a stronger family despite their complicated history. Season four also disproves the misconception that masculinity and vulnerability are incompatible by portraying the environment of Earn’s therapy sessions as one of comfort and normalcy while addressing racial trauma, thereby attempting to remove the impossible societal standards of Black masculinity. Throughout the series, the confines of institutionalized racism are explored as the characters persevere and work to break free of its restrictive definitions.

It is through the shattering of these glass ceilings that many of Atlanta’s beloved characters find their own conclusions—a difficult task considering their complex, multifaceted natures. The care that the writers demonstrate in giving these characters a proper ending without drowning them in clichés is immediately clear. As the series draws to a close, there is a sense that the characters are on a path to a sustainable resolution. Gaining new confidence as a talent agent and becoming emotionally introspective with the help of therapy, Earn reaches the emotional bandwidth required to start a family with Van. Finally coming to terms with the fact that his rap stardom has peaked, Paper Boi discovers how to validate himself and break free of his consumerist habits, going so far as to buying a “safe” farm. Darius’s conclusion is possibly the most abstract, bookending the series and giving his character an unexpected importance to the show as a whole. Darius has always been one of the most fascinating characters in Atlanta, as he exists as an enigma and operates with monklike thoughtfulness, which is conveyed by Stanfield through his quiet intensity. He is spiritually in tune with the absurdity of his environment, and the show effectively embraces his persona as a bridge between culture and spirituality, recognizing it as a reflection of the world he lives in.

The full breadth and nuance of these characters are the simultaneous result of an invested writers’ room and an incredible cast. The actors and writers shape their characters with intent and responsibility, reflected through incredibly unique and shockingly realistic moments of dialogue and demeanor. The wholesome friendship between Paper Boi and Darius, two very ideologically different people, is the best example of this, as their obvious conflicting perspectives on life (consumerism vs. Buddhism) is portrayed with grace and respect.

Atlanta upholds an air of authenticity even when the sometimes fantastical direction of the plot seems dreamlike, never resorting to easy clichés. Instead, it constantly challenges itself to tread unknown territory, pushing the limits of what modern television can look like and what contemporary Afro-Surrealism can be. Atlanta is fearless, but not reckless, keeping itself grounded in realistic characters and commentary while reveling in the surreal.