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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Atlanta stumbles for the first time this season

The show heads to New York City in an interesting but meandering exploration of cultural divides

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Justin Hagan as Miles, Indy Sullivan Groudis as Sebastian Warner, and Christina Bennett Lind as Bronwyn Warner in Atlanta
Justin Hagan as Miles, Indy Sullivan Groudis as Sebastian Warner, and Christina Bennett Lind as Bronwyn Warner in Atlanta
Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

Seven episodes into its third season, we know we can expect that above all else Atlanta’s gonna Atlanta, which at this point means diverting the action away from the main foursome we’ve come to know and toward unrelated characters and situations. It looks like this 10-episode season may be an even hybrid, with shows alternating between chronology and anthology. What Donald Glover and company have done with this season is essentially to turn half the episodes into a mini film festival for new voices, who have told separate stories which have mostly been eye-opening and unnerving and worthy of their own Twilight Zone. But the big and obvious risk with an anthology is that you have a higher chance of landing flat, simply because you’re eschewing regular characters whose traits you can enhance (or fall back on, depending on your perspective). And when you’ve created characters people want to see under the banner of the show, that’s another complication.

Don’t get me wrong: Atlanta’s approach is noble—even revolutionary—and this season has been highly fruitful as entertainment and edification. The anthological episodes “Three Slaps” and “The Big Payback” are as moving and meaningful as any drama on television right now. But “Trini 2 De Bone” is a bit of a needle-scratch, or maybe more of a drift at the end of an album’s side.

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For the moment, Atlanta finds us not in Europe with Earn, Paper Boi, and the rest, and not in Atlanta at all, but in New York City, where an affluent white man is running through the downtown streets, listening to rap on his earphones. He comes home (it’s in one of those gleaming new towers in the Financial District) to his wife, who’s stressed that their nanny has not arrived on time to care for their primary-schooler son.

A phone call soon clears that up: The woman has died. We learn she was a native of Trinidad and Tobago. The parents are left to reckon with this now-gaping hole in their lives. Aside from how to break the news to their approximately six-year-old son, this mostly amounts to superficials: Who will get the things she’s left lying around the house back to her family? Who will replace her? Maybe the next nanny can be “more metropolitan” and teach the son Mandarin, the “language of business,” the wife suggests. Chinese nannies are hard to find today and too expensive, the husband notes. Meanwhile, a mysterious padded envelope keeps showing up at the apartment door, which he keeps trying to return to sender, to no avail.

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Directed by series creator Donald Glover, this all plays less clunky than it reads, but the episode doesn’t soar or always land with precision. That’s even after the kid says he wants to go to the funeral, where he’s able to converse with his former nanny’s daughter about her mom, and his parents observe he knows the call-and-response of traditional Trinidadian religious ceremonies. In an excellent bit, the funeral crowd contains a character (played by noted celebrity son/rapper/punchline Chet Hanx, née Haze, née Hanks) who’s one of the nanny’s former charges and speaks in a Trinidadian accent although he’s from Tribeca.

Here, we might expect things to go into full mock-horror mode—who is raising our children and putting things in their heads?—but Atlanta is too clever for that; it lives to subvert our expectations. But in subverting them, it also undermines them somewhat. Part of what we’re expecting is ingenuity and surprise, and the episode proceeds in relative narrative normalcy. The deceased woman’s daughter grabs the microphone to complain about her mother neglecting her for the employer’s children—a believable and heartbreaking complaint, but a little too TV-movie as scripted—and a relative tries to climb into the coffin (a bit that wouldn’t have been out of place in 30 Rock, where Glover once wrote).

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Christina Bennett Lind as Bronwyn Warner and Indy Sullivan Groudis as Sebastian Warner in Atlanta
Christina Bennett Lind as Bronwyn Warner and Indy Sullivan Groudis as Sebastian Warner in Atlanta
Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

Not to dismiss the microphone-grabbing. There is an urgent statement here. The affluent rely on an underpaid group of people (often minorities) to raise their children so they can keep the wheels of industry turning. These vital carers—who are fundamental influences on the lives of their charges—will never collect the compensation they’re worth.

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Unfortunately, this episode was light on the narrative invention Atlanta has employed to land similar weighty critiques. (Even in the pitch-dark “Three Slaps,” I’m thinking about the thought bubbles that surfaced over the kids’ heads in the van.) There were clumsy moments, too. One comic note that rang false: When the parents struggled to explain the concept of death, equating it to their dead dog or extinct dinosaurs. (These people may be oblivious, but they should know how to Google child psychology.) And the mysterious package, once opened on its unexplained third delivery, might as well have been stamped “message.”

Part of the problem is that Atlanta has raised the bar for itself so high that it’s easier to stumble, or seem just okay. And part of my issue is that I want to see Paper Boi’s adventures in Paris or Berlin. There’s a whole continent of possibilities for these characters, and it feels like we’re getting just slivers of narrative.

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The reason for the split focus may be actor availability, or COVID, or who knows. For the viewer, there’s a fine line between willing to go wherever the show takes us and feeling like this isn’t what we signed up for. We’ll take what we can get, but is this what the show’s richly drawn and portrayed characters deserve?

Stray observations

  • The actors playing the parents, aided by Glover’s direction, do a good job of keeping the characters on the right side of stereotype. In fact, they made them more sympathetic than they needed to be.
  • A good comic moment: When the boy comforts his mother at school: “Are you sad because you missed yoga class? Do you need to do an ocean breath?”
  • Another good comic note: When the parents are debating how to break the news to their son, the father says, “He’s going to think death is a bad thing.” The wife replies: “It’s not the best thing.”