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Atlanta's Stefani Robinson on writing that unexpected season 3 finale

"It’s not so cute or whimsical in the Atlanta version of Amelie. It can get very dark very fast."
Center: Stefani Robinson (Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images); left and right: Adriyan Rae and Zazie Beetz in Atlanta's season-three finale (Photos: Roger Do Minh/FX)
Center: Stefani Robinson (Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images); left and right: Adriyan Rae and Zazie Beetz in Atlanta's season-three finale (Photos: Roger Do Minh/FX)
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola
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True to form for Atlanta, the third-season finale raises almost as many questions as it answers. It centers on Van (Zazie Beetz), the estranged girlfriend of Earn (Donald Glover), who has been orbiting the periphery of the crew’s European tour all season. (Well, most of the season, as there have been a good amount of anthological episodes in this batch.) In “Tarrare,” we find that Van (long out of Earn’s range) is living in Paris, styled like Audrey Tautou, speaking with a French accent, and uncorking wine.

Things soon take a sharp turn, though: There’s a bloody beating with a baguette, and Alexander Skarsgard shows up as a guy with a major fetish or two. But what is Van doing, really? Luckily, Stefani Robinson, executive producer on the show and writer of this episode, was willing to talk with The A.V. Club about the tonally and chronologically unexpected approach to this finale (and the entire season).

The A.V. Club: This season went so many different places. How did you break it down and decide where to go in each of these 10 episodes? 

Stefani Robinson: I feel like we were just responding to a lot of our personal stories of traveling and being in Europe, and obviously Donald’s working in the music industry. It was things that felt more resonant to us personally, but as always, it was inspired by the internet and funny videos. I hate to say it, but it really was broken down in the traditional way.

AVC: So you’re all in the writers’ room throwing ideas around.

SR: Yeah. We were doing both season three and four, back to back, in the writers’ room. I feel like we started at some point in 2019. We had a pandemic thrown in. The pandemic made things wacky. In terms of the actual process, we were all together, as we always have been for the show. It was very typical in that way. We always try to throw out really crazy, outlandish ideas, even more subtle ideas. We debate. We watch movies. We watch clips together as a group, then we have an open dialogue about what we watch and how we feel about it. Then we compile different perspectives, and the season starts shaping itself up from there.

Adriyan Rae, Zazie Beetz, Shanice Castro, and Xosha Roquemore in Atlanta’s season-three finale
Adriyan Rae, Zazie Beetz, Shanice Castro, and Xosha Roquemore in Atlanta’s season-three finale
Photo: Roger Do Minh/FX

AVC: How did the concept of doing half of the season as anthology episodes and half with the main characters come about?

SR: That was something I remember just kind of sneaking up on us. I think it was something we were always open to doing. As I remember it, it just sort of felt like the natural progression of what we wanted to try creatively. Donald has done such a good job of making us feel like the show can really be whatever we want it to be in terms of creativity. He’s referred to it a couple of times as a playground or at least this is how it feels. You don’t have to be shackled to this idea of making a more traditional sitcom or comedy structure. This is something very different. I also write for shows like What We Do In The Shadows, which is a very opposite approach. There is a format and a more structured way of working with each of the characters. But with Atlanta, the plan is more freeform.

AVC: At what point was it decided that Van would be the focus of the finale?

SR: There was a lot of talking about it and shifting things around. This season, we had a bit more flexibility because there are so many bottle episodes. We weren’t cornered into having to tell a specific story based on the episodes before. We knew that we wanted to have her justify why she was in Europe and really interrogate why she needed to be here with these guys. Because the real truth is that she probably wouldn’t be there. Why is this character here? And what’s interesting about that and maybe transient? Is there something strange about it?

AVC: And it goes to crazy places. There is this mystery about what’s going on with her until very close to the end.

SR: I think it’s a very chaotic episode. Chaos is a good thing sometimes. And Van’s experience is just kind of reflective of the season as a whole. Again, I don’t mean chaos in the negative way. Chaos is sort of emblematic of how it feels to leave one’s home, the safety net, and that’s exactly what our characters are doing. This season, aside from the bottle episodes, they are stepping out into murky waters as it pertains to their characters, their safety, and where we’ve seen them before. So I think ending with Van and putting a fine point on what she was feeling and why she was feeling it distills the experience they’re all having in Europe. It’s been chaotic for all the characters. They’re in the wilderness a little bit.

AVC: Depression among young mothers is not addressed very often on television. Was that a priority for you?

SR: That was a priority for me for sure. At the end of the episode, she talks about what’s going on with her, and the darkness she’s been struggling with, and that was really important to me—young mothers, young Black mothers, Black women, people in general do that. These are real feelings people go through. The whole journey is very chaotic and funny, sort of whimsical at times, but it’s also part of that bigger darkness. Van trying to figure out who she is is a beautiful thing, but it’s a scary, unsettling thing. And at least according to my own experience with mental-health struggles, it’s not one or the other: It’s not all dark and depressing, and it’s not mania all the time either. It can be both; there’s nuance, and it can look like a lot of different things. That part was really important to me to explore it in a way that isn’t so stereotypically like, “This is what depression looks like or anxiety looks like.” It can look like a lot of things—it can look like going out a lot; it can look like wanting to reinvent yourself.

AVC: How did you decide to put her in this scenario, where she’s in the Audrey Tautou haircut and basically hiding out?

SR: It was a lot of different things. It was a bit of us wanting to kind of just poke fun at the Amelie of it all. In our own minds, it was a funny touchstone on what it means to be French: You just have like a little bob haircut and a striped T-shirt, and that’s what it is to be a French lady. It was almost like a cosplay; it was funny to us to be able to call it out. And part of it was our wanting to turn that on its head as well. It’s not so cute or whimsical in the Atlanta version of Amelie. There are hints of that, but it also can get very dark very fast, and suddenly you’re beating a man nearly to death with a baguette and planting drugs.

Zazie Beetz, Stefani Robinson, Donald Glover, Hiro Murai, and Stephen Glover at the premiere of Atlanta season three in March
Zazie Beetz, Stefani Robinson, Donald Glover, Hiro Murai, and Stephen Glover at the premiere of Atlanta season three in March
Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for SXSW (Getty Images)

AVC: That was a great moment.

SR: One of my favorite things I think I’ve ever written was a stale baguette used as a weapon.

AVC: How did Alexander Skarsgard get involved?

SR: Donald approached him and got him to do it. I was hoping it would be either Alexander or someone like Alexander, because he played so against type, of what Alexander Skarsgard represents. I’m such a huge fan of his; I think he’s so talented. Watching him kind of get off on being like emasculated, a little bit more unhinged, kind of a plaything—I loved it. It was very important to us. From what I heard, he was very enthusiastic. You’ll have to check in with Donald, but I’m fairly certain that he said he would love to do it, but made the stipulation that when he was dancing half-naked for the women he wanted to wear leopard-print underwear. And you see evidence that was honored.

AVC: Can you speak to the show’s philosophy about including elements of horror, as it did definitely with the cooking in this episode?

SR: Yeah. I don’t think it’s a philosophy written in stone. I just think you’re dealing with a lot of dark writers. It’s just as simple as that. When I came up with the hands, it was just like, “Well, yeah, they’re gonna be eating hands.” There was no sort of mandate. There was no bigger conversation about what it means or, “You know, we need to make sure we have something a little horrific.” I think what we’re responding to is just who we are, unfortunately. [Laughs.]

AVC: Zazie Beetz is also great in this. How do you feel about writing for Van, and do you reserve her for you?

SR: No, I think we’re pretty good about sharing all the characters. I feel like I’ve probably written for Paper Boi [Brian Tyree Henry] mostly, like the last season and the “Barbershop” episode. But I particularly like writing for Van this season because I feel like I was able to access her headspace a little bit more. I maybe was a little bit more disconnected to the previous pieces about her being a young mother and struggling with certain jobs she was having. I absolutely loved her getting in her head. But I think in particular, this episode probably just lined up correctly with where my own head has been at in the world and in terms of the types of things I wanted to see on TV. Zazie’s so good. She took what was on the page and really ran with it. She played those different levels so beautifully and just nailed it. It’s so nice, when actors understand what you’re going for, and they can internalize it and make it their own. It’s such a relief, and it’s such a great thing to watch.

AVC: I’ve got to ask about the closing image, which turns the stereotypical romantic view of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, and the moon on its head, so to speak. Where did that come from?

SR: The inspiration for that was Donald Glover. That was not my idea. He came in with the idea, “Wouldn’t it be funny if someone had to pee on someone as the reason they were on a business trip?” And we built those characters’ stories around that. The final ending is especially funny because Shanice [Shanice Castro] wasn’t the one who was supposed to be peeing, but Candice [Adriyan Rae] had to leave to take Van back home to Atlanta. A funny moment of good friends stepping up to bat, I guess!

AVC: The fourth season—what can you tell us?

SR: I don’t want to say too much. It’s a very good season, and I think audiences will be very comfortable and excited. It may include some people they’ve seen before in other seasons. That’s all I’ll say.