Atlanta ended its second season with a rep as one of the best shows on television. And it was well deserved: The series combined sublime comedy, high drama, piercing truths about relationships and race, and boundary-busting excursions into farce, surrealism, and horror, occasionally within the same episode.
In it, Donald Glover stars as Earn, a Princeton dropout who’s trying to launch the career of his rapper cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” (Bryan Tyree Henry) while (sort of) pursuing a relationship with Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of his toddler daughter Lottie. Rounding out the core foursome is Al’s sidekick Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), a wily, wiry philosopher.
It’s been four years—yep, a whole presidential term’s worth of time—since the end of season two. Here are the important things to know before season three, set largely during Paper Boi’s first big European tour, drops on Thursday. (Be sure to check out our reviews of each episode.)
In the back third of season two, Earn is on thin ice with Al, who has risen from an unknown rapper begging for photos in the club to being recognized on the street by enthusiastic fans. While Earn has progressed from homeless to tenuously housed, he is perpetually over his head, faking it until he approximates making it, and he suspects Al could drop him any minute.
Those suspicions are confirmed in “North Of The Border” (season 2, episode 9), when, after a disastrous college gig—which lands them in the middle of a surreal and slightly terrifying nude frat hazing ritual—Al says he’s unimpressed by Earn’s poor business decisions and is thinking about leveling up his management.
In the last episode of season two, Darius and Earn head to the rush passport office ahead of the imminent European tour. When Earn expresses fear that Al’s about to fire him, Darius says that if he is, it’s likely to be once they’re in Europe, because that’s just Al’s way. Gulp.
Season two also saw Earn and Van’s sort-of-kind-of-relationship-but-not-really strain and fracture under stress. In “Helen” (season 2, episode 4, which scored Beetz an Emmy nomination for Supporting Actress In A Comedy), the two go on an overnight trip to participate in a wackadoodle German costume event from Van’s childhood. (Van, like Beetz, is biracial and half-German.) Earn can’t bring himself to participate in the corniness, which leads to a showdown over who’s giving and taking and trying too much in their relationship, one that’s played out over a ping-pong match.
The season ends with Earn under serious financial pressure, as his professional future with Al is looking tenuous at best. At the same time, Lottie’s preschool teacher recommends her for an expensive private school. (“This school is terrible,” she remarks in one of the season’s funniest scenes.) Over text, Van floats the idea of having Lottie move in with her parents, the last thing Earn wants.
At the airport security line, Earn discovers something that could blow everything up: a gold handgun in his backpack, given to him weeks before by his unhinged uncle (Katt Williams in an excellent, low-key-for-him performance) that he forgot to toss. He impulsively decides to stash the gun in the bag of Clark County, whose manager takes the rap.
On the plane, Al admits he saw the whole thing. He then gives Earn a vote of professional confidence. “You give a fuck,” he says. “I need that.”
One of season two’s most talked-about episodes, “Teddy Perkins,” is creeptastic viewing (and good prep for the tone of the first episode of season three). Darius heads over to a mansion to pick up a free advertised piano, where he encounters a heavily plastic-surgeried eccentric (Glover in heavy makeup) who bears a strong resemblance to a certain departed pop star. This leads to Gothic twists and turns worthy of Get Out (which also starred Stanfield).
While Atlanta’s format defies categorization, at its heart it’s an ensemble of characters as well written and portrayed as any on television. Darius, for instance, is a spiritual descendent of TV history’s classic sidewalk sociologists (Dr. Johnny Fever and Rev. Jim Ignatowski spring to mind). But in Stanfield’s hands, he always feels like a fully inhabited person first and foremost.
Earn, too, is fleshed out. Self-taught and battling headwinds from multiple directions, he’s a millennial who loves his partner and daughter but can’t compromise in relationships, who can’t take a desk job for fear of losing himself, and who has found his passion but is completely overwhelmed. It’s utterly relatable.
Season two establishes Earn’s success as far from assured while cementing Atlanta’s reputation as one of TV’s best half-hours. In a November 2020 tweet, Glover declared that Atlanta’s third and fourth seasons, which were filmed concurrently, “are going to be some of the best television ever made… Sopranos only ones who can touch us.” He later deleted the tweet, but he’s earned the bragging rights.