'Atlanta' Cast Explains How the Unsettling Premiere Sets Tone for Season 3 (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
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After a four-year hiatus, Atlanta is back – and in a big way. The acclaimed series starring Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, LaKeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz picks up with the group amid a tour of Europe. Despite the fan support for Paper Boi (Henry), the four friends find themselves navigating – and struggling to adjust – to their new surroundings and the unwanted attention that comes with growing success.
“You’re in for a ride,” director Hiro Murai tells ET’s Nischelle Turner. “There’s a lot of Atlanta coming your way, and we are going to take you places.”
“We can’t come back doing what you expect. I mean, after you all yelled at us for four years, we got to give y’all something to wait for,” Henry quips.
However, before fans can follow their many unexpected and unsettling adventures through Europe, season 3 opens with a waking nightmare inspired by the real-life Hart family massacre, which Murai describes as a tone-setter for the remaining nine episodes.
[Warning: Spoilers for the first two episodes, “Three Slaps” and “Sinterklaas Is Coming to Town,” of Atlanta season 3.]
After opening with a white man explaining the concept of whiteness, the episode then follows Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar) who unexpectedly gets separated from his family by child services and placed in a foster home with a white lesbian couple, Gayle (Jamie Neumann) and Amber (Laura Dreyfuss), who are also caring for three other, young Black children.
It’s not long before Loquareeous, renamed Larry by his new mothers, realizes that he’s in an abusive and neglectful household and is determined to get out. After failing to convince a cop he’s in danger, someone from child services finally comes by the home. However, the couple quickly gets rid of her and then decides to run away with the kids.
During a brief break at a roadside rest stop, Loquareeous is able to sneak him and the other kids out of the van, which the mothers are planning to drive off the bridge in a murder-suicide, similar to what happened in 2018 when Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove their vehicle with their six adopted children off a cliff in Mendocino County, California.
The episode ends with Earn (Glover) waking up in a hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark, setting a jarring vibe for the rest of the season set overseas.
“That’s something that Donald brought in kind of late [in the process],” Murai says. “He wanted to do, like, a scene-setter or a tone-setter for the season. And we always knew that this season wanted to be a ghost story of some kind. So, we took some cues from the Twilight Zone movie, you know, and started with a little bit of a jump scare.”
“Dreams are very pivotal and they are like emotional memoirs we’re having,” Donald Glover adds. “So, I think starting it on something scary – cause fear and laughter are very closely related – I just like that feeling.”
In the second episode in the two-part premiere, which is also now streaming on Hulu, Earn catches a plane to Amsterdam, where Paper Boi is set to perform a Christmas concert. But first, he must get the rapper out of jail. As the two return to their hotel, they encounter several people in Blackface and dressed as Zwarte Piet, a real, yet controversial tradition dating back to 1850, before encountering a full crowd of fans in costume at the concert.
Meanwhile Darius (Stanfield) and Van (Beetz) go on an unexpected journey that leads them to a living funeral ceremony. While Van bonds with the death doula, addressing some of her anxieties about where she’s at in her life now, things end unexpectedly when the terminally ill man is strangled to death.
“It’s a real thing people celebrate in their own way,” Henry says. “So, it’s like that’s what happens when you’re dropped into another country that has traditions that you don’t necessarily know, especially us as Black people. They don’t really tell us how to travel, so, like, can you imagine you going to Amsterdam and it’s like, ‘Oh, damn. Alright, that was not in my pamphlet. They didn’t tell me that.’”
“It’s very jarring,” Murai says of the second episode, which is the first example of the group experiencing unexpected racism or cultural appropriation outside of the United States. “It was interesting because that tradition is very old and I think even among Dutch people, there’s a split consensus over whether it’s a problem.”
“We always try to shine a light on the specific nature of being Black in this country,” Stanfield says, explaining “there’s just a whole bunch of things described [for you] before you get a chance to really figure out who you are. People are trying to tell you who you are, what you should identify with, who you should worship, what you should worship.”
He adds that this season is about “going inside more and unpacking everything. And sometimes it isn’t the easiest journey.”
While speaking with reporters during the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour earlier this year, Glover said that all of season 3 was written in 2019, before a lot of the cultural and social upheaval that followed in 2020 as the result of the pandemic, a contentious election and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“A lot of this stuff is going to seem like a parody of stuff that happened, but we actually prophesied most of this sh*t in 2020,” Glover said. “Like, the world is extremely predictable. We really just knew how a lot of this stuff was going to pan out.”
He also explained that this season is “really about whiteness and curses.” Glover added that on top of all this was seeing that all through the lens of being in Europe, where there are so many different cultural barriers -- even the Atlanta team experiencing racism in real time.
“We play a lot with ambiguity,” Murai said at the time. “There’s a lot of interactions that kind of hit you in a weird way and you don’t know how to take it. And, so, we lean into that a little bit more this season… We just kind of leaned into what made us feel weird about being there a little bit more.”
And if the first two episodes left fans unsettled, that’s on purpose. “There are multiple tones being played around within the season,” Beetz says now, explaining that this season is a mix of horror and absurdity. “It’s about Atlanta just playing with format. And you won’t necessarily see what you’ve expected.”
“We like doing absurd things and doing things a little differently,” Henry agrees. “That’s what we do. That’s our universe, so we decided to do something a little different.”
“We like to keep people off balance,” adds Glover’s brother, Stephen, who is also a writer on the series, explaining that it’s an important reminder about what Atlanta has always strived to do. “If anything, like, week-to-week we want people to be surprised and to not know what is coming.”
He ends by teasing, “There’s a lot of good sh*t coming.”