On the eve of its series finale, Justin Charity engages with the most sneakily influential show to hit television since Tony Soprano started therapy. There’s no limit to my love for Atlanta, but don’t let the color your decision to read this; it’s no flowery paean to the program. Instead, it’s a peeling-back of the impulses and contradictions that made creator Donald Glover the perfect pugilist to step into the ring at the very peak of Peak TV.
The show thrived on the strength of its contrarian impulses. If the rest of respectable television was going to become synonymous with movie-length episodes, then Atlanta would pack its prestige into a good, old-fashioned 24 minutes. If other shows would chase middlebrow magazine raves, then Atlanta was going to primarily obsess over its standing with the average Black viewer. If other race-conscious works of the past few years would treat Blackness and whiteness as relentlessly solemn concerns, then Atlanta would tackle race with the utmost irreverence and ambivalence; the viewer would struggle, or perhaps not even care, to discern what exactly the writers’ room was “trying to say” with the chaotic scene of looters laying siege to a Target while Darius tries to return an air fryer in the opening minutes of the fourth-season premiere.