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Review: ‘Atlanta’ Is Back and as Surprising as Ever

The last we left “Atlanta,” it was nearly four years ago, and also a thousand years ago, and also just moments ago.

Season 2 ended on FX in 2018. This was a long hiatus, even for a series that has always moved with its own fluid sense of time. Since then, there has been (for starters) a pandemic, an attack on the Capitol and the racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder, which echoed a theme of this richly drawn show: what life is like for Black Americans like the show’s characters, for whom fortune can turn in a moment.

If “Atlanta” has always been hard to pigeonhole — it’s comedy, except when it’s drama, except when it’s horror — that may be because it is about complicated people whose circumstances are always just a nudge away from any of these. And the two-episode Season 3 premiere, airing Thursday, is “Atlanta” in top form, going to new places while maintaining that unsettling sense of never knowing how the ground might shift.

When we catch up with Alfred, a.k.a. the rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry); his manager-cousin, Earn (Donald Glover); and their friends Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) and Van (Zazie Beetz), life seems to have turned for the better, at least materially. Alfred is touring Europe, but it’s not the tour he was beginning at the end of Season 2, when he was still an aspiring artist at a make-or-break moment in his career.

As he gets ready to play a show in Amsterdam, he has returned to Europe as a headliner. He can ask for a 20,000-euro advance on his fee, get it without complaint and toss handfuls of cash to the fans thronging him in the street. There are drivers and fancy hotels and one-night stands in those hotels.

The characters are in a different place now, in more ways than one. The time jump manages to simultaneously pick up where the series left off and move the story forward in time.

But before we get to that, there’s a detour. The spectacular and haunting first episode picks up on a boat, seemingly somewhere in Georgia, far from the main characters. The lake, we are told, covers the ruin of a self-sufficient Black town, flooded when a dam was built. (There is a shameful real-life history of such communities being eradicated for dams, lakes, even Central Park.) Under the murky surface, the tale goes, vengeful ghosts await.

Then the story shifts, to Loquareeous (Christopher Farrar), a troubled Black child who is made to live with two white women after a school staffer witnesses a scene of corporal punishment and calls child services. (This premise also borrows elements of a disturbing true story, the murder-suicide of two women and their six adopted children.)

His hippie-ish new moms shorten his name to “Larry” and lecture him about the unhealthiness of “the foods that you’re used to.” They encourage their kids, without any self-awareness, to sing field songs as they labor in the organic garden. The house is shabby, the food scarce, and Loquareeous remembers a warning from his birth mother: “These white people, they going to kill you.”

This being “Atlanta,” the story takes several surreal and unexpected turns. Then it drops us in a hotel room in Europe. “Atlanta” has always been a digressive series that gets where it’s going by the back roads. But what does the one story have to do with the other? Directly, not much. Thematically, everything.

For Alfred, Amsterdam appears to be the opposite of a horror story. When we find him in the second episode, he’s been arrested, recalling his and Earn’s arrest at the beginning of “Atlanta.” But here, the police are solicitous. He is offered a gourmet meal in his comfortable cell and quickly released. In Europe, as Paper Boi, he is welcomed, accommodated, respected.

But wait. It is December in the Netherlands — Christmas season, and the season of “Zwarte Piet,” the helper to Sinterklaas (Santa Claus), traditionally depicted in blackface. Here, there and everywhere are sooty-painted macroaggressions — a child on a bike, a porter at a hotel — which the Dutch dismiss as harmless fun.

Alfred’s exhaustion — Henry can play irritated weariness with a thousand different inflections — says it all. Suddenly, we’re back on the lake, where no matter how safe you think you are today, those ghosts of history can arise to drag you under. We’re in a different kind of horror story, where the unexamined cluelessness of supposedly tolerant people can hit as hard as overt hostility.

My colleague Wesley Morris wrote last week about the awards-show incident in which the Black tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams were the collateral damage of an off-handed slight by the white director Jane Campion. “They were invitees turned, suddenly, into interlopers,” he writes, “presenting one minute, plunged through a trap door the next.” It could have been a prescient description of Alfred’s experience in this “Atlanta” episode. You can have fame, accomplishment, the V.I.P. ticket. But it turns out that even quaint cobblestone streets have trap doors.

According to FX, most of Season 3 will take place in Europe, which raises questions. What is “Atlanta” without Atlanta? And what, to the characters, is their home city? Is it a place that they can leave, or a history that they always bring as a carry-on?

The premiere episodes, familiarly disorienting and strikingly shot by the longtime “Atlanta” director Hiro Murai, suggest an answer. Atlanta is where these characters are, as they seek contentment, purpose and balance. The two episodes sent to critics for review are a mere peek, but they give no sign of the show’s having lost a step in the past four years. Maybe the pause simply gave the future time to catch up.

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