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Donald Glover's surreal dramatic comedy 'Atlanta' returns to FX


Donald Glover's surreal, dramatic comedy "Atlanta" returns to the FX cable channel tonight after a hiatus of several years. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the break has done nothing to curb the show's risk-taking.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When a TV series comes back to new episodes after a four-year pandemic-caused delay, you might expect that show to return with an episode reminding the audience who the key characters are and where the show left them when the last season ended. Not so with FX's "Atlanta," which kicks off its third season, focused on a new character - troubled tween Loquareeous. He can't stop acting up in class and winds up at a school conference with his mother and his guidance counselor.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Maybe the reason that he's being disruptive in class is because the material's too challenging. If we put him in remedial math and language arts, he could have...

NICOLE LOCKLEY: (As character) Wait, wait. My son is not dumb.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, no. No, I...

LOCKLEY: (As character) He's an idiot. Y'all ridiculous. He is not the first kid to act up in class, and you want to push him back some grades?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No, I just thought it could be...

LOCKLEY: (As character) Don't you move my son.

DEGGANS: His mother takes him outside the office and makes her point even clearer, while the counselor tries to intervene.


LOCKLEY: (As character) If you don't start using your common sense and acting right, these white people, they going to kill you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ms. Reid (ph), don't...

LOCKLEY: (As character) Kill you. You up here showing out for your white classmates? Yeah, you laughing with them now, but they going to be the only ones laughing when you dead or in jail.

DEGGANS: Before long, Loquareeous winds up in a foster home led by two gay women written like a broad parody of wrong-headed, well-meaning white liberals. They don't learn his actual name or what he likes to eat, forcing their Black foster kids to sell goods at a nearby farmer's market like modern-day enslaved people.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We make our own kombucha. Yummy, huh? And we pickle our own veggies using our organic garden. We're selling it at the farmer's market tomorrow. You're going to love it. Oh, and that is your other mom, and that little guy is Corn Pop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Welcome to the family.

DEGGANS: Donald Glover, "Atlanta's" star, executive producer and creator, has said this season will often deal with the curse of whiteness. In this first episode, that seems to surface as the foster parents' nagging sense that their white privilege allowed them to get in too deep, taking in kids they don't understand and taking on debt they can't pay back. One of the foster moms, named Amber, admits as much in a tearful exchange with her partner.


LAURA DREYFUSS: (As Amber) When we adopted Fatim (ph), I knew we were doing the right thing. The agency even said so. I mean, we got that big loan from the bank. I thought that meant we were solid. Everyone was so supportive, every single person. And I just kept thinking, why isn't anyone stopping us?

DEGGANS: I won't blow the surprise ending, but it is jarring enough to make you wonder why Glover and his crew chose this startling tale, based on a real story, to kick off a season featuring the show's cast in an entirely different setting - Europe. That's where Glover's character, Earn Marks, is managing his cousin, Brian Tyree Henry's up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi during an overseas tour. In the show's second episode, the two are in Amsterdam, where the locals have a jarring custom of their own - dressing up in blackface to resemble a character who helps their version of Santa Claus. After seeing a baby in blackface, Earn asks a local, what's going on?


DONALD GLOVER: (As Earn Marks) What's with all the blackface?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Ah, that's for the children. It's a long tradition passed on for many generations, so - actually, he's black because he fell down a chimney helping Saint Nicholas.

GLOVER: (As Earn Marks) OK, well, it feels like Santa's slave, but I respect a rebrand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Yeah.

DEGGANS: It's yet another example of clueless behavior by white folks that draws both annoyance and a resigned ruefulness from Earn and his friends, forced to deal with another not-so-microaggression in an often confusing world.

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.