The Atlanta Season 3 Premiere Goes Inside Donald Glover’s Blackface Nightmares

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*If you haven’t watched the first two episodes of Atlanta‘s third season, there are spoilers below*

After nearly four full years without Donald Glover and the crew on our TV screens weekly, Atlanta returns as a surrealistic horror-comedy exposing how real life is more terrifying than any nightmare you could have. None of the main cast we’ve come to love appears in the season premiere episode. Instead, we spend the entire episode inside Earn’s (Glover) nightmare of a young Black boy named Loquareeous enduring the worst foster home ever. The second episode of the two-part season premiere finds the cast we’ve all come to love going on adventures around Amsterdam involving a death party and young kids in blackface, and someone who may be Tupac being euthanized with elegant fabrics.

Safe to say, Atlanta is back like it never left.

The show subtly lets us know how things have changed since the ending of season two. At the end of last season, Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) was heading to Europe for the first time in his life to open up for gimmick rapper Clark County with Earn, his underqualified and overwhelmed manager who didn’t even know his client was going on the tour until the day of the flight. In the second episode of the new season, Paper Boi is now headlining a show in a massive venue where he’s being paid 20,000 Euros. And the once sheepish Earn is now asking brave enough to ask to get that money in advance at Paper Boi’s request after he is detained in Amsterdam prison. Paper Boi’s gone from unknown Atlanta rapper who spent most of his days on a dusty couch to dining on the finest delicacies Amsterdam prison has to offer, being selective on how he likes his water (cubed ice over crushed ice), and becoming so acclimated to life overseas he intentionally extends his prison stay after Earn bails him out to nap in the Ikea-style prison cell.

These first two episodes of the new season set the comically nightmarish tone the rest of the season will likely follow. Here are the key themes from the two-part season premiere we’ll likely see throughout the third season.

“atlanta”     "sinterklaas is coming to town"    season 3, episode 2 airs march 24 pictured l r donald glover as earn marks, brian tyree henry as alfred "paper boi" miles  cr coco olakunlefx

Coco Olakunle/FX

A nightmare within a nightmare

For the most part, dreams and nightmares are your subconscious mind’s movie written and cast by the experiences you are exposed to when you’re awake. By the looks of the two-part season premiere, Atlanta will blur the line between the absurdity of nightmares and reality. The episode starts with a Loquareeous waking up from a nightmare of a Black man and a white man in a fishing raft on the eerie Lake Lanier while the white man explains the cursed nature of whiteness before a swarm of hands drags the Black man into the water. In Loquareeous’s nightmare, the white man on the boat spoke of white people being blind to the pain they cause and willfully separating themselves from the lived experiences of Black people. When he awakens, he’s in a school with a white teacher who thinks sending kids to watch a fictional film like the sequel to Black Panther is tantamount to promoting Black history in the school’s curriculum. When Loquareeous celebrates the prospect of watching the highly anticipated Marvel film by dancing on his desk in class, another white guidance counselor deduces Loquareeous acting out means he’s not intelligent enough to keep up with the classwork. While trying to place a Black kid in a remedial class isn’t the same as ghoulish creatures dragging a Black man to the depths of the sea, the white ignorance turns nightmarish quickly.

“atlanta”     "sinterklaas is coming to town"    season 3, episode 2 airs march 24 pictured l r brian tyree henry as alfred "paper boi" miles  cr coco olakunlefx

Coco Olakunle/FX

After the guidance counselor observes Loquareeous’s mother and grandfather verbally and physically reprimand him, she assumes the role of savior. She tells him she’s going to get him out of that household. Soon enough, Family and Children Services removed him from his home and placed him in an adoptive family of two white women subjecting their adopted Black children to fried chicken undercooked in a microwave, indentured servitude at a farmer’s market, and a climatic group suicide attempt into the same Lake Lanier from Loquareeous’s nightmare. And the women did it all under the assumption these Black children wouldn’t have nearly as good of a life without them, furthering the idea of white ignorance having harmful effects on Black people.

There are no ominous figures with missing eyes or sea creatures in Loquareeous’s life. Nothing about his experience was an actual nightmare; it just felt like one that could actually happen, making it more terrifying. It’s not until the episode ends with Earn awakening from his slumber that we realize Loquareeous’s ordeal was a manifestation of Earn’s unconscious fears. The real-life racist microaggressions Earn endures in the following endures explain why he’s having nightmares of white women treating Black kids as slaves before drowning them as an act of salvation.

“atlanta”     "sinterklaas is coming to town"    season 3, episode 2 airs march 24 pictured l r lakeith stanfield as darius, zazie beetz as van  cr coco olakunlefx

Coco Olakunle/FX

Lost In Translation

Based on the second episode of the season and the disturbing trailer, Atlanta’s third season appears to take place overseas, which means ample opportunities for misunderstandings to turn into catastrophes. Once the two-part season premiere makes its way to Amsterdam for Paper Boi’s headlining performance, it doesn’t take long for the native customs to make it feel like Earn and Paper Boi was walking through a racist nightmare. After springing Paper Boi from prison, the pair were stunned in their tracks at the sight of a baby on the back of a bike in full blackface in broad daylight. While the sight of blackface is instinctively jarring to Earn and Paper Boi, it’s so deeply ingrained in the Amsterdam culture their European driver is oblivious to the term “blackface” when Earn asks, “what’s up with the blackface?” The driver explains kids are darkening their faces to dress up as Zwarte Piet; a Saint Nicholaus helper who the driver explains has black skin from falling down a chimney helping Santa.

Earn brushes it off as a “rebrand” until Paper Boi cancels his performance after looking out into the crowd to see a sea of black faces on white people. Earlier in the episode, a threesome turns into a prison stay for Paper Boi after a Black woman and a white woman he was in bed with got into a physical fight following the white woman trying to explain how Dutch magazine Jackie referring to Rihanna as a “racial slur” in 2011 was a compliment. It doesn’t look like Earn and the crew is leaving Europe soon, so we’ll likely continue to see what it means to be Black in different parts of Europe.

“atlanta”     "sinterklaas is coming to town"    season 3, episode 2 airs march 24 pictured l r zazie beetz as van  cr coco olakunlefx

Coco Olakunle/FX

Van’s Search For Van

The mother of Earn’s child, Van (Zazie Beatz), was still in the United States when Earn, Paper Boi, and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) set off for Europe at the end of the second season, but she’s popped up in Amsterdam with missing luggage and no direction in life. She explains she left her and Earn’s daughter with her parents and hopped on a plane to Amsterdam because she lost out on a job she wanted and is in another country to “figure it out.” Part 0f figuring it out includes traveling to an address she found on a piece of paper in the pocket of a coat she buys at a thrift store, pretending to be part of the traveling plans of a group of strangers at that address, and ending up at a death doula event for a man who may or may not be a dying Tupac. It’s not until she speaks with the death doula that she reveals she’s a bit aimless and thought escaping her problems in Atlanta would help with her recent bouts of anxiety. Van has always been one of the most strong-willed, self-aware characters in Atlanta, but the show is hinting at this season being a journey of self-discovery for her; one that could involve everything from random trips to European countries to watching a man be suffocated with a bed drape by a death doula.

We’re just getting started with our third entry into Glover’s Atlanta universe, but this one already feels like a dream we wish never comes true.

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