Why Atlanta Season 3 Ended With a Weird Van Episode
The third season of Atlanta found Donald Glover’s Earn, his cousin Alfred (whose rap career Earn manages, played by Bryan Tyree Henry), and Al’s main man Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) in Europe on tour—an arc that didn’t really give Earn’s ex and mother of his child Van (Zazie Beetz) a reason to tag along. Van appeared in a few episodes early on, but was mostly absent, while Earn became increasingly worried about her mindstate as she became more independent in her travels.
That all changed in the season finale, “Tarrare,” which left the boys out (save a post-credits Earn appearance) for a fully Van-centric installment dedicated to her exploits in Paris, where she has seemingly made a full-break with reality. Van is now pretending to be French, carrying a baguette and acting like Amelie as, she does everything from framing Alexander Skarsgard to beating a man half to death.
The finale was penned by Stefani Robinson, the Atlanta writers room secret weapon whose first ever professional screenplay was season one’s “Value,” which was the first time Van got an episode to herself. The finale is Robinson’s only credited script this season, but a hell of a showcase for both her and Beetz. Robinson talked to GQ about the choice to end the season with Van, Alexander Skarsgard’s mid-2000s R&B playlist, and the finer points of writing pee banter.
GQ: Van wasn’t in the middle episodes of this season so much, and then the show went all in on her in this last episode. What was the decision behind structuring that?
Stefani Robinson: We knew that they were going to Europe, but early on I was just like, “Okay, why is Van here?” In a way that felt satisfying, we wanted to earn her presence there, you know what I mean? We wanted to make sure the reason that she was there didn’t feel too convenient and too contrived, and there was something specific and intentional about why she was in Europe. So we sort of backtracked and leaned into some of the themes that we’ve probably leaned into before with her character– this idea of her identity and who is she outside of being a mother and a teacher.
Who is she within a group of friends? Like the “Champagne Papi” episode, when she’s being dragged around by a friend who is a bit more outspoken. And taking those natural clues that were already baked into her character, and bringing them to a finer and more specific point. So we just backed into thinking, “Okay, is she here maybe because she doesn’t know why she’s here, is it okay that she doesn’t know why she’s here, is it part of the sort of bigger quest for identity? And if it is, how would that play out?”
This season intentionally challenged viewers even more than usual. What went into the idea to do a full departure episode as the season finale, and another one where none of the other leads appear?
I think the honest truth is that this episode wasn’t maybe intentionally supposed to be the finale. I don’t know if we knew exactly where we would slot it, but I do feel like it is a strong finale. Because on more of an abstract level, Van’s journey is sort of what we’re interrogating the entire season, right? Like this idea of identity and who are you and who are you outside of your home, when you go to Europe? Obviously Alfred is having a bit of this conversation as well in the cookie episode, when he’s high and his mother’s voice said ‘who are you and who do you surround yourself with?’
And then on the bottle episodes, we’re also interrogating whiteness and what does it mean to be white in America. And how does racism touch us all within that identity? So I think in that way, this ending with Van, it’s her grappling with who am I? She’s asking the question at the end like, “Who am I?” I think a lot of the season does that as well.
You guys have had a lot of really fun, insane cameos this season, but I think Alexander Skarsgard might take the cake. Was that on the page or did you just slot in ”cool celebrity” and then look to see who was available?
First of all, he’s amazing. Every time I see the episode, I think he’s so funny and weird and did everything right. I’m sure he was on a short list that we had.
But we were so lucky to get him and he really dove in there and really seemed to have fun with it. I feel like he understood what we were doing, do you know what I mean? Like the ability to make fun of yourself and surrender to the surrealism or weird world that the Atlanta universe created. I think he understands that it is like a bizarro version of himself and he did such a great job.
Who decided that he should be blasting Ashanti?
Donald and I had a list of so many songs that I think would’ve worked perfectly. I think one song was written in the script that we weren’t able to get due to a rights issue. And so we just went back and forth with a bunch of songs and that was one of them and I think it’s perfect.
What was the most fun scene to write in this episode? There’s a lot to choose from, from the opening pee conversation to-
That one was a lot of fun. I remember Donald throwing that out. He’s like, “Yeah, I think that she should be here to pee on somebody.” And it was just like, “Okay, sure.” And having to run with that and make that feel grounded. I thought it would be more challenging than it was, it turns out it was actually very fun to write some dialogue about pee and there was some cutout. So if you can imagine more pee talk, and whether or not the guy likes being sticky or not with the pee, feel free to imagine [because it was there].
I really like the scene with the bread and the baguette where she’s basically beating the guy to death, that was super fun to write because we have this running commentary on it the entire time. To actually write that scene and lean into the absurdity of it and just be like, “Yeah, I guess in this universe, this piece of bread is so stale that it feels like a baseball bat.” I just remember loving that so much and laughing so much in the writer’s room. And it was just one of those things, it’s like we have to do this, we have to find a way to make this work.
You’ve referred to the bottle episodes as The Curse of Whiteness… “curse” is interesting because they all have that horror element. How did you guys land on wanting to do that and sticking to that format? Because the season starts with one, and then we slowly start to realize half the season is going to be dedicated to this idea.
I remember Donald coming up with this idea of the Curse of Whiteness and I remember us talking about Lake Lanier in Georgia and how it is a flooded town. You know, you look in the news and there’s always like all these deaths and the sort of local legend is that it’s haunted. I think we were just talking about the idea of people being haunted by this idea that we all in some way are touched by the effects of racism and we’re all cursed. And it’s not just our burden to bear as black people are minorities in this country, it is a black hole that sucks everyone down with it.
The first episode is inspired by the true story of the Hart family, and it’s a horrific story. It’s absolutely horrific and heartbreaking and maddening. It makes me so furious and it did when that story broke, but it’s real, you know what I mean? The reality of the stories that we’re telling being horrific and absurd and strange was just the truth of what we were dealing with. It sort of took on its own tone in that way.
Tell me more about the references to news stories that went viral in the show.
Whenever the audience picks up on an internet reference, I feel like it’s great. The way that I like to sum it up is that it just feels like a giant group text. Like the show that everyone’s watching is a giant group text of a bunch of people sharing videos and clips, and articles. So I feel like we all have ownership over some of these videos, but every time that they’re a part of it or that they’re in there, I’m glad that people are able to pick up on it.
The writer’s room is very much a salon, it’s a lot of debating, it’s a lot of having arguments or talking about ideas and ruminating what the future is and talking and disagreeing. And there’s not a lot of writing per se that goes on in that writing room. That’s the reason I love the room, is that it is just so based in our personalities, our takes on things, our conversations and really just us making each other laugh. And then as the room progresses, it’s like we’re piecing together like, “Okay, this is an episode, we should do an episode about that.”