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TV Review: Atlanta (Season 1, Episodes 3 & 4)

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Episodes 3 and 4 of Atlanta vary the character combinations, giving us new situations and partnerships so we see more of these characters that we’re still getting to know.

The show delves deeper into Earn (Donald Glover) and Van (Zazie Beetz)’s relationship as the two head out on a date that doesn’t go as smoothly as planned. The realities of being truly broke are used to great comedic effect, but you also really feel it every time Earn has to metaphorically count his pennies. 

Running parallel to this, we follow Al (Brian Tyree Henry) and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) as they prepare for and embark on a particularly dangerous drug deal. The two situations play out, and while the stakes of each are wildly different, they both elicit sympathy and laughs in equal measure.

Walking the line between horror and comedy with dexterity, we see a weeping man be mercilessly shot in the back by the dealers, while simultaneously trying to process the fact that Darius handcuffed the briefcase of money to his wrist and lost the key. The silly slapstick concept is taken to a whole new place by the threat of death, shifting the whole thing into the absurd. Henry’s tight-lipped and trembling performance is probably the funniest bit of the episode — tied with the conversation Al and Darius have about why Darius calls his gun ‘Daddy’.

Episode four sends Darius and Earn on a road trip that involves a whole series of trade-ups that Darius insists will result in a huge payout for both of them. A pairing that haven’t had the chance to spend much alone time together, this episode allows the two of them to find their groove — Darius as hilariously non-sequitur as always, and Earn mostly just cynical and long-suffering. Though their conversations are varied and plentiful, there is a fundamental miscommunication between the two of them that underpins their whole adventure.

Meanwhile Al engages with a twitter troll — the ethnically ambiguous Zan (Freddie Kuguru), who’s literally a physical embodiment of everything that’s annoying about the internet. His exploitations come plastered with a huge winning smile, and he has no apparent morals at all. His easy charm is placed into contrast with Al’s awkward way with words. Their physical appearances too play into the point being made — “I scare people at the ATMs. I have to rap,” Al tells Zan, whose racial ambiguity and pretty face make his route to cash far more viable.

The show plays with audience expectations in a brilliantly refreshing way. We think Earn and Van might reconcile, but they end up further apart. We think Earn might get a little cash, but he ends up broker than before. We think Al and Darius might be in real trouble as that drug deal goes down, but really, the Migos are reasonable guys and everything ends up fine. 

The masterful manipulation of tension throughout each episode somehow always ends up with things pretty much staying as they are. The narrative is aggressively passive, fighting progression of story or character.

In this so-called golden age of television full of tightly paced dramas, Atlanta meanders its way through vignettes with the looseness and genius of Darius’ monologues. We can’t wait for more.

Atlanta continues in two weeks time, on Sunday 3rd June at 10pm on BBC 2.

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