Ten questions we need answered in ‘Atlanta’ Season 4
The series returns to its titular city for its swan song — and hopefully provides some closure in the process.
Part of the charm of Donald Glover’s Atlanta is how uninterested it is in being a traditional comedy. Throughout the Emmy-winning show’s first three seasons, its sense of humor has been both nimble and nebulous; what it finds funny isn’t always bound to something solvable, which results in a comedy that’s more existential than situational. Unlike the work of other black writer-actors on television — Issa Rae’s Insecure, Quinta Brunson’s Abbott Elementary, etc. — the stories Glover and company tell on Atlanta rarely have neat conclusions at the end of each half hour. This leaves viewers with plenty of questions that have yet to be answered heading into the show’s fourth and final season, which premieres on Thursday, September 15.
Given Atlanta’s proven willingness to leave mysteries uninterrogated, answers to some questions are less likely to come than others. For example, it won’t ever be explained how Wiley knew everything that was on Al/Paper Boi’s phone in the “Cancer Attack” episode if Socks was the one who stole it in the first place. But with the series returning to its titular city, some old story beats might finally be resolved.
Atlanta director and producer Hiro Murai described season 4 as “nostalgic” to The Hollywood Reporter, calling it “kind of like the greatest hits season.” The teaser that FX released for the show’s final run hints at a similar sentiment. Easter eggs for classic episodes including “Teddy Perkins,” “Alligator Man,” and “The Club” are planted throughout the 45-second clip. And in the official trailer, we see some returning family members like Uncle Willy, played to Emmy-winning perfection by Katt Williams in season 2, and Earn’s father, who we last saw in season 1.
With familiar faces and full circle moments possibly punctuating the show’s homestretch, here are 10 questions we’re hoping to have answered in Atlanta’s farewell season.
10. Why did Earn leave Princeton?
This is Atlanta’s original mystery. In the show’s pilot, “The Big Bang,” Earn’s apparently brief time at Princeton is mentioned twice: once when Al claims to know what happened, to which Earn responds, “I really think you don’t,” and again when his own father admits he was never given an explanation.
A more conventional comedy would have resolved this plot point by the end of the season if not the end of the episode. But six years after Atlanta's premiere, we still don’t know why Earn either dropped out or was forced out of one of the most prestigious schools in the country. Since that Ivy League burnout is what set the show’s protagonist on the path he’s still on in season 4, the series finale is as good a time as any to circle back to it in detail.
9. Exactly how famous is Paper Boi?
Though it isn’t that consequential to the story, this is something that’d just be neat to know. By season 3, Paper Boi is evidently famous enough to be on his second European tour (without any other acts, it seems) yet not famous enough for anyone besides Liam Neeson to recognize him at the Cancel Club in “New Jazz.”
Throughout Atlanta’s first three seasons, the fictional MC’s fame is deployed as a mechanism to situate episodes in certain environments: he plays in a celebrity basketball game in “Nobody Beats the Biebs,” speaks for all rappers on a BET-esque talk show in “B.A.N.,” and finds himself on the frontlines of luxury as a token brand ambassador in “White Fashion.” But there still hasn’t been an episode that’s quantified his exact status in the culture. Is he Lil Baby famous, squarely in his prime with the potential for even more success? Or is he DaBaby famous, reasonably known but with his best years in his rearview? Rap nerds have wondered about this for a while.
8. Are the one-off episodes from season 3 connected somehow?
Four episodes of Atlanta’s most recent season didn’t feature any of the show’s main cast: “Three Slaps,” “The Big Payback,” “Trini 2 De Bone,” and “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga.” A popular theory among fans after “Three Slaps,” the season 3 premiere, suggested the events of these episodes were happening in Earn’s dreams. This seemed plausible given The Sopranos, the one show Donald Glover feels can be compared to Atlanta, was also known to include long dream sequences (as well as unanswered questions — we still don’t know what happened to the Russian in “Pine Barrens”).
“Tarrare,” the season 3 finale, would seem to disprove this theory. In a post-credit scene following the episode, Earn mistakenly receives a duffel bag meant for a white man with the same name, who viewers first see in “Three Slaps” and learn more about in “The Big Payback.” So, if these bottle episodes are happening in reality and not just in Earn’s mind, what does that mean for their main characters? It’d be hilarious to see Aaron, the light-skinned black boy who lived his whole life passing as white in “Rich Wigga, Poor Wigga,” suddenly benefit from the “restitution taxes” established in “The Big Payback.”
7. Where are the fan-favorite Atlanta guest stars now?
Aaron isn’t the only character fans would love to catch up with in future episodes. Is Bibby, the frustrating barber from “Barbershop,” still fucking people’s days up? Did Clark County, the Chance The Rapper parody from “Money Bag Shawty,” ever suffer a fall-off like the real Chance The Rapper? Did black Bieber from “No One Beats the Biebs” ever find Jesus and marry black Hailey Baldwin? What about the mysterious Nutella man from “The Big Bang” or the dude with the deep southern drawl from “Streets on Lock?” An entire season (call it the fifth) featuring just Atlanta’s random side characters needs to happen.
6. Will Darius ever be called out for being a hanger-on?
In “New Jazz,” during a confrontation between Al and Lorraine — who may or may not have been an oddly attractive hallucination representing his mother — the mystery woman warns the rapper about so-called friends taking advantage of his success. One can’t help but think of Darius in this moment, who allows Al to pick up the tab twice earlier in the episode despite being draped in Gucci throughout half the season.
What exactly does Darius do to earn his keep in Al’s entourage and stay decked out in designer clothes? We haven’t seen him make any money of his own since his and Earn’s dog breeding scheme in “The Streisand Effect” in season 1. As Atlanta comes to an end, some hard truths about the show’s lovable lackey may be imminent.
5. How long was the group’s trip to Europe?
In “Tarrare,” it’s revealed what Van was up to while she went missing on tour. Apparently, she was gone long enough to become fluent in French, relocate to Paris, model in magazines, seduce a local chef, carry on a sordid affair with Alexander Skarsgård, rise up the ranks of the criminal underworld, and become a supplier of human hands for a secret cabal of cannibals.
There’s no way to take all this in and not wonder exactly how long the gang has been traveling overseas (presumably, it’s at least been long enough for Van to let a baguette harden for six months before beating a man within an inch of his life with it). Perhaps a quick line referencing the tour in season 4 will clear this up.
4. Will they all remain close once they’re back home?
On top of Van’s disappearance on tour and simmering tension over Darius’ financial dependence on Al, Earn also seems to not be on the same page with his cousin at times. This is most evident in “Cancer Attack” as Al unsuccessfully tries to strike up a conversation with Earn, who’s too busy working to spare a few minutes for small talk. As Earn becomes better at managing his client, he gets worse at maintaining a relationship with his relative.
Once all four characters are back in Atlanta, will things get back to normal? Or will the group grow further apart now that they’re no longer bound by being strangers in a strange land? If the show hopes to fulfill its promise of delivering a nostalgic season 4, the former would be in its best interest. But who knows what Atlanta’s creators have up their sleeves?
3. Will Van ever find what makes her happy?
Van’s waywardness has been a recurring subject in Atlanta. One could argue it’s more central to the show’s identity than Earn’s rise from deadbeat dropout to manager extraordinaire. Since losing her job in season 1’s “Value” and realizing how much of her life revolves around Earn and their daughter, her quest for self-discovery has been tracked throughout the series.
Van reaches her breaking point in “Tarrare” as she tearfully admits to her friend Candice that she’s struggled with suicidal ideation, not knowing who she is, and feeling like a bad mother. If she were to find peace and purpose in Atlanta’s final season, it’d make for a fitting farewell to the show’s most complicated character.
2. Do Earn and Paper Boi still want careers in music?
During her “Tarrare” monologue, Van contends, “Earn knows who he is.” While that may be true, such self-awareness doesn’t necessarily translate to happiness. Throughout season 3, Earn seems competent at his job but jaded by it in a way that might keep him from wanting to do it much longer. He doesn’t talk of goals and ambition like he did in the show’s first two seasons, only fires he has to put out and problems he’s already anticipated. The one progression he does make in his career comes in the form of a con, as he agrees to manage a black scam artist in “The Old Man and the Tree” once he realizes the would-be white mark has it coming.
Likewise, Al seems utterly uninspired in his role as Paper Boi. In “Cancer Attack,” he admits to Wiley he suffered a months-long writer’s block before finally penning a new song. This comes after multiple occasions throughout the series in which he’s admitted he never truly wanted to rap in the first place, and that he only does it for the money.
What happens when someone who already lacks passion for their craft also begins to lack the ability to do it and is managed by a cousin who’s equally unenthused? For both Earn and Al, indifference could quickly turn to disillusionment, leaving the door open for a clean break from the business this upcoming season.
1. How does a show without a linear plot come to an end?
Atlanta began as a show about a rapper and his manager. But that stopped being the case sometime after its first season. Since then, it's been multiple things. Sometimes it’s a show about race. Other times it’s a show about class. And in its most Seinfeldian moments, it can even be a show about nothing.
So, how does something with that many identities definitively end its story? The answer to that could very well be summed in one word: imperfectly. There’s good reason for fans to be worried about whether this series will stick the landing. Its third season received mixed reviews from fans and critics following universally beloved first and second seasons — meaning Atlanta has a .500 record when it comes to living up to its former glory. Whether it’ll go out with a win or a whimper is anyone’s guess.
No matter how it ends, though, one question we’ll never have to ask is where it ranks among the most audacious shows of the century. The answer to that should be obvious.